Avoiding the Trap

How Social Media Posts reproduce neo-colonial clichés – and how tourists can do better

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Travelling is a core element for an open-minded society, intercultural exchange and empathy for each other all around the globe – but all this cannot be taken for granted. On their journeys to the Global South, tourists from Europe and North America risk to unknowingly reinforce stereotypes about other countries. Videos, pictures and hashtags on social media catalyze the spreading of outdated, neo-colonal clichés.

Problem or pro bono?

A white Barbie with a black child in her arms is visibly delighted. The caption says: “Orphans take the BEST pictures. So. Cute. #whatsyournameagain”. This is one of many posts of the Instagram account Barbie Savior starring a Barbie hunting for the perfect savior-selfie in the slums of Africa. The satirical profile is parodying the so called “voluntourism”. Many travel agencies use the trend of volunteering abroad as a business model to place people in pnefit from rojects that barely bethe high travel expenses and at the same time cause severe damage on site due to unqualified tourists trying to help. 

Barbie Savior reacts directly to volunteers generating likes and self-affirmation on their social media channels by presenting poverty. The women behind Barbie Savior are two young Americans who have been volunteering in Africa themselves. Though Barbie Savior is making fun about voluntourists, there is more to it than meets the eye. Behind all the laughter and humor the account aims to prompt a discussion about the behavior of volunteers in their guest countries – online AND offline. It therefore addresses young people without qualifications who believe they can teach African children or convert poachers just because they are from the Global North like it’s #stillenoughforafrica.

Social media guide for holiday snapshots

A thoughtless social media post can anchor stereotypes. This applies not only to voluntourists but to tourists in general. It may come as a great disappointment to realize that many holiday destinations are already shaped by globalization and the Starbucks around the corner looks just like the one in Wisteria Lane back home. All the more, long haul travelers to the Global South try to give their holidays an “authentic touch”. However, this attempt turns out badly in most cases when tourists use poverty as the setting and locals as exotic extras for their “ghetto safari”. 

But there is good news: we can all do better. Language and images can even support overcoming neo-colonial prejudices and contribute to explain complex situations to a broad public. The Initiative RADI-AID helps to share appropriate content in social networks. The initiative of the “Norwegian Students' and Academics' Assistance Fund (SAIH)“ first started with a satirical music video. “RADI-AID: Africa for Norway” is a parody on fundraising videos like “Do they know it’s Christmas” and makes fun of the misconception of the Global North assuming Africa has to be saved by foreigners. The black students turned the tables and led the excesses of charity culture ad absurdum. Ever since, RADI-AID annually awards the best and worst fundraising videos for development projects to raise awareness for the constant reproduction of stereotypes about Africa. 

Four guidelines for cliché-free content

RADI-AID’s social media guide for volunteers and travelers shows how to communicate the world with a special focus on representations of Africa. Just like Barbie Savior, RADI-AID criticizes how neo-colonial clichés are shared but at the same time the initiative has some good advice on how to avoid the social media trap:

  1.  Show respect – promote dignity 
    Respecting the country you are visiting is the key for appropriate content. Learn about traditions and adequate behavior before you are starting your trip. Make sure you are not using words and generalizations when you talk about locals and their living conditions. Avoid propagating stereotypes but promote the dignity of the people you interact with when you refer to your holidays on social media. 
  2. Ask for permission
    People are not tourist attractions and may only be portrayed with informed consent. Sharing inadequate pictures online is not only often depriving the dignity of the people portrayed but also reproduces neo-colonial clichés like the “noble savage”. Take specific care when it comes to children: never take photographs of kids in dirty or ragged clothes or even naked. Before sharing photographs online make sure you have the consent of both, the parents as well as the child.
  3. Question your own intentions
    Even good intentions, such as raising funds for charity, never justify depriving anyone’s dignity. Therefore, question your own intentions before volunteering in another country. Can you really make a difference or are you just doing it for your CV? Are you qualified for what you are planning to do? Did you get informed about traditions and culture in advance? These questions are important to get your experiences on site sorted and share nuanced stories on social media. 
  4. Challenge stereotypes 
    Even if a situation may leave you speechless: never tell your followers a one-sided story about poverty to gain sympathy. Rather use images to highlight unique features. Language is a powerful instrument to challenge clichés. Therefore chose captions and hashtags that enhance the feeling of solidarity.  

If you want take great holiday pictures focus on unique landscapes, delicious food, sightseeing and fascinating encounters with locals. Those are always worth a post! Please find the whole

Lea Thin is a Berlin-based geographer and journalist. In her work she focuses on issues around sustainability, gender, climate and development policy.