A new research article by Kaylan C. Schwarz and Lisa Ann Richey in New Media & Society looks at how volunteer tourism is portrayed and policed in an online setting. It takes its inspiration from Emma Jane’s concept of “digilantism”: an emerging style of networked response to injustice. In this post, we summarise the article’s main findings.
By Carolina Are
Schwarz and Richey make use of the concept of “digilatism” from Australian media scholar Emma Jane, who used it to describe feminist activists’ response to “manspreading” by covertly photographing perpetrators in order to identify and expose them online. Jane defines digilantism as “putatively politically motivated extrajudicial practices in online domains that are intended to punish or bring others to account in response to a perceived or actual lack of institutional remedies,” and she notes that this type of behaviour occurs on a spectrum, from more minor to extreme instances. Schwarz and Richey use this concept to explore forms of advocacy and activism around online humanitarianism.
The article takes a two-fold approach in describing new ways to police humanitarian behaviour online. First, it describes three humanitarian-themed campaigns – Radi-Aid on YouTube, Humanitarians of Tinder on Tumblr, and Barbie Savior on Instagram— and asks how humour is being used to rebuke and problematize humanitarian practices, as well as representations of the African “other” and the humanitarian self. These campaigns are, Schwarz and Richey suggest, a “counter-narrative” that creates a social norm for good humanitarian representations through the spoofing of bad ones.
Then, through semi-structured interviews and analysis of content on Facebook, Schwarz and Richey’s article shows how a group of UK-based international volunteers took measures to avoid “stereotypical” volunteer photography (e.g. embracing children, selfies) when communicating their experiences in Kenya to a public audience.
This data come from the narratives of 12 UK-based undergraduate students who went on a 10-week volunteer excursion in Kenya during the summer of 2014 and a retrospective sample of 15 individuals who completed the same volunteer excursion between 2004 and 2013. Most of the participants identified as white and female, all aged between 19–21 at the time of the excursion, and all were enrolled in Russell Group Universities.
The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund designs satirical awareness campaigns to encourage critical debate of the media’s portrayal of the Global South. Under the banner of “Radi-Aid,” the organization produced a video series of parodies, with one of the most well-known being the “Africa for Norway” video below (which is also discussed in the book Africa’s Media Image). The video is a spoof of the Live Aid charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas”. Here, a group of musicians urge their fellow Africans to donate radiators to Norwegians suffering from the perils of a cold climate. For Schwarz and Richey, Radi-Aid’s use of edgy humor focuses on calling out the development aid industry and its imagery.
Humanitarians of Tinder
Humanitarians of Tinder is a Tumblr website dedicated to deriding people who use their volountourism pictures to make their online dating profiles more appealing. The website compiles screenshots from individuals’ social media profiles (without their permission), naming and shaming the ‘Tindertarians’. Here, the digilantism aspect is brought by the identification of ‘Tindertarians’, who provide an educational cautionary tale of how not to behave when showcasing humanitarian work.
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Barbie Savior is an Instagram account posting a series of photoshopped images and sarcastic captions documenting the doll’s imaginary international volunteer journey in Africa. Barbie Savior is shown embracing small children, posing with wild animals, and appropriating traditional styles of dress and hair. Barbie Savior occasionally flirts with impoverished conditions (collecting water from a central pump, using a squat toilet), but is more often shown maintaining privilege, including access to medication, air conditioning, lattes, designer handbags, manicured nails, and holiday breaks at resort hotels and shopping malls.
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I have been busy getting the Skinny Barbie Collective off the ground. Yet another project of mine, bringing health and wellness to Africa! And it has helped me loose that final .001 pounds I have been trying to shake for YEARS. Being fit and saving lives isn’t easy. #skinnybarbiecollective #justdoit #exceptdont #pleasedont #donateyourcalories #theyneedit #itaughtthemhowtokegel #namasaai #betheskinnybitchyouwanttoseeintheworld #splits4jesus #swolelife #lulusavior #warriorpose #butnotreally #poorafricanchildpose #doesthismakemeaninstagramfitnessinfluencer? #goalzandgainz #thighsmcgee #1and2and3and4andgetthemorphansoffthefloor #kenyafeeltheburn
For Schwarz and Richey:
“Some of the ways Barbie Savior ‘helps’ are a nod toward serious critiques surrounding the tokenistic or unqualified roles that international volunteers are invited to play overseas—painting village huts, caring for orphans, teaching English, providing medical care—while others are purposely absurd—donating high heeled shoes, candy confections, essential oils, and her own tears.”
Once again, Barbie Savior is an example of how not to behave in the context of an international volunteer excursion. The account doesn’t simply denigrate white saviour behaviour, but tries to “carve out space for ethical alternatives”.
Using Humour To Change Behaviours
Schwarz and Richey point out that to understand the humour, the audience must be “in the know” and have some form of familiarity with existing social scripts or frames depicting the ways the development aid industry and international volunteers visualize and narrate distant suffering.
For the authors, all three examples: “interrupt the ways the humanitarian aid industry broadly, and international volunteers specifically, visualize and narrate distant suffering,” using “edgy humor to identify and expose socially unacceptable representation practices.”
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2016. What a year! It was my first year taking up residency in the country of Africa. Some may say I have done good, but there is still so much to do and so many to save! I am excited to share my New Years resolution with you all. By the end of 2017 I will love on 153 million orphans. It’s a lofty goal, but I believe I am up for the challenge. #5down #152999995togo #theyaremorethannumbers #buttheyaremostlynumbers #oneorphanatatime #wheredemorphansathough #imnotactuallyaresident #waitafricahasimmigrationlaws? #illegalsavior #newyearsamesavior #butnewhashtags #4christ #hereistobeingmoreoffensifabulousin2017 #orphanworkout #swolsavior #youarehighandliftedup #andmysoulsingshallelujah #tome #datorphanhigh #2016wasntTHATbad #itbroughyouME! #africadidnotkillmein2016 #toosoon? #saviorcelebritiesdontdie
Aid digilantism examples such as Radi-Aid, Humanitarians of Tinder, and Barbie Savior are not “spur-of-the-moment decisions” like the “digilantism” strategies described by Jane: they are edited and thought-through approaches. Yet, research with young volunteers shows that pages like this – and the potential for judgment and chastisement – is affecting the ways that individuals think about how they represent their experiences on social media and what they post.
Photographing Humanitarian Work
In interviewing Gap Year students who went to Africa to volunteer, Schwarz found that they were very aware of what they should and shouldn’t post – “notably, imagery which might cast them as the type of ‘naïve do-gooders’ who are swept up in salvationist and paternalistic helping” falling in the latter category.
Participants spoke about avoiding ‘Gap Year stereotype’ and trying to police themselves to avoid negative feedback. One volunteer said: “I didn’t post anything publicly—maybe because—sorry I just really don’t like those blogs that—I don’t want to be like ‘oh, today I saved’—I don’t know.”
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The authors argue that their data shows “the willingness of participants to engage with the politics of representation, including questioning ‘who has the right to represent the Other and on what grounds and with what consent?'” However, they also note that their desire to share “ethical” picturing and posting practices can also be a way to protect their own image. Still, they conclude that digilantism by accounts such as Radi-Aid, Humanitarians of Tinder, and Barbie Savior are at least being taken seriously by UK-based international volunteers, for whom not committing the faux pas of being a “voluntourist” was a central concern, and that it has potential to help change representation of the distant ‘other’ even further.