Digital media for humanitarian activism in times of COVID-19

The net impact of Sea-Watch’s social media campaigns about the migration flows in the Mediterranean Sea

Scientific Study, 2022

30 Pages

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Table of Contents


1 Introduction

2 The NIMBY phenomenon: its main political cause and social implications

3 Digital activism as a countermeasure

4 Evaluating the potential net impact of Sea-Watch’s digital media activism efforts through 3-dimensional models

5 Conclusion



The pandemic caused by COVID-19 virus posed challenges not solely for governments and societies, but also for people in contexts of suffering. The pandemic has also been used by European authorities as a justification for the continuing application of violent security procedures of containment against people fleeing to Europe via Mediterranean Sea routes, which contributed to the cause of countless deaths at high sea. This study describes such security procedures as the political causes of a “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) phenomenon, which can be challenged by digital activism, given its potential for the promotion of public engagement in the protection of human rights. To test this assumption, this study aims to evaluate the net impact of the digital efforts undertaken by Sea-Watch to promote public engagement in the context of the migration flows in the Mediterranean Sea. For this, the following paper is divided into three parts. The first outlines the NIMBY phenomenon that resides within the European border regime. The second revolves around the possibilities for digital activism to become a countermeasure against the NIMBY phenomenon. The third evaluates, through 3-dimensional models, how far Sea-Watch came as a promoter of online public engagement after the outbreak of the pandemic in Europe.


Pandemic, Mediterranean Sea routes, NIMBY phenomenon, digital activism, Sea-Watch, public engagement, 3-dimensional models.

1 Introduction

In a digital era riddled with videos, images and hashtags for social media campaigns, humanitarian activist groups decided to become more engaged in fostering online political participation by attracting public attention and mobilizing societies around the protection of human rights rules. As digital media emerged, these groups saw the opportunity to produce online critical discourse and build stronger and wider communities, telling untold stories through images, tagging and other techniques alike. Manifesting possibilities for resistance against oppression by covering forgotten tragedies and giving voice to the voiceless actors, digital activism for humanitarian purposes can be a potential agency of encouraging online public engagement towards a more cooperative society in terms of human rights protection. However, the activist groups committed to make this happen had to learn how to properly exercise the ability to embed critique and antagonist discourses of reality able to tackle the causes and implications of oppressive security procedures of containment against certain vulnerable groups of people in contexts of human suffering.

Among these policies challenged by activist groups in the digital world are the contestable border security moves carried out by European authorities. The border architecture in the Mediterranean Sea, specifically, is materialized in a linear and continuing application of a “push-back policy.” Such a policy is here perceived as the main political cause of the phenomenon called “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY). In the social sciences, NIMBY is a colloquialism signifying one’s opposition to the locating of something that comes to be considered undesirable in one’s neighborhood (Kinder, 2019). This colloquialism has many usages and connotations. However, for the purpose of this paper, the NIMBY phenomenon connotes the willingness of European authorities to oppose the presence of unwanted people along the borders through the application of security measures.

Taking NIMBY as an example to characterize the security procedures at play in the Mediterranean Sea, this study tasks itself with calling society’s attention to the fact that European authorities produced a security-related phenomenon through a “push-back policy” that resulted in deadly consequences to certain groups of people. In other words, this phenomenon is perceived as a crucial tool that serves as an instrument of power for the European authorities to legitimate violent measures against a specific target of unwanted people. Considering this assumption, the first part of this paper attempts to explain why this terminology (phenomenon) could be employed to refer and define the European border architecture in the Mediterranean Sea and its “push-back policy.”

Thereafter, the understanding of the digital activism spectrum – by observing the key role of digital platforms in promoting online political engagement and collective action for public goods and social welfare – becomes a major subject of analysis. The development of this understanding enables to look at both the migration flows in the Mediterranean Sea and the NIMBY phenomenon through qualitative and interdisciplinary lenses. By giving proper attention to digital activism for humanitarian purposes and its crucial role played within the spheres of public and political life turns out to be an integral part of a qualitative and interdisciplinary exercise between communication, media, social and political sciences. In doing so, it is possible not only to acknowledge that the adoption of security procedures of containment transformed the Mediterranean Sea into a liquid graveyard (keeping alive the notion of a fortress Europe), but also to consider digital activism as a potential promoter of public engagement towards a more cooperative Europe in terms of migration issues.

Aiming to fill the void left by the scarcity of investigations on digital activism grounded in empirical approaches, the study goes beyond the qualitative method to evaluate how far the Sea-Watch, a non-profit NGO that conducts civil search and rescue operations at the Mediterranean Sea, came as a promoter of online public engagement in times of COVID-19 pandemic. To achieve this purpose, it was necessary to scrutinize the contribution of the quantitative method and its ability to assist the elaboration of 3-dimensional impact models which measure tiny acts of online participation, such as liking and commenting. In the media studies literature, the tiny acts of online participation are divided into low- and high-cost activities that might lead to activist movements spillovers. Data collection for the elaboration of net impact models was necessary to delve into the digital world where users make the decision whether or not they are willing to participate politically after being confronted with the online critical discourse promoted by the Sea-Watch.

The models presented in the third part of this paper are my own application of the Activism Impact Assessment Models developed by Marcos Sivitanides and Vivek Shah (2011). The models are adapted to the particular context of the subject in analysis and according to the empirical evidence afforded by Sea-Watch’s digital platforms. Engaged in social media campaigns demanding the transformation of the border architecture through political change, Sea-Watch plays a role in the public discourse about migration. Digital activism studies are conducted with the aim to assess the potential for the online critical content created by organizations to form a larger public sphere towards a more just society in terms of human rights. This is the reason why the digital work of Sea-Watch is worthy of attention.

