On June 28, 2014, an estimated 243 refugees piled onto a boat in Libya headed to Italy–and they were never heard from again.
It’s certainly not the first time a large vessel carrying scores of passengers has disappeared. In March of last year, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 seemed to vanish without a trace, setting off a media blitz of coverage. So far that has not been the case for the 243 refugees whose fates remain unknown.
Recently, refugees from war-ravaged regions in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have flooded European shores in dramatic numbers: a recent figured clocked 381,000 displaced men, women, and children seeking asylum in Europe–but those are just the documented people.
The refugee crisis is riddled with blind spots, unbelievable peril, and often gross indifference, which is why earlier this month a team at blog platform Medium took it upon themselves to try and find out what happened to those 243 passengers aboard what they’ve dubbed the Ghost Boat. Medium, however, isn’t going it alone: The Ghost Boat-seeking crew is enlisting the help of the public to contribute in any way possible: positing theories, sifting through records, analyzing documents–anything.
“I’m extremely interested, and have been for several years, in trying to tell a story about the refugee crisis,” says Bobbie Johnson, a senior editor at Medium, and one of the primary editorial forces behind the series. “As we developed the idea it became apparent to me that the best way to get people to really engage with it was to get them to engage with it. The more complicated the story became, the sort of straightforward narrative treatment of it became trickier. I realized we could kind of invert the story to some degree and make the problems part of the telling.”
Journalist Eric Reidy is leading the Ghost Boat coverage, with in-depth feature stories contextualizing the refugee crisis at large and using the war-torn country Eritrea and a young man whose wife and child are among the missing as the narrative thread.
Reidy has filed three features (a fourth is due out Wednesday), each ending with a call to action to readers. Johnson admits it’s been a slower effort than he hoped.
“In an ideal world, I’d want tens of thousands of people to be swarming all over the stuff,” he says. “I would say it’s 10 to 20 people who are heavily engaged with it. I’m learning a lot about how you do a crowdsourcing project and what motivates people and what drives them to move from inaction to action.”
- EPISODE 1: “243 People Disappeared. Young People. Women. Children. And No One Cares”
- EPISODE 2: “Hello Father, The Boat is Sinking, So I Will Die.”
- EPISODE 3: The Secret Mass Graves of the Refugee Crisis
One of those active participants has been Ross Whiteford, a business analyst in Toronto who says he stumbled upon the story while on Medium and found himself deeply curious, despite the fact that he generally avoids commenting on stories.
“I usually try and stay away from discussion boards because you tend to end up with people arguing about stuff. But this is different because it’s such a human story,” Whiteford says. “People may have lost their lives or disappeared, which makes it more captivating in a way. So the enjoyment of it is thinking of ways in which to help. I’m no expert on any of the issues they’re discussing, but you feel in some way you’re helping a little bit.”
Whiteford says the amount of time he’s dedicated to the Ghost Boat has escalated from a few minutes of digging during breaks at work to spending four to five hours on the weekend going over incident reports that might correlate with the timeline of when the Ghost Boat set sail or researching human traffickers involved in transporting refugees along a similar route.
The Ghost Boat team includes specific assignments along with its updates of what they want everyone to zero in on. For example, a recent “weekend task” asked participants to rally around navigational landmarks along the Mediterranean Sea:
We’ve been told by locals that refugees sailing from Libya use lighthouses, oