In the first in a series of International Institute for Cultural Enquiry (IICE) podcasts, Professor Rob Gleave, the director of the Institute, speaks to Dr Elena Gadjanova and Dr Stacey Hynd about their Development Fund project ‘Whose Lives Matter’, which examines virality, ethics and scale in Humanitarian Campaigns in the digital age through a case study of #BringBackOurGirls. They discuss interdisciplinary co-working as a group of Africanists on this project, fieldwork and quantitative analysis in a COVID-landscape, big-data algorithms, influencer politics, conceptual vocabularies, response to changes in funding and much more.
Listen to the podcast episode ‘Dr Elena Gadjanova and Dr Stacey Hynd discuss their Development Fund Project ‘Whose Lives Matter’ here or read the full interview transcript below.
RG: Hello. You’re listening to a podcast from the International Institute for Cultural Enquiry, based at the University of Exeter. My name is Rob Gleave, and I am the director of the Institute. The Institute supports interdisciplinary teams of researchers working in cultural enquiry in their engagement with partner organisations outside of the University.
In this podcast, Dr Stacey Hynd of the Department of History discusses the project Whose Lives Matter?, and we’re also joined by Dr Elena Gadjanova of the Department of Politics. Together they’ve been looking at humanitarian campaigns, which ones get coverage and why some are more successful than others.
*I should add that normally we would be able to record these podcasts in the digital Humanities Studio on campus, but because of the current lockdown we’re doing this from our own homes with our own equipment so the sound quality may not be as we would like. Apologies for that but, in any case, I hope you enjoy her description of a complex, cutting-edge project using large data, as described by Elena, which sets to produce results which have direct policy implications for both government and those working in the aid sector. *
RG: Hello everybody. I’m joined today by Stacey who works in the College of Humanities. She was a recipient of one of our Development Fund [Project] grants, and the title of her project was Whose Lives Matter? Race, Gender and Childhood in (Post-)Humanitarian Campaigning at Global and Local Levels- A Case Study of #BringBackOurGirls. She was part of an interdisciplinary team, which we’re going to hear about in a second but, Stacey, if we start off with the question about the project…
Tell me a bit more about it and what its aims and objectives are.
SH: This project really aims to answer the question of why we care about some children in humanitarian campaigns and not others. So, for example, why, in 2014, was there this enormous outcry about the situation with the Chibok girls and their abduction by Boko Haram- with all the international, global media coverage, the millions of tweets, the support from Michelle Obama and Melania Trump whilst- at the same time- there was no similar outcry over known cases of abducted Nigerian boys, or over Yazidi girls sold into sexual slavery by ISIS, or very little concern over displaced or migrant children in Latin America?
Essentially, we are trying to identify why some issues become major global humanitarian campaigns and others don’t. What is it that makes some [humanitarian campaigns] so salient and ‘attractive’? Why does the international community and globalist, civil society care about some children while the suffering of others goes unremarked? What is the weight of the political, cultural and emotional calculus of concern which determines which children are judged befitting of rescue? Why do some campaigns succeed when others do not? And how does this concern and outrage among transnational civil society translate and turn into effective intervention? One of the things that we’re also interested in looking at is the relationship between this kind of global campaigning- particularly in the news, newscast and social media-heavy age- and local, grassroots-driven humanitarian campaigning around these issues.
We’re looking very much at the relationship between the global, like the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag campaign, and the work of sustained and committed advocacy from local Nigerian advocacy groups working on this issue as well. So that is what we are trying to do with this, and we are bringing together an interdisciplinary team from history, politics, sociology, and ethnography to kind of draw us all together. We are being very ably supported by a number of student interns as well, who are giving us the invaluable new perspective on these campaigns.
RG: What was it like putting together an interdisciplinary team, and what were the challenges and the benefits of doing that?
SH: This project emerged over a cup of coffee in the Amory Building Cafe one day between myself, Dr Elena Gadjanova (in politics) and Dr Sefina Dogo Aliyu (who is one of our earlier career colleagues). We very much wanted to find a way of working together as Africanists, because there aren’t too many of us in Exeter. This came out over a conversation on the work that I’ve been doing on the history of child soldiering in Africa, work Elena had been doing around social media campaigns and political campaigns in Ghana and, with Sefina, the work that she’d been doing around the Nigerian military and gender dynamics in Nigerian society.
We saw the immediate synergy between our work and decided to put a project application in together. We didn’t really find any major challenges in coming together to form this project. Perhaps this is because we are all from an African Studies background, so we’re quite used to working in this interdisciplinary way and we could all see and effectively communicate the benefits of the various methodologies that we wanted to bring to the project.