2 The NIMBY phenomenon: its main political cause and social implications

The COVID-19 pandemic increased the divide between rich and poor countries worldwide, between donors and recipients of aid, between privileged mobile elites and precarious low-income labor migrants and refugees, a divide that is further constraining their life prospects (Dany, 2021). The scope of this pandemic and the associated mobility restriction are also historic. Its impact is harshest for people on the move, particularly for those who are fleeing persecution, war, violence and human rights violations. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic essentially presents itself as three interlocking crises: a health crisis, a socio-economic crisis and a protection crisis (Fengler, Lengauer & Zappe, 2021). This considered, and for the purposes of this study, the protection crisis during the pandemic must be pushed into the limit through a critical observation upon the security policies that have been implemented by the European authorities and that cause negative and severe impacts to the fundamental rights of those vulnerable people on the move.

The COVID-19 pandemic also exacerbated a tough reality from which vulnerable groups of people on the move were already confronting, with thousands of travel restrictions, border closures, and rapidly changing regulations. People have been stranded at borders, placed in detention, deported or unable to return home (Fengler & Lengauer, 2021). However, it is particularly important to consider that the pandemic “[…] is not the cause of closed borders, violence, human rights violations, overcrowded camps and insecure routes to European countries” (Dany, 2021, p. 2). The truth is that the COVID-19 virus has been used to prevent migrants from entering the European Union by limiting admission of asylum-seekers and impeding search and rescue missions on the Mediterranean Sea (Doctors Without Borders, 2020; Dany, 2021). As this paper demonstrates, the main reason for closed borders and violations of rights and freedoms is the NIMBY phenomenon.

The condition for the NIMBY phenomenon to take root is the establishment of a set of procedures of containment that aggravated the current protection crisis. The main security procedure of containment is a restrictive measure which has been taking over the European border regime in the last few years, and that has proven to be even more acute in times of pandemic. Simply put, this procedure is the so-called “push-back policy,” and its linear application deserves a quick overview when it comes to perceiving the NIMBY in terms of security. Following in line with an exclusionary security / migration nexus, the “push-back policy” became the main political cause for the NIMBY phenomenon to take shape due to its inherent tendency of establishing standards of social closure and control.

Understanding the phenomenon requires a turn back to recent history, so it is possible to comprehend that, though the postwar European welfare states evolved in a remarkable and abrupt era of liberalization of trade and high investments, they were premised on national control with access to welfare state rights and limited migration: a context of relative social closure (Brochmann & Dølvik, 2018). For this context of relative social closure to emerge, preventive and defensive policies against unwanted people were adopted in a linear fashion throughout the decades. These policies exacerbated the number of non-European migrants risking their lives in the dangerous routes or transit zones in and around Europe. For this purpose, turning back to the past few years of antimigration policies in Europe is a necessary path to be taken if we are to acknowledge the crucial role played by the security / migration nexus in the construction of the European border architecture.

The intensification of the protection crisis is directly related to restrictive procedures (particularly the so-called “push-back policy”), inasmuch as they are strategically designed to seal the European borders and expel unwanted people. In 2009, the migration cooperation announced between Italy and Libya established “[…] a clear example of the Italian government`s willingness to set aside human rights to advance populist antimigrant policies” (Armillei, 2017, p. 142). The Human Rights Watch also condemned the application of this migration cooperation on the grounds it failed to ensure human rights standards, accusing the Italian government of “[…] unilaterally interdicting boat migrants and returning them summarily to Libya” (HRW, 2011, p. 9). As the HRW reported, the interdictions were done “[…] with no screening to identify refugees, the sick or injured people, pregnant women, unaccompanied children, victims of trafficking, or others in need to assistance, in breach of human rights and refugee law” (HRW, 2011, p. 9).

These pushbacks continued to be significant and increasing in the course of the past years, hence revealing a structural violence within the European border regime based on a lack of assistance to prevent unwanted entries. In 2011, two years after the migration cooperation between Italy and Libya, a drastic event called “left-to-die-boat” case took place in the Mediterranean Zone, when a vessel drifted for two weeks with all eyes of the European authorities and international media watching. Unfortunately, sixty-three passengers died on board (Kynsilehto, 2018). A report (see Heller, Pezzani & SITU Studio) showed evidence of responsibility for the crime of non-assistance committed by both the Italian and Maltese authorities and other actors involved in this drastic case.

Eventually, not only the “left-to-die-boat” made us witness the progress of the NIMBY phenomenon. Other drastic incidents at the high sea occurred as the Frontex (the European agency tasked with border control responsibilities) continued to apply pushbacks and avoid engaging in civil search and rescue missions. Take as an example the so-called Lampedusa Migrant Shipwreck, which was the sinking of an overcrowded vessel carrying over five-hundred people, most of them coming from Eritrea and Somalia. This drastic incident took place on 3 October 2013 nearby the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Half of the passengers on board of that 66ft (20m) vessel was reported dead, and most of their bodies are still missing to this day. The BBC News reported “some footage from Lampedusa showing bodies being laid out on the dockside” (BBC News, 2013). As indicated, “half of the bodies recovered were said to be woman and four were children” (BBC News, 2013).

After the 2013 Lampedusa Migrant Shipwreck, a Task Force was implemented by the EU, which proposed guidelines and measures to better address the migratory flows in the Mediterranean Sea. However, despite their strong commitment to implement the actions proposed, the ones taken were not enough to prevent the increasing loss of lives at high sea (Ferreira, 2018). To prove this assumption, in 2018 the Sea-Watch Organization reported multiple incidents occurring in the Mediterranean Sea that violated the international law, asylum rights and protection rules of the people on the move. Through an open statement published on its website, Sea-Watch (2018) expressed high concerns about the ongoing interceptions and forced returns operated by the Libyan Coast Guard. Sea Watch (2018) also accused the Libyan Coast Guards of showing, in many different occasions, to engage in threatening behavior against civilian sea rescuers, encouraged by the EU.

In another statement, Sea-Watch argued that “[…] the act of returning survivors to a place where they will face a well-founded fear of persecution is illegal” (Sea-Watch, 2019). They consider this act a violation of the international law. Sea-Watch also claimed that “[…] the European Union effectively facilitates this illegal ‘refoulement’ through the Libyan Coast Guard, setting the tone for commercial vessels to adopt the practice” (Sea-Watch, 2019). Properly speaking, these acts of violation of the international law also leads to the argument that “[…] it is becoming increasingly common for states to acknowledge that the sea is a propitious area to extend borders as well as prevent migrants from arriving at the coasts” (Olmedo & del Miño, 2019, p. 624). This suggests that the role of the state is not diminishing but reinforced in the framework of humanitarian crisis. The force and violence that the state exercises on its borders increase as a legitimatized reaction to crisis (De Lauri, 2019).

The framework of humanitarian crisis sustains the application of the “push-back policy,” its interceptions and forced returns. The emergence of a securitized regime through the use of border fencing indicates that Europe’s borders have become places of suffering and death. Consequently, those groups of people on the move are acutely vulnerable in border spaces (Weber & Pickering, 2014; Pallister-Wilkins, 2017). In the last years, “the tragedy caused by thousands of deaths, disappearances and insecurity made the Mediterranean maritime zone a grey area in the migratory processes” (Olmedo & del Miño, 2019, p. 618).It is estimated “[…] more than 20.000 recorded deaths in the Mediterranean from January 2000 to June 2018” (Olmedo & del Miño, 2019, p. 618). Thus, in response to the suffering of Europe’s border architecture that prohibits safe and legal routes, a range of actors from state agencies, organizations, NGOs, and citizens spend time and efforts on a multitude of practices in the attempt to relieve suffering and prevent deaths (Pallister-Wilkins, 2017).

Sea-Watch’s rescue operations, for example, are still needed to uphold the international law and save lives. Only in August 2021, Sea-Watch (2021a) conducted 13 rescue operations, whereas more than 1.000 migrants in distress aboard 24 different boats were spotted. Additionally, Sea-Watch (2021b) indicated that, in October 2021, the crew conducted other 7 operations across the search and rescue zone off the Libyan coast, thus rescuing over 400 people. The organization reported that more than 1.400 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea during the first 10 months of 2021, and 25.000 had been pulled back to Libya. For Sea-Watch (2021c), this is more than twice as many in the same previous period in 2020. Meanwhile, the political debate in Europe is neither concerned with legal rights and responsibilities nor with assistance and protection. The security procedures of containment came to be framed as top-down crises intervention, characterized by short-term securitized responses, but lacking medium- and long-term strategies (Armillei, 2017).

The prevalence of the NIMBY phenomenon contributes to the social implications of naturalization and depoliticization. Migrant death at high sea is routinely folded into naturalizing and depoliticizing narratives, within which the fate of precarious travelers of dangerous migration routes depends on their struggle with the natural forces at work, in particular the winds, currents, waves, and cold (Heller, Pezzani & Stierl, 2017). In the media outlets and European leaders’ discourses, the migration flows tend to be addressed through narratives of collective mourning, but without responsibility. The only subject singled out for blame is the smuggler, while the European citizens are placed in the position of spectators without direct involvement with borders issues (Sciurba & Furri, 2017).

Just as the pandemic has been served as a sort of justification for the intensification of the pushbacks, security narratives around the combating of smuggling contribute to the predominance of the naturalization and depoliticization of the migration issue. When debates over responsibilities, assistance, protection and rights are avoided, the European citizens become excluded from participating in discussions about the potential adoption of long-term strategies that could render a less securitizing effect in the European border architecture. Without a more open debate, a desirable transformation of the border architecture from a depoliticized regime to a politicized one supported by legal rights, protection and responsibilities would be quite impossible to happen. In the absence of this open debate, members of the European society occupying the position of spectators would continue to naturalize the issue, neglecting their civic role of doing something for social welfare by pressuring their governments to comply with the international law.

The depoliticization of the migration issue without addressing the main responsibilities of Europe in the intensification of human suffering at the Mediterranean Sea, along with the naturalization of the tragedy, might also result in cases of compassion fatigue within both political circles and the public sphere. According to Susan Moeller’s definition about this phenomenon, “compassion fatigue occurs when a reader’s or viewer’s emotions are deeply engaged by a tragedy, but there appears to be no easy or meaningful contribution that the individual can make in response to the news of tragedy” (Moeller, 2018, p. 77). As she convincingly summarizes, “compassion fatigue is essentially a response to emotions on overload. People respond to that overload by shutting down all that troublesome input, by turning away from them news” (Moeller, 2018, p. 77). More importantly, Susan Moeller contends that compassion fatigue “[…] may be especially prevalent when audiences are physically distant from crisis being covered” (Moeller, 2018, p. 77).

Media and authorities share responsibility for the occurrence of compassion fatigue by depoliticizing the problems around the migration flows. The media, for instance, is saturated with images of people in distress or neglected at the borders; however, the Western most influential television channels barely address in prime time the causes of the problem, not questioning the militarization of the borders and other security procedures carried out by European authorities. By the same token, in the governments officials’ discourses or EU statements, little is heard about diminishing the harmful consequences resulting from the security practices of containment. Instead, they focus on narratives around terrorism and smuggling, reinforcing a sort of threat-danger modality of security.

For Buzan and Hansen (2009), it is crucial to move beyond this threat-danger modality of security to the logics of politics. If this logic of politics was taken more seriously by governments, societies and communication channels, Buzan and Hansen believe that “[…] compromise, solutions, debates and open dialogue is made possible to a much larger extent” (Buzan & Hansen, 2009, p. 216). Pressuring the media and governments to replace their traditional security narratives that reinforce the threat-danger modality by what Buzan and Hansen (2009) refer to as the “possibility of politicization” is crucial for civil societies to acknowledge their civic responsibility to participate in collective actions in favor of human protection rules. Otherwise, their roles as spectators will continue to be those of listening, watching, and in some cases, denial. Without political demands for radical change through progressive thinking, the migration flows would remain naturalized.

