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Communication, Media and Culture

Digital Anthropology and the Death of Aylan Kurdi

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On Wednesday, November 13, 2019, Fatima Aziz, a PhD candidate at École des Hautes Études en Science Sociales and a part-time lecturer in AUP’s Department of Global Communications, gave a lecture on conducting research in digital anthropology to an audience of AUP students, staff and faculty. Aziz focused on the ethical challenges present in conducting research in digital anthropology, using the example of the death of three-year-old Syrian Kurdish refugee Aylan Kurdi in September 2015. The lecture was hosted by AUP’s Civic Media Lab.

Aziz’s research focuses on how identity and sociality are co-constructed practices shaped by online interactions and media policies. To open her lecture, she outlined the six basic principles of digital anthropology put forward by Daniel Miller and Heather Horst. This began with a look at how to locate the idea of “the digital” within the discipline of anthropology. At its core, argued Aziz, it all comes down to code – digital spaces are those made up of ones and zeroes. “The digital should be located in the context of its usage,” said Aziz, highlighting the notion that digital practices can be both collaborative and controlling: with every crowdsourced project or online Wiki, there is the potential for mass surveillance. Secondly, she questioned the idea that digital spaces lead to a kind of “false authenticity,” cautioning against the fetishization of pre-digital cultures. Communication, she argued, has always been mediated, even when face-to-face: “We are equally human in each of these diverse arenas of behavior,” she explained.

The four remaining principles discussed were “holism,” the need for digital anthropology to engage with other disciplines; “relativism,” the notion that a homogenous definition of “the internet” is unobtainable and that people embed their use of technology in a cultural context; “openness,” or an appreciation of the level of regulation involved in online spaces; and “materiality,” the notion that these relationships aren’t just between platforms but also between the people using them. “Often when we talk about the digital, we forget its materialistic aspect,” Aziz commented. She noted that the social context is important; new media gets normalized quickly, and family and friends may force people to use a certain app because it’s popular among people they know.

The second part of the lecture brought in the example of online reactions to the death of Aylan Kurdi in September 2015. Kurdi drowned when the inflatable boat carrying him and his family capsized after leaving Bodrum, Turkey, en route to the Greek island of Kos. Aziz chose the example for a number of reasons: (1) because the narrative of the event was first shaped by the media before being disseminated and analyzed in online spaces; (2) because the moment led to a diverse, interdisciplinary academic response; and (3) because it illustrates the manifestation of material cultures in an online space due to the culture of solidarity that sprung up following the tragedy.

Aziz asked the audience why they thought specific images of Kurdi – two photos showing the boy’s body, one lying on the beach and another in the arms of a police officer – were most widely disseminated through broadcast and social media, as opposed to either videos of Kurdi’s body or photos of him when he was alive. She argued that the stillness of images made them a unique medium through which to communicate death; their simplicity also allowed users to interpret and engage with them more easily. Academic responses focused on the “iconic” nature of the images – once seen, the photos efficiently communicated the pain and suffering often inherent in the intended message of those sharing.

The final part of the talk focused on nonprofessional responses to Kurdi’s death on social media, with a particular emphasis on Instagram, due to its visual nature. Aziz highlighted how certain responses were culturally specific: for example, French users often drew parallels with the Je Suis Charlie movement. Religious imagery was a recurring theme, often through artwork depicting Kurdi as an angel; Aziz used the example to argue that in digital spaces religion “remains a coping mechanism for people who want to understand and make sense of media events – especially of the mediated deaths of children.”

To finish, Aziz highlighted a particular ethical challenge for digital anthropologists – the potential to be blinded by or locked into one overarching or “accepted” interpretation of events. The final image in her presentation, taken from a Romanian website, framed Kurdi’s death through an anti-immigration lens; it showed a photoshopped photo of a professional wrestler performing a leg drop on Kurdi’s lifeless body, something Aziz called “a complete reversal of the sacralized, clean, iconic image.” She ended the talk by stressing that iconic images are constructed. “In the process of their deconstruction, do not forget to look at other forms of how they are interpreted on other parts of the internet conveniently swept under the carpet,” she warned.