We were all clear about our own roles in the project: ‘here is what I’m going to do. I’m going to do historical, contextual, longer-term background, then Elena is going to deal with the social media and the more quantitative analysis, and Sophia is going to bring that really fine-grained, close analysis of kind of local qualitative interviews as well.’ So, we have the textual, we have the quantitative and we also have the oral side of things. For us, it worked really well to put this this application in together.
RG: Yes, I was going to ask about that. Because you’re all specialists or coming from an African Studies background… Do you think that it made the interdisciplinary co-working easier?
SH: I think it really did, yes. We’ve all been trained with those perspectives of mind. I think it is also the case that the methodologies between history, politics, and the kind of International Relations and ethnographic approach do just work well together anyway, so there wasn’t anything particularly problematic for us in terms of shaping and framing our project and agreeing our combined methodology.
RG: Great. We are going to hear from Elena in a moment about the actual technicalities of the data and how you coded it. But, you know, it’s been quite a year for people working on these development projects… we’re currently talking in March 2021 and, of course, this is one year on from the first national lockdown.
All the work that you were due to do was during this year when we’ve not been able to travel, and particularly fieldwork research has been very challenging…so how has covid impacted on the project?
SH: Covid has massively impacted on this project in in all dynamics to be honest. We originally intended to base this work very heavily around fieldwork in Nigeria, with Sefina taking on the majority of that. That was proven not to be possible, and unfortunately Sefina has now left academia aside to pursue an alternative career, so we’ve also lost the benefit of her expertise on this project and we are still trying to plug that gap and bring her in wherever we can.
So, we’ve been trying to find alternative ways of doing these qualitative interview methods and bringing in more and more student interns, potentially to help support that. I was supposed to be doing the archive-based side of things, including work in the UK and in Geneva, to look at the longer-term historical context of interventions around childhood in Nigeria. That has, thus far, proven impossible as well.
As Elena will explain, the main thing that is going ahead for us has been the coding of the social media data, and we’re looking to expand that dimension of the project to enable us to make some progress whilst lockdown and other restrictions remain in place for the time being. So, it’s been a real sharp learning curve; figuring out how to adjust this project, how to ensure that there are still some elements of it that are deliverable, thinking about how we can adapt and change, and where we can pull in more support to help us.
The one thing that we have really found invaluable has been the support of our student interns. We’ve hired a few undergraduate and postgraduate student interns to come and be involved in this project. It took quite a long time to get that set up and to get all the paperwork processed, but they are just fantastic, they really are. They bring in such good ideas and such commitment and energy to the project, and they’ve really helped re-shape the way that we think of the project and our aims, particularly regarding how we think about communicating our outputs in the future. So they have been the real stars of this project so far, as has Dr Lewys Brace in terms of the data management. He’s been phenomenal for this, and I feel like as a historian I’ve learned so much from working with him and Elena on the coding and quantitative side of things. It’s not often that historians work with tweets as their primary sources, so it’s been really interesting for me.
RG: That’s one of the things which comes from what you’ve been saying- how if you’re flexible enough and you have good staff in place, then it is still possible to get a significant chunk of work done even in difficult circumstances… there’s a lesson I think there for everyone to learn.
The final questions from me are: Where does this lead to? What do you think the next stage of the project will be? Because the development projects are always billed as leading to ongoing research, how do you see the next stage of this project panning out?
SH: So, for me in particular, this project was designed to run alongside another starter grant I hold with the GenExe seed funding to work with a colleague in Geneva on the broader histories of humanitarian interventions around children in Africa. So, for me, the plan is to put those two projects together, look at their outcomes, and develop that into an AHRC standard grant application – to the Arts and Humanities Research Council – around histories of humanitarian and human rights campaigning on children in modern Africa.
Elena and I are also thinking about developing this in a slightly different direction and pushing it more towards an AHRC-facing application. Of course a lot of this will depend on future funding around GCRF activities – that’s the Grand Challenges Research Fund – and how the post-Covid funding environment is realigned. So we’re trying to stay flexible for the moment, keeping on top of which new grants are being announced and trying to identify how we can frame this project going forward. Whether we need to think about, for example, whether we should frame this in terms of looking more at youth dynamics and looking at youth responses to crisis and global crisis rather than just looking at more classical children-focused and humanitarian campaigning. We’re trying to remain flexible, and responding to changes in the funding environment as well as planning for future grant applications there.
RG: Great, thank you very much.
So let me turn to you, Elena. You oversaw analysing or collecting a lot of the social media data associated with the campaign.
Could you explain to me what the process was whereby you collected the material for analysis?