Serving as Europe’s alibi, the loss of thousands of lives at high sea could be conveniently blamed on the forces of the nature or on third parties like human smugglers. Within these narratives, critique of Europe and its border authorities would revolve around a supposed passivity, an evident lack of civil engagement that might give rise to calls for increased intervention and more militarization of the borders to halt migration movements (Heller, Pezzani & Stierl, 2017). Meanwhile, the contribution made by migrants is an issue that is strategically moved to the background as public attention is diverted to blame the human smugglers and look at “boat people” just as a mere natural catastrophe (Armillei, 2017). Fundamentally, diverting the public attention is one of the reasons for why “solidarity with refugees as well as with vulnerable people in poor and conflict-ridden states is still patently absent, particularly during this pandemic” (Dany, 2021, p. 3).

All of this comes together in the notion that the crisis Europe faces is political rather than humanitarian. The logic of emergency has been improperly and intentionally applied to strengthen a threat-danger modality of security. This logic is applied to the framework of humanitarian crisis, hence legitimating a system of exception with practices that precede, surpass and rewrite the rules. As a result, the right to asylum disappeared with predictable consequence of the escalation in illegal security measures and violent procedures of containment (Sciurba & Furri, 2017). Within this context, different narratives and forms of action coexist. On the one hand, the state policing, and rejection, and on the other hand, the rescue and assistance offered by organizations (De Lauri, 2019). Through documentation and denunciation in their digital platforms, the actors performing rescue operations should be worthy of attention as they create fields of contention and countermeasure.

3 Digital activism as a countermeasure

After briefly exploring the NIMBY phenomenon by tracing the recent development of the “push-back policy” and identifying the implications inherent to it, it is worth discussing the possibilities to restore balances in attempting to have systems in place and establish a secure European border based on rights and responsibilities. It is about finding out an alternative countermeasure that could potentially treat the root causes and implications of the NIMBY phenomenon. Just like the race for a COVID-19 vaccine represented an urgent public health challenge for scientists around the world, it is also a crucial challenge for social and political scientists to take for granted the counter-discourses capable of relieving the effects of the NIMBY phenomenon on those belonging to the risk group. As the COVID-19 virus and its variants tend to hit harder a group of vulnerable people with certain medical conditions, the NIMBY phenomenon is designed to affect a certain vulnerable group of people involved in dangerous migration routes and humanitarian contexts.

As the previous part of this paper demonstrated after exploring the implications of the phenomenon, political change is necessary when it comes to transforming the Mediterranean Sea into a space of dialogue and debate about legal rights and responsibilities. This political change would only be possible if public spaces were open to broader debates. And digital activism could play a crucial role in making this happen, considering the potential for mobilizing the masses and making demands towards political change. In this regard, the antidote against the phenomenon should correspond to the idea that the real crisis at the European borders is political rather than humanitarian. This antidote could be perceived as digital activism, which is a combination of technology and human agency towards the development of critique, engagement, resistance and emancipation.

Given the current scenario where humanitarian contexts are proliferating globally, critique could contribute to supporting ordinary politics, as well as to promote the emergence of different political subjectivities (De Lauri, 2019). Part of such an immanent critique as the promoter of political subjectivities can be found in the digital efforts of documentation and denunciation deployed by humanitarian activist groups in their independent channels of communication. When it comes to the migration flows, these efforts aim to make the public sphere bear witness to suffering and discuss long-term strategies for safe passages and legal routes. In doing so, the activist groups tend to set the proper conditions to, as alleged Leah Lievrouw, “[…] mobilize social movements, the collective actions that people organize and work together as active participants in social change” (Lievrouw, 2011, p. 150).

Collective action means the activity undertaken by citizens with the aim of contributing to public goods, among them basic rights, a democratic society, social welfare, and security (Margetts et al, 2016). This is the most optimistic perspective of a debate divided into two categories: the optimistic and pessimistic views on digital media. The argument of the optimistic view concerns that the networked nature of the digital world allows for people to communicate and take action outside of, and sometimes in opposition to, traditional and hierarchical power structures (Benkler, 2006; Sivitanides & Shah, 2011). This positive perspective also emphasizes the importance of community building at the heart of digital activism, while alternative media allow for new forms of cultural and political practices to emerge (Kaun & Uldam, 2018). This argument gained more force when, as Fernando Mora indicates, “new forms of technology mediating activism started to emerge and become commonplace alongside traditional media as vehicles to monitor, gather crucial information and denounce atrocities, crimes, violations and abuses” (Mora, 2014, p. 1).

The optimistic viewers of the digital media are convinced that activism might open up the possibility to “[…] inspire change at the level of consciousness” (Anderson, 2015, p. 26), by means of “[…] exposing the gross miscarriages of justice that essentially characterizes contemporary international relations (Anderson, 2015, p. 27). The networks established by digital activism creates visions and practices that act together in the attempt to form a larger political counter public sphere. These networks manifest the potential to support political change processes (Sandoval & Fuchs, 2010). However, the pessimistic view of digital media alleges that technology provides new methods of control, surveillance, and persecution for repressive governments, along with the ability to empower destructive individuals, such as hackers and terrorists, who use networks to attack targets that would previously have been beyond their reach (Morozov, 2010; Joyce, 2010; Sivitanides & Shah, 2011).

What is more, such a pessimistic view gained force throughout the last few years after the obvious “[…] proliferation of toxic narratives against migrants that supports the negative perception of migration and encourages radical and nationalist parties to use the populist rhetoric with xenophobic and anti-immigration elements (Austria, Hungary, Poland, France, etc.)” (Olmedo & del Miño, 2019, p. 623). Digital media became a tool for nationalist and xenophobic discourses, capitalizing segments of societies. This contributed to the widespread popular acceptance in relation to the application of restrictive measures against people in distress at high sea. Taking the pessimistic view into account, digital media enhanced the effectiveness of the NIMBY as xenophobic discourses gained space online.

The bottom line of this study is however to focus on ordinary politics than reproducing the endless debate upon the advantages and disadvantages of the optimistic and pessimistic perspectives. For some scholars like Harry Boyte, ordinary politics is also referred to as everyday politics, which involves, in his definition, “[…] people reclaiming politics as an activity owned and engaged in by citizens, in environments that reach far beyond the formal political system” (Boyte, 2005, p. 36). Such environments are for Harry Boyte “[…] social places, the settings where people live, work, learn, worship, and play” (Boyte, 2005, p. 37). Nevertheless, in recent years, the digital platforms became the public space where these environments could be found as activist groups migrated to the virtual world to expand their communities, pursue their interests and claim their demands.

