Information Precarity and Surveillance

6 minutes to read
Sukran Ceren Salali


In the age of digitalization, social media play a tremendous role; not only as a way to communicate or to entertain, but also as a platform hosting any kind of solidarity with people who somehow have a common mission, by letting others know about the urgent needs of their fellows. In this essay, we discuss how social media are used as a way for asylum seekers to find the safest routes while leaving their home country to reach Europe as well as how they, as social media users, are exploited through control mechanisms. 


The threat of surveillance is already there for many years by power mechanisms controlled by states of highly fenced and bordered Europe.


The mixed blessing of social media

As it is mentioned in the interviews we conducted with asylum seekers, social media are considered as useful by them to find the safest routes to reach Europe as well as to communicate and to help each other’s needs during their journey. However, there are advantages and disadvantages that come with this kind of online solidarity between asylum seekers. Although cell phones give access to social media platforms and applications that provide information and aid, there is also a negative side.  These apps and networks can also be exploited by state apparatuses and other institutions to gather detailed information about asylum seekers. They can function as instruments of surveillance, or the needs of the refugees can be exploited by fake accounts, human traffickers and hackers. The threat of surveillance is already there for many years by power mechanisms controlled by states of highly fenced and bordered Europe.

According to the report written for the Index of Censorship by Jason DaPonte, who is the former editor of BBC mobile and the founder of The Swarm, “asylum seekers are using technology to stay in touch with their families despite being thousands of miles away, but there are security risks” (DaPonte, 2015). As is discussed so far, social media platforms and mobile phone applications serve as important media and support asylum seekers in many cases, however, these platforms and applications keep personal information of asylum seekers and their location, with the possibility of the information becoming public.  

Personal information may be used by state and other control apparatuses as a part of surveillance as well as by people who want to abuse asylum seekers. Also, information precarity, “a term referring to the condition of instability that asylum seekers experience in accessing news and personal information, potentially leaving them vulnerable to misinformation, stereotyping, and rumors that can affect their economic and social capital” (Wall, Campbell & Janbek, 2015), is another concern when it comes to the use of social media by asylum seekers. 

Some asylum seekers are more likely to rely on what they read in social media groups, where there are people whom they trust more than people who inform them in the asylum seeker camps or any other channels in order to have relevant information about the effects of the war back home. However, as Wall, Campbell and Janbek (2015) found out during their research at Za’atari camp, there are also asylum seekers who do not even trust the information they see on Facebook. For instance, an asylum seeker told them that she does not trust information that comes from Facebook (Wall, Campbell & Janbek, 2015) and rather prefers to use mobile phones and to talk with friends and relatives to be sure about the news.

The smuggler asked for a very high price and insulted and kicked them many times in the boat before they arrived in Greece.

Wall, Campbell and Janbek (2015) mention that asylum seekers experience precarity in five forms: technological and social access to information; the prevalence of irrelevant, sometimes dangerous information; lack of their own image control; state surveillance; and disrupted social support. 

The mixed blessing of social media use proves that no matter how practical social media platforms and applications are, asylum seekers become vulnerable to any kind of security risks. Also, some of the social media platforms are used by smugglers for advertisements, so that they can reach more asylum seekers to earn money from.

Interestingly, the Syrian asylum seeker who is interviewed by us mentioned that his first reason to use Facebook was to get in touch with the smuggler in order to take a boat from Turkey to Greece. This is also discussed in an article in Business Insider UK: "The only part of the journey that most migrants still pay traffickers for ... is the crossing from Turkey to Greece," writes Matthew Brunwasser, because "many migrants now feel able to make the rest of the journey on their own with a GPS-equipped smartphone and without paying traffickers." Our interviewee also said that the smuggler asked for a very high price and insulted and kicked them many times in the boat before they arrived in Greece. 

Another experience is shared by the other asylum seeker we interviewed. He speaks about keeping in touch with asylum seekers who already arrived in Europe so that they could give contact information of smugglers they themselves used when they left Syria. Based on this, he mentioned that an exponentially growing network is constructed through the social media use of asylum seekers especially in cases of finding smugglers to take boats from Turkey to Greece.

Dealing with information precarity

The threat of surveillance and information precarity obliges many asylum seekers to use fake names on their social media accounts and to use a secret and coded language both online and on the phone. It is not surprising to see sentences such as “The Department of Homeland Security is building tools to more aggressively examine the social media accounts of all visa applicants and those seeking asylum or refugee status in the United States for possible ties to terrorist organizations” as well as ‘border agency Frontex has asked for designs for smartphone apps and databases to track and manage asylum seekers arriving in Europe’ on the news reports. 

"If I say something against the regime or give out too much information, then the Syrian mobile phone gets disconnected."

For instance, as a proof of state surveillance, Wall, Campbell and Janbek mention that one the asylum seeker interviewed by them noted that “If I say something against the regime or give out too much information, then the Syrian mobile phone gets disconnected.” (Wall, Campbell & Janbek, 2015). Also, they indicate that “asylum seekers gave numerous examples of using coded language with their relatives back home such as there had been a “heavy rain” back in their hometown in Syria to indicate there had been bombing in the area” (Wall, Campbell & Janbek, 2015). Even though such ways work to keep them and their privacy safe to a certain extent, there is a possibility for governments and police to find information that can be tracked through IP (Internet Protocol) addresses and GPS (Global Positioning System) that provides one’s current location. At this point, a practical tool that works both online and offline and is frequently used by asylum seekers to find their safest route, Google Maps, turns into a tool providing information related to their change of location during the journey from Syria to Europe. 

What Ruben Andersson mentions in his article while discussing government and police control in Europe within the asylum seekers' crisis is very relevant to this situation in such a way that “the ‘industry’ of controls in Europe, then, is productive: it generates large rewards as well as new technologies, social relations, border realities, and roles for migrants and border workers” (Andersson, 2015). Within the rise of social media use of asylum seekers, new mechanisms and areas of control emerged in the industry of controls in Europe.

Facebook is recognized as a platform that has strong relations with control mechanisms.

As it is mentioned in the very beginning, Zuckerberg’s attempt to become a sponsor for free Wi-Fi (wireless internet) connection in several asylum seeker camps brings his action into question since Facebook is recognized as a platform that has strong relations with control mechanisms.

In many countries, it is known that social media platforms of immigrants are checked by the police during visa reviews. Considering the fact that nowadays Facebook and Twitter have been constantly banned in many countries because people use it as a platform for freedom of speech by voicing their opinion against certain actions of certain individuals, institutions, and governments, it is apparent that social media platforms of asylum seekers are tracked by state mechanisms, and, parallel with that, asylum seekers are one of the most vulnerable groups that may suffer from surveillance.



Andersson, R. (2015). The Illegality Industry: Notes on Europe’s Dangerous Border Experiment. In: The Border Criminologies, Themed Blog Series on the Industry of Illegality.


DaPonte, J. (2015). Clear connections: How social media’s power is being harnessed by refugees. Index on Censorship, 44(1), 26-30.


Wall, M., Campbell, M. O., & Janbek, D. (2015). Syrian refugees and information precarity. new media & society, 1, 15.