EG: Sure, thanks Rob. We have a team of five coders, and we basically web-scraped all tweets that contained several key hashtags, such as #bringbackourgirls or #bbog or #chibokgirls, etc. and that rendered something like 40,000 tweets per year from 2014- so from the initial outrage around the kidnapping of the girls, until 2017 when they were actually released. And, so, we collected all that data and we categorised it by virality. So, for each year, we started with coding the social media posts that were the most retweeted and got the most attention, and we’re proceeding from there.
RG: So how many tweets were you dealing with overall, do you think?
EG: Over 100,000.
RG: That’s a huge amount of data to deal with. How did you go about deciding what how to code it and approaching those sorts of issues?
EG: We put together a team of incredibly talented coders who began coding thousands of tweets by hand. Building on the basis of their work, we are going to be using machine learning to develop an algorithm which would be able to automate the process and parsing process of the 10s of thousands more tweets after. So, the human coders are really creating the conceptual vocabulary, which we’re then going to train a machine algorithm to use in order to categorise and to classify further tweets.
RG: So the decisions have to be made by a researcher at the beginning of the process?
EG: Absolutely, so in carrying out the analysis, we’ve been drawing on approaches from a number of fields- from political communication, from media studies and social movements theory…
So, together as a team, we developed a conceptual vocabulary of some influential social media frames, and the attributes that they would possess in order to successfully increase issue salience and a vocal, powerful emotional response. That part is guided by what theory from different disciplines is actually telling us about what frames go viral and what is effective in mobilising emotions.
To give you an idea of what we’ve been looking at, we’ve been looking at messages that evoke negative emotions such as outrage or anger or frustrations. We’re also looking at messages that evoke empathy and seek to humanise the girls, and we’re looking at different sets of messages that portray them as victims worth saving. Some other sorts of really interesting categories of messages are those that are creating what’s called ‘issue linkages’ between the issue of #BringBackOurGirls to other issues that global online publics care about, such as good governance, anti-corruption, gender and humanitarian campaigning in general. And so that gives us different frames; a broader conceptual vocabulary which we are then applying to the social media posts to see how common different categories are and how they relate to each other.
RG: So, one of the interesting things about this campaign which you’re studying, is its scale. To what extent was the campaign international? To what extent was it local in terms of the Nigerian context? In terms of the data from the tweets, what are you finding out there?
EG: This is an interesting question. It’s going to be one of the central questions to actually understand: What is it that makes this kind of campaign go viral?
It could easily be that, well, the Chibok girls’ campaign is distinguished from others precisely because of the international attention it got, right, and so the analysis is still ongoing and it’s something that we’re going to be looking at, but what we can see by sort of tracing where the tweets are coming from is that it is gaining global traction, and some global influencers- people like Michelle Obama or others who get engaged with this like Malala [Yousafzai], for example; when they tweet, they really have outsized influence on the direction of a humanitarian campaign. And so, really, the larger question here is around how structural and positional power can determine which actors can have oversized influence on social media in the digital age.
RG: A campaign like this, if it gets a major international personality like Michelle Obama or Malala Yousafzai on board, then suddenly it facilitates the virality of the of the whole campaign?
EG: Absolutely, I think that is definitely something that is going to emerge from our analysis- something that we expect to see. Their attention to the campaign is outsized as well, because it also gets picked up by large media sources and it’s picked up across the world, right? They have huge followings, so it really makes it globalised, it makes it internationalised, and it just gives it that much extra weight.
We hope to be able to map the entire campaign on social media as something that was really successful from beginning to end, and that will hopefully teach us some really valuable lessons about successful framing strategies, a picture of the mix of framing strategy together with structural and positional power in humanitarian campaigns on social media in the digital age. I am certain that this research is going to inform a lot of practical lessons about how to potentially replicate this success.
RG: So how does all this research relate to the research you have done before you embarked on this project?
EG: I have always been really interested in the analysis of political rhetoric, or rhetoric in in general; I’m fascinated by the power of words to mobilise, for better or worse.
In my other work, I study political communication is Sub-Saharan Africa, so I’m really interested in the use of ethnicity, and negative ethnicity in particular. You can see the connection between political speeches intended to rally ethnic groups for political action and potentially something that is trying to rally a global public to put pressure on the government to act.
RG: Great, well thank you very much, Elena, and thank you very much Stacey. We look forward to reading more about your project in the future.
EG: Thanks for having us, Rob.
RG: So that was Stacey and Elena and their project Whose Lives Matter. If you’re interested in any of the other projects, we have podcasts on them which can be accessed via the Institute website. And if you have any queries, please don’t hesitate to contact us. You can contact us via email at