Apart from the technical and academic description of ordinary politics – which is for Boyte “[…] a more horizontal and interactive concept of politics rooted in local cultures, a politics that places the citizen, not the formal political process” (Boyte, 2005, p. 37) – what is also important to point out is that this is the sphere of actions in which different political subjectivities mobilize and advance their demands for change (De Lauri, 2019). In the last decades, digital media became a commonplace for the ordinary (or everyday) politics to take place, given the capacity to develop wider networks of relations in the promotion of higher levels of mobilization. To many civil society groups engaged in the online and offline humanitarian cause, the interconnection between ordinary politics and the digital platforms contributed to their political interests in the formation of a sort of counterweight to depoliticization and naturalization of the migration flows. As digital platforms paved the way for the ordinary politics to form a wide network of relations, activist groups gained more visibility, and their critical contents could be seen in a rapid fashion.

Providing real-time information about what other people are doing, social media affect the perceived viability of political mobilizations and the potential benefits of joining, thereby altering the incentives of individuals to participate (Margetts et al, 2016). Due to the unprecedented speed that content and information circulate in the digital world, the activist media became an “[…] ideal laboratory experiments for the process of emancipating consciousness in the collective subject. For activist media, for instance, it is observed both education and action, emancipation and resistance” (Anderson, 2015, p. 30). In this line of thought, it is important to note that critical media content should be used as minimum requirement for defining activist media (Sandoval & Fuchs, 2010). For digital activism to become a countermeasure against NIMBY, a reinvigorated critique is required.

Critique produces new ways of reimagining the world. It is the result of the intellectual engagement of a critical mass of people with specific public concerns, for example, mobility and borders. Critique is a modality of imagining the world in other ways (De Lauri, 2019). Within the digital spectrum, critique can usually be found in the critical contents posted on different social media. These contents intend to show suppressed possibilities of existence, antagonisms of reality, potentials for change. They question domination by somehow expressing the standpoints of oppressed and dominated groups. In general words, critical contents argue for the advancement of a cooperative society (Sandoval & Fuchs, 2010). According to a more optimistic view of digital media, the critical contents created by digital activists enable to, as Fernando More argues, “[…] see how new groups and communities of users have been empowered to become active political participants” (Mora, 2014, p. 1). Fernando Mora also contends that this proliferates “[…] networks of knowledge and participation where know-how is disseminated” (Mora, 2014, p. 1).

Despite the many critiques on the efficiency of social media for activist purposes, Bart Cammaerts convincingly argues that “[…] it also has to be acknowledged that, in line with some of the more optimistic accounts, social media have played an instrumental and a constitutive role for activists worldwide in their efforts to disseminate social movements discourses” (Cammaerts, 2015, p. 87). He also adds other affordances inherent to digital platforms for activist purposes, among them “[…] mobilization and coordination for direct actions online and offline, and self-mediation of acts of resistance potentially leading to movement spillovers” (Cammaerts, 2015, p. 87). In this context, social media definitely extended the range of activities that are open to people wishing to participate politically (Margetts et al, 2016). Through social media, digital activism might create an online public space for immanent critique to emerge in the realm of everyday (ordinary) politics. In this context, attracting public attention has been one of the main goals of those activist groups responsible for the articulation of collective actions for public goods.

The propositive actors of digital activism need to gain public attention if they want to be successful in raising awareness and mobilizing social struggles. They need organizational structures and financial resources (Sandoval & Fuchs, 2010). For this reason, the immanent critique proposed by digital activism should be as clear and concise as possible, so that even those people without a strong interest in politics may find themselves contributing micro-donations of time and effort to political causes. These tiny political acts can also scale up to large-scale mobilizations around collective goods (Margetts et al, 2016).

Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that the potential of digital activism to emancipate critical thought does not only lie in the capacity of producing content alone. It is in direct political practices that digital activism might be able to rise above the noise of an already saturated media field (Anderson, 2015). These political practices should take “[…] form of alternative production and participation in social movements” (Anderson, 2015, p. 27). Eventually, among the social movements on behalf of the migration rights and against the NIMBY and its social implications, it is worth exploring the collective actions and offline activities promoted by Sea-Watch in recent years. The following two activities are political practices that best represent the Sea-Watch’s activist efforts to rise above the noise by emancipating critique through online and offline mobilizations.

In September 2021, members of Sea-Watch gathered in front of the Deutscher Bundestag (the German National Parliament) to perform a demonstration. In a mobilization for human rights protection never seen before in Germany, Sea-Watch managed to build a huge mosaic out of 48.000 pictures of German politicians on the garden in front of the Bundestag. In a video released on Sea-Watch’s Instagram account, they describe the huge mosaic as “a picture of inhuman politics and a reminder to take responsibility” (Sea-Watch, 2021d). The video also includes images taken by a drone, showing the mosaic with the pictures of politicians who already voted against human rights and in favor to the “push-back policy.” However, what makes the mosaic more interesting is the fact that between the pictures, it was also possible to read the message: Menschenrechte sind #unverhandelbar (Human rights are #non-negotiable). Among other demands, Sea-Watch claimed for “solidarity for people on the move, a state-financed European search and rescue program, the end of the criminalization of rescue, and introduction of safe and legal escape routes” (Sea-Watch, 2021d).

Moreover, not so far away from the Deutscher Bundestag, and to celebrate the International Migrants Day (18 December), the Sea-Watch, in partnership with other organisms like the Amnesty International, built a long and huge LED wall in front of the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate). The wall showed images and videos of the militarized borders along Europe. All those people – from tourists to German citizens – walking by the Berlin’s most famous landmark and monument were able to bear witness to the suffering at the European borders. In a video posted on Instagram, Sea-Watch (2021e) believes that Europe became a fortress that lets people drown and freeze to death at its borders or pushes them back with violence. For Sea-Watch (2021e), the wall is symbolic of the inhumane policies designed to deter people seeking protection at the EU’s external borders.

