Writing on photography

Bad Marketing, Worse Journalism: A Follow Up on the ‘Instagram Migrant’

Now the dust has somewhat settled since this blog revealed a widely shared Instagram account purporting to belong to a Sengalese migrant was faked, I thought it would be good to return and extract some more salient points from the whole affair. I think this is important because those news outlets that have reported this story so far have done only that, they have reported the same set of facts (and some incorrect ones) but have not taken the time to dig deeper and question the problems this story highlights, or examine their own complicity in these problems.

First to flesh out what we have learnt since I published my original piece. We now know the rationale behind the fake account, it was createdto promote a Spanish photography festival which this year has the theme of travel. The festival hired a Spanish production company called Volga and a Barcelona based studio to create a mixture of stills and videos that would act as an advert for the festival and promote some debate about the role of photography in contemporary society.

On the one hand, mission accomplished for the marketers, this was a good example of (nearly) viral advertising which might have spread much further than it did if it hadn’t been debunked when it was. I had several discussions with my collaborator Amin Musa about how long to wait before publishing about it, but in the end decided to publish sooner rather than later in part because I thought it was a good idea to try and check the spread of the account before too many people saw and believed it. So yeah, good marketing, but in my view also irresponsible, exploitative and cynical marketing, which as I discussed in my original piece potentially undermines future attempts to highlight the plight of people travelling the dangerous route to Europe.

Those behind the account have already moved into what might be seen as a damage limitation stance in their interviews with major media. ‘”We were shocked to see it published,” Oriol Caba of Volga told Time. Although evidently not so shocked that the company thought twice about featuring a news report which treats the account as genuine on the landing page of their website. Tomas Pena, who took the photographs in and around Barcelona told the Huffington Post’s correction follow-up article that the project was about changing perceptions of migrants. Meanwhile Hagi Toure the Spanish handball player who posed as the migrant in the photographs has changed his Instagram account to private. Perhaps someone at least has learnt something from this.

So what are the important points to take from this affair? First of all that on some level African-European migration and the humanitarian and economic problems which cause it have become a way to advertise stuff, because that was at least part of the aim of this campaign. Perhaps it was also partly to raise awareness, but that opens up another issue in turn because what is as important as drawing public attention to a crisis is the way you do it. The fallout of a particularly strategy can easily do an amount of harm that outweighs whatever good you might claim came from the added focus. It’s difficult to quantify this in any subject, and I’m not arguing that’s what has happened here because it’s simply too early to tell how this will or won’t alter attitudes towards genuine migrants.

This whole saga was interesting to me from the start because for six months in 2014 I worked on a very similar photographic project which looked at the conflict in eastern Ukraine. It used Instagram to peddle a fictional narrative which was intended to draw attention to the basic commonalities between Russians and Ukrainians and to highlight the troublesome role of the media in perpetuating the conflict and some of myths that surround it. This work never saw the light of day because although I thought the point it had to make was an important one I couldn’t find a way to publish it which I felt was responsible and limited the many potentially dangerous of fictionalising a narrative around a current and contested event.

For me another salient point is that this affair makes journalism look pretty sick. Either laziness or overwork means journalists sometimes don’t interrogate sources or check facts as carefully as they should when it comes to sensitive issues, they publish and be damned with an eye more on the clock than on the accuracy, sensitivity or utility of articles. The need for click-bait headlines that will pull in viewers and generate revenue all too often over-rides the need for subtlety or caution in dealing with important topics. I see this first hand sometimes when I submit articles as a freelancer, as a carefully worded title gets rephrased into something designed to better appeal to online grazers, even if that title barely resembles the thrust of the piece beneath. The fact that some journalists are so desperate for cheap and easy click generating content in part explains how a fake campaign like this could even have garnered such attention in the first place.

The author of the original Huffington Post piece defended her article to me pointing out that they ‘didn’t take the photos at face value but rather reported that they were there’ but to me the lack of doubt in the article’s headline says it all. Likewise the follow up pieces by other sites screamed with hyperbolic words like fake, hoax, and but offered little analysis of what this means, sometimes resembling not much more than a cut, paste and reword of existing articles (including the erroneous claim that El Pais broke the story, which they did, but four hours after Disphotic). Amin and I both felt there was a desperate sense in many of these articles (and even in Huffington Post’s follow up article) to claim the scoop as their own, and to bury or not at all reference the original source of the debunking, us. For us it wasn’t so much about the credit, as about what this again says about the rush to publish first and process later, if at all.

All this has added pertinence because what I was originally going to publish yesterday (and which is now going to be published next Monday) was a piece on how algorithms are going to replace print journalists, particularly online. Writing this piece I had half a sense that this was far-fetched, that even if the technology was able to do this perhaps the need for such a change didn’t exist. But this affair has provided me with pretty much all the evidence I need to reason that journalism as we widely know it suffering a rot, and is due a great renewal.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


Leave a Reply to Count_Christoph Cancel reply

  • thanks for the follow-up article Lewis. I must say the original one really got me thinking again as to what a difficult world we live in. I’m pretty cynical but still believed that story!

  • Well done again. Journalism becomes churnalism yet again. The agencies involved should hang their heads in shame.

  • Your discussion reminds me of Benetton, the company which advertisements used sometimes horrific photos of real social problems and people in dire situations. They were used for commercial gains.

Writing on photography