Cecil the lion and the refugee crisis: The power of images in the information age

I’ve never quite understood the human reaction to crises. I often wonder what makes one tragedy more appalling to people than another. In this age of social media, we are fed countless shocking images from wars, natural disasters and genocides and it makes me question what makes us pay attention to one image over another.

A few weeks ago, every time I logged on to Facebook, my newsfeed was filled with the image of a lion. It seemed that, on this occasion, the image that had so captured the public’s attention was that of an innocent lion, shot dead for the sake of the kill and whose body was taken as a trophy. People seemed terribly shocked that this innocent being had been killed by a trophy hunter. Who could allow this to happen? We must stop it now. Everybody save the lions before they’re all killed by bloodthirsty American dentists!

It surprised me that people were posting and sharing images of poor old Cecil as if trophy hunting was a new craze that needed to be nipped in the bud. It didn’t surprise me, however, when, after a week of social media outrage, I stopped seeing pictures of the lion and all talk of terrible trophy hunters stopped. People realised that they couldn’t save all the lions by sharing posts on Facebook and Twitter and signing online petitions. Those one-off charity donations they made were long forgotten and the newsletter they signed up for was quickly rerouted to their spam folder.

However, my Facebook newsfeed wasn’t quiet for long. The image of the lion was replaced by another shocking image. This time it was that of a small child, whose limp body had been washed ashore after he and his family tried to sail to safety on one of the infamous refugee boats. Suddenly people were outraged about the plight of refugees. People took to the streets, some waited to welcome refugees at train stations and some donated all of their unwanted possessions to the people who had lost so much. As someone who has been involved in the refugee rights movement for the last few years, it was a strange thing to see. I received countless emails from people wanting to help, wanting to donate, asking what could be done.

I was overwhelmed by a sense of relief that finally society was paying attention to these people who desperately need our help. But I was also saddened that it took the image of a dead child to make people pay attention.

It made me consider how those animal rights activists must have felt a few weeks ago, after Cecil’s death. I can also imagine they felt the same bittersweet relief that finally people were ready to fight for their cause. I can imagine the sudden outpouring of support for their charities. But, unfortunately, I can also imagine the feeling of dismay when the media turned its attention to the next shocking image and people stopped being interested in their campaign.

In this age of information we are given the opportunity to inform ourselves about what is happening in almost every country in the world. It is amazing that we have a universal network that allows us to open up our eyes and see the things that must be changed. The downside is that this constant stream of information is breeding a generation of people who are easily bored and distracted. It is all too easy for us to express our opinions behind our computer screens and then move on to the next topic.

What I am asking is that, if you are getting involved in a campaign because you have been deeply affected by an image or a news report, don’t just give up as soon as it’s no longer trending on your Twitter feed. Go the distance; utilise social media as you see fit but, when it is time for practical solutions, close your laptop and put your smartphone away. If people used half of the knowledge they received from the internet and half of the time they spent on social media to make a change, then perhaps those images could serve to do more than just shock; they could act as a milestone in the fight for a better world.

Lorna Cannon has been living in Berlin for the past four years. She is a local tour guide and aspiring writer. She began her involvement in the refugee movement five years ago with Refugee Action in the UK and has since been working with GSBTB on refugee community projects for the last two years.

This piece was originally published on The Maybachufer.