Interactions on social media, through actions and mechanisms like downloading, sharing, viewing, following, retweeting, and so on, are tiny acts of participation that can scale up to make a major contribution to political mobilization (Margetts et al, 2016). Nevertheless, for these tiny acts of participation to scale up to large political and offline mobilization, it is required a transition from clicktivism to traditional forms of collective actions and social expressions of resistance for political change. As Bart Cammaerts comes to explain, for instance, “social media combine one-to-many, one-to-one and many-to-many forms of communication” (Cammaerts, 2015, p. 91). In his viewpoint, “this produces a matrix of affordances that can be attributed to various types of social media leading to a variety of possible actions for protests movements” (Cammaerts, 2015, p. 91).

Migrant and refugee rights organizations have long protested the mass dying at sea by denouncing it as a consequence of Europe’s policies of deterrence, exclusion, and border militarization (Heller, Pezzani & Stierl, 2017). After the emergence of digital platforms, the tiny acts of participation enabled the human rights organizations to create new forms of mobilizing people within the ordinary politics. This also allowed Sea-Watch to develop a culture of participation in the activities mentioned above. Building a LED wall and a huge mosaic with the pictures of politicians to make people aware of the NIMBY phenomenon are political practices by nature and that communicate with society through networking and knowledge sharing. But these activities represent small-scale offline practices that are coordinated and shared online. Until now, these initiatives did not evolve to a large transformative movement that reaches the masses, though digital activism enabled them to attract followers and active participants, giving more visibility to the sea rescue cause by exposing the causes and implications of the NIMBY phenomenon.

By all means, it would not be wrong to argue that digital activism for humanitarian purposes encourages online public engagement by communicating with a larger audience in an active and emancipatory way. Nevertheless, overcoming the NIMBY phenomenon requires higher levels of public support. This in fact makes digital activism for humanitarian purposes a countermeasure that helps relieving the implications of the NIMBY phenomenon because it politicizes the migration flows through the creation of critical contents and mobilization of social expressions that encourage reflection. The next section of this study tests, thereby, the hypothesis that digital activism for humanitarian purposes is more oriented so far to relieving the pain caused by the implications of depoliticization and naturalization than preferentially treating the main political cause of the NIMBY phenomenon.

4 Evaluating the potential net impact of Sea-Watch’s digital media activism efforts through 3-dimensional models

One should not ignore the fact that “the world is incredibly noisy nowadays, and it is the challenge of alternative media to find a way of rising above” (Anderson, 2015, p. 31). Therefore, in such a noisy media environment, the digital activist media should not simply contribute to that noise, but also explore the means at their disposal in order “[…] to circumnavigate it, to communicate through alternative channels in active, engaged ways” (Anderson, 2015, p. 31). For this, digital activism requires, as firmly indicated by Fernando Mora, “[…] the development of a culture of participation, a high degree of networking and knowledge sharing, and the use of specialized information and communication technologies” (Mora, 2014, p. 1). Even though at a micro level in terms of mobilizing the masses and weakening the NIMBY phenomenon, the activities carried out by Sea-Watch manifest the transition from on to offline mobilizations, and they can have the potential to rise above the noise by encouraging a culture of participation within the ordinary politics.

These small-scale activities are so far deemed painkillers of the NIMBY social implications, inasmuch as they open up the possibility for the politicization and denaturalization of the migration issue. But for these activities to become part of a large-scale process in the transformation of the border architecture, it is necessary to reach the masses and increase the aspects of collective action. For the Mediterranean Sea to become a space of political action and mobilization, a larger and more active resistance within the online public sphere should emerge, and digital activism is decisive for a process of social ferment to occur.

In this reading, acts of documentation and denunciation of the violence at the borders are understood as tools that might be capable of transforming the interstitial space of the Mediterranean Sea into a fundamental arena of politics. These acts help to recognize the Mediterranean as a political space in its own right, and the freedom of movement as a fundamental dimension of our life in common (Heller, Pezzani & Stierl, 2017). As Fernando Mora argues, “documenting encompasses the desire to tell the story, to inform, as well as to transmit some ideas about the social movements in process” (Mora, 2014, p. 2). On the other hand, denunciation might take the form of broadcasting, which aims, as Fernando Mora interestingly indicates, “[…] to share information about protests, meetings, human rights violations crisis, and evolution of movements actions” (Mora, 2014, p. 2). These acts inspire subjective reflection and political action through resistance. They should often “[…] shock audiences into a state of critical reflection” (Anderson, 2015, p. 32).

Considering that Sea-Watch’s digital acts of documentation and denunciation attempt to promote a critique against the NIMBY phenomenon and that corresponds to the effort of thinking politically about rights and responsibilities over migration issues, it is necessary, therefore, to assess how far Sea-Watch was able to interact with users in times of pandemic. The more interaction with its users through likes and comments, the more the process of politicization and denaturalization of the migration issues takes root in society. For this, the study elaborates models that include internet-based interactions with the public for the evaluation of the impact of Sea-Watch’s campaigns on Meta platforms.

For comparison reasons, two models were developed to evaluate the impact of Sea-Watch’s critical contents posted on Facebook: one model representing the time period of 14 months before the outbreak of the pandemic in Europe and another for the first 14 months after the outbreak of the pandemic in Europe. The same procedure is applied to Sea-Watch’s contents on Instagram. By observing the net impact of Sea-Watch’s social media campaigns through internet-based activity in two different time frames, it is possible to compare both models to understand users’ involvement and how they tended to respond to the social media campaigns posted before and during the pandemic. The net impact models developed in this study are represented through 3-dimensional grids that could also be used in future investigations to illustrate the potential impact of any digital activism effort on the virtual world. As already mentioned, the net impact models are portrayed by rectangular prisms and inspired by the Activism Impact Assessment Models drafted by Sivitanides and Shah and presented in a seminar paper called The Era of Digital Activism (2011).

