Just before 9 a.m. local time on Sept. 2, the Turkish news agency DHA reported that 12 Syrian refugees died after their boat capsized while sailing to Greece from Turkey.
The report included more than 100 photos, a few of which showed the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi lying face down on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey. The series of images also showed the boy’s body being picked up and carried away by a Turkish police officer.
New research published on Tuesday details how the images of Alan spread around the world, and the way they helped reframe online discussion from “migrants” to “refugees.” Millions of tweets later, the images of Alan Kurdi remain iconic and impactful.
“Somehow this image of this child made the refugee crisis really visible,” said Dr. Farida Vis, director of the Visual Social Media Lab at the University of Sheffield in England.
The Lab today published The Iconic Image on Social Media: A Rapid Research Response to the Death of Aylan Kurdi. It’s a collection of research that examines the spread and impact of what the authors call “one of the most iconic image-led news stories of our time.”
Here are some of its key findings.
(Note: The report refers to the child as “Aylan” rather than “Alan” because that’s how he was first identified when the photos began to spread.)
1. Francesco D’Orazo, the VP of product with social analytics firm Pulsar, analyzed mentions of “migrants” and “refugees” on Twitter. He found that as the Alan Kurdi photos spread, people began tweeting less about “migrants” and more about “refugees.”
The debate was being reframed.
“I noticed that the comments seemed to have a different tone from the conversation we had been seeing in the press and social media until then,” he wrote.
His analysis showed that prior to Sept. 2, the two terms had been talked about with roughly the same amount of frequency in 2015. But “refugees” spiked the same day that the photos of Alan’s body began to spread on Twitter. Two months later, “refugees” remained the more common term of conversation.
2. This switch from migrants to refugees was also present in an analysis done by the Google News Lab. When the Alan Kurdi story began to spread, Google searches for “refugees” spiked far more than searches for “migrants.”
As with Twitter, the search volume for “migrants” and “refugees” had been roughly the same, Google’s Simon Rogers wrote in the report. The Alan Kurdi photos changed that.
“The biggest impact was in the way that refugees and migrants were searched for,” he wrote. “In fact, September saw the highest ever global search volume for the topic of refugees in Google search history. Historically, the term ‘migrant’ and the term ‘refugee’ have seen very similar search volume. September was the month that all changed.”
3. D’Orazio also examined how photos of Alan spread on Twitter. In the first hour, they circulated among Turkish users, thanks to a tweet from journalist Michelle Demishevich.
Users in Spain and Greece also shared the image, but overall distribution was limited.
4. That changed in the next hour. “Journalists, activists like Free Syria Media Hub (@Free_Media_Hub) and politicians such as the ex Minister of Health in the Hamas government of Gaza, Basim Naim (@basemn63), are getting involved on Twitter,” D’Orazio wrote.
Peter Bouckaert (@bouckap) of Human Rights Watch tweeted three pictures of Alan, and the story began to spread globally. “His tweet receives 664 retweets from a variety of countries including the US, the UK, Australia and Malaysia,” D’Orazio wrote.
5. Just after noon GMT everything changed. Washington Post Beirut bureau chief Liz Sly tweeted a close-up image of Alan’s body and said his death “is emblematic of the world’s failure in Syria.” It received more than 7,000 retweets.
Sly’s tweet was soon followed by news articles from many English-language media outlets. The story had jumped from social media to the mainstream press.
6. D’Orazio found that even as the news articles began piling up, the story continued to be driven on Twitter by people sharing images, not links.
After 48 hours, people moved away from sharing the images of Alan on the beach and instead opted for “user-generated variations on the original images designed by illustrators and graphic designers,” D’Orazio wrote.
The story of Alan Kurdi began on Twitter with tragic images. And as the days went by, it remained a visual narrative.
7. This graphic shows the path of the story from Turkish press to Turkish Twitter and onwards to mainstream awareness.
In the end, D’Orazio wrote, the story of the photos of Alan Kurdi “is a visual narrative deeply intertwined with Twitter’s ability to act as a catalyst, connect emerging stories and relevant audiences.”