Three axes build up the impact models. From what Margetts et al (2016) came to refer to as “low-cost activities” undertaken by users (such as liking the posts) to “high-cost activities” (such as commenting), the three axes represent engagement rates that leave a digital imprint. These three axes help create 3-dimensional rectangular prims on grids. The axis Comments, which corresponds to the average engagement rate of high-cost activity, is represented by the pink columns on the grids. Illustrating the average number of comments that Sea-Watch managed to get on the digital platforms per day within a given period of time, this axis represents the height dimension of the rectangular prism and also indicates the intensity of discussions and dialogues created by users within the online public sphere. The axis Likes, which corresponds to the average number of likes that Sea-Watch had per day within a given time period, is represented by the yellow rows. In terms of the geometric measures, this axis represents the length of the rectangular prisms on the grids.

The axis Likes also indicates the average number of users who interacted with the campaigns by doing an act that is highly low-cost: clicking the Like button. Ultimately, the axis Posts, which portrays the volume of posts per day responsible for pushing the campaigns out to the digital world, is represented by the green diagonals on the grids. In the geometric form, this axis corresponds to the width of the prims. All this considered, it is of great importance to highlight that the taller the rectangular prims, the higher the engagement rate of high-cost activity. The longer the rectangular prims, the higher the low-cost activity. Finally, the wider the rectangular prisms, the higher the volume of content creation.

Indeed, the 3-dimensional models provide a better view of the public support and online engagement that the Sea-Watch’s social media campaigns managed to get during a specific period of time. Through the collection of the data and information required for building the prims it was possible to elaborate a visual representation which illustrates the net impact produced by the Sea-Watch’s social media campaigns before and after the outbreak of the pandemic in Europe. The following two net impact models enable evaluations whether Sea-Watch came farther as a promoter of online engagement on Facebook throughout the first 14 months after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe.

Figure 1: Net impact model representing Sea-Watch’s digital activism on Facebook (time period: 14 months before the pandemic).

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Figure 2: Net impact model representing Sea-Watch’s digital activism on Facebook (time period: first 14 months of the pandemic).

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As one may note, the second model (Figure 2) is longer than the first model (Figure 1). This means that, in terms of low-cost activities, at least, it could be argued that Sea-Watch came farther as promoter of online public engagement. The calculated average engagement rate of low-cost activity per day in the first 14 months after the outbreak of the pandemic was higher than the average from the same time period before the pandemic. In the time before the pandemic, Sea-Watch gained more than 412.000 likes on its Facebook posts (a calculated average rate of 967 likes per day). During the pandemic, Sea-Watch presented more than 444.000 likes (a calculated average rate of 1.047 likes per day). This suggests a significant difference in the engagement rate of low-cost activity between the two models.

Moreover, the second model (Figure 2) is smaller in width when compared to the first model (Figure 1). In the time period before the pandemic, Sea-Watch’s Facebook official account presented a total of 439 posts (an average rate of 1,03 posts per day). But in the time period during the pandemic, there were 394 posts (a calculated average rate of 0,92 posts per day). Considering this, despite the fact that the time period from before the pandemic presented a higher average rate of posts per day, users apparently became more engaged in low-cost activities in times of pandemic. Though further research would be necessary to prove this assumption, the findings of the two impact models above can be consistent with the idea that the pandemic played a key role in determining a higher engagement rate of low-cost activity concerning Sea-Watch’s social media campaigns on Facebook.

On the other hand, when it comes to the high-cost activity engagement rate that Sea-Watch’s campaigns on Facebook managed to get during the first months after the outbreak of the pandemic, it was possible to note a decrease in comparison with the same time period from before the pandemic, given that the second model (Figure 2) is shorter than the first model (Figure 1). Before the pandemic, Sea-Watch’s posts had more than 64.000 comments (a calculated average rate of 151 comments per day). During the first months of the pandemic, Sea-Watch’s posts generated more than 46.000 comments (an average of 109 comments per day). The models demonstrate that users became less engaged in commenting Sea-Watch’s contents on Facebook in times of pandemic. The impact of Sea-Watch’s campaigns on Facebook were significant only in terms of low-cost activity. In this reading, users mostly responded to Sea-Watch’s campaigns during the pandemic through a small act such as liking the posts. At the same time, they became less interested in participating in discussions about the contents. The aspect of online collective action during the pandemic is closely associated with clicktivism, where the costs of participation were minimal.

Likewise, following the same criteria as the Facebook impact models, the next two models represented in the 3-dimensional rectangular prims on the grids below were built with the purpose of evaluating the net impact of Sea-Watch’s campaigns on Instagram. Just as the previous models illustrating the net impact of Sea-Watch’s campaigns on Facebook, the net impact models for the Instagram contain three axes: Comments (pink columns / high-cost activity), Likes (yellow rows / low-cost activity), and Posts (green diagonals / the volume of contents responsible for pushing the activist discourse out to the digital world). Again, for comparison reasons, one impact model represents the 14 months before the outbreak of the pandemic, while the other represents the first 14 months of pandemic.

Figure 3: Net impact model representing Sea-Watch’s digital activism on Instagram (time period: 14 months before the pandemic).

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Figure 4: Net impact model representing Sea-Watch’s digital activism on Instagram (time period: first 14 months of the pandemic).

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In the same fashion as the previous Facebook impact models, the Instagram impact models demonstrate that Sea-Watch’s activist campaigns came farther as promoter of online engagement during the first months of pandemic in terms of low-cost activity. As one may observe, the fourth model (Figure 4) is much longer than the third model (Figure 3). More precisely, before the pandemic, Sea-Watch gained more than 597.000 likes on its Instagram page (calculated average rate of 1.401 likes per day). On the other hand, during the first 14 months of the pandemic, Sea-Watch managed to get more than 1.506,000 likes (calculated average rate of 3.532 likes per day). This suggests a significant difference in the engagement rate of low-cost activity between the two impact models, with users becoming way more engaged in low-cost activity in times of pandemic. Also, unlike the Facebook models, the Instagram models demonstrated that Sea-Watch increased the number of posts in times of pandemic. As it is possible to note, the fourth model (Figure 4) is wider than the third model (Figure 3), indicating a higher volume of content creation.

In the 14 months before the pandemic, Sea-Watch seemed to be less active on Instagram in terms of posting contents. From the beginning of January 2019 to the end of February 2020, Sea-Watch posted 173 times (calculated average rate of 0,40 posts per day). But from the beginning of March 2020 to the end of April 2021, the number of posts increased to 354 (calculated average rate of 0,83 posts per day). Properly speaking, this is consistent with the fact that the rise in the number of posts per day during the first 14 months of the pandemic followed the rise in the number of likes per day. Even though further research would be necessary, the net impact models provide evidence to support the notion that the pandemic might have played an important role in determining a higher users’ involvement in low-cost activity regarding Sea-Watch’s digital activism on Instagram.

Finally, when it comes to the analysis of the high-cost activity engagement rate, a higher average rate can be found in the net impact model illustrating the time period during the pandemic. That is why the fourth model (Figure 4) is taller than the third model (Figure 3). However, one should consider that the average rate of posts per day was higher in this time period too. In simple words, the more posts Sea-Watch made, the more likes and comments Sea-Watch received. The problem with the axis Comments is that its average rate did not increase significantly during the pandemic. Whereas the average rate of posts increased about 107,5 % in the first 14 months of the pandemic, and the average rate of likes 152,1 %, the average rate of comments only increased 7,5 %. If one calculated only the average rate of comments per post, for example, it is possible to notice the fact that the high-cost activity actually decreased during the first 14 months of the pandemic.

In the months before the pandemic, there were more than 17.000 comments on Sea-Watch’s posts, corresponding an average of 40 comments per day and 100 comments per post. By contrast, during the first months of the pandemic, Sea-Watch’s posts generated more than 18.000 comments, thus representing an average of 43 comments per day but around 52 comments per post. This considered, though the model illustrating the period during the pandemic looks a taller due to a higher average rate of comments, Sea-Watch did not come farther as a promoter of online public engagement in terms of high-cost activity. Once again, the users became less engaged in commenting in times of pandemic. The aspect of online collective action during the pandemic – when people had to spend more time at home due to the application of measures like lockdowns and isolation – was again closely associated with clicktivism, where the costs of users’ involvement are minimal.

5 Conclusion

Looking at the migration flows on the Mediterranean Sea and the establishment of a set of security procedures of containment through subjective and critical lenses, this paper investigated the emergence of a so-called NIMBY phenomenon that resides within the European border architecture and affects a vulnerable group of people on the move. After diagnosing the “push-back policy” as the main political cause of the phenomenon, the first conclusion that can be drawn is that the implications of depoliticization and naturalization became self-perpetuating in the political circles and public spheres of society. Rather than establishing a political space and a site for widespread action, the social implications of the NIMBY phenomenon diverted society’s attention to consider the Mediterranean Sea as a European maritime border where frequent shipwrecks with hundreds of people on board of overcrowded boats tend to occur naturally, without further criticism.

The key point behind this study was to observe the immanent possibilities for a long-term process of change able to free ourselves from what is given to us as natural. To make this process possible to happen, the Mediterranean Sea should be considered a space where the everyday politics takes place, so that struggles for mobility and rights would overcome excessive policing and security procedures of containment. Perhaps this process of change could be started and assisted by digital activism for humanitarian purposes. That is why this study shough to explore the potential for digital activism to emerge as a social response of oppression and violence. Manifesting possibilities for resistance given its ability to create a space for immanent critique, digital activism is not only a tool for human rights claims and emancipation, but also for strengthening border crossers’ agency.

The Sea-Watch activities mentioned in this paper, like the ones around Berlin, are social expressions and political practices coordinated, promoted and articulated online. They are empirical emanations aimed at entitling border crossers to legal rights, but still applied at a micro-level in online and offline contexts and forms of political participation. What can be conclusive about Sea-Watch’s social media campaigns in times of pandemic is that they succeeded in making users more aware of the migration situation in the Mediterranean Sea given the increase in low-cost activities. Yet there is a long path to be paved in terms of engaging users in high-cost activity, where they would share their opinions by opening up debates about the migration and borders issues. A clear outcome that relates to the 3-dimensional impact models developed in this study is that Sea-Watch came farther as a promoter of engagement in times of pandemic in terms of low-cost activity only.

The 3-dimensional models show evidence of a higher impact of clicktivism on Sea-Watch’s social media campaigns in the first 14 months of pandemic. The research findings provided insights that spur more informed future tests. It is recommended, for example, to test the net impact of Sea-Watch’s campaigns after the lockdowns and restrictions in order to figure out whether the costs of users’ involvement continued to be minimal or even associated to compassion fatigue. In any case, the arguments, topics, models and results addressed in this paper could be useful as a bridge to future discussions about the role of digital activism for humanitarian aims in creating fields of contention against the current protection crisis, the NIMBY phenomenon and its social implications, more specifically.


With the financial support of a fellowship program from the Center for Advanced Internet Studies (CAIS, Bochum – Germany).


A special word of thanks goes to the members of CAIS and the CAIS fellows’ team 2021 for their support and feedback, particularly to Dr. Jörg Lehmann, who helped me with designing the 3-dimensional impact models.

Supporting Information

A research project video was produced and published with the purpose of giving a visual impression about some of the ideas and topics addressed in this study. The research project video does not only feature the opinion of some authors and academics cited in this paper through a series of interviews, but it also includes the participation of a member of the Sea-Watch social media team. Please access the following link to watch the video:

I also had the opportunity to publish an 800-word piece about the video in the Diplomatic Courier, a global news and international affairs analysis magazine based in Washington, D.C. The piece can be accessed through the following link:


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Digital media for humanitarian activism in times of COVID-19
The net impact of Sea-Watch’s social media campaigns about the migration flows in the Mediterranean Sea
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digital, covid-19, sea-watch’s, mediterranean
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Lucien Vilhalva de Campos (Author), 2022, Digital media for humanitarian activism in times of COVID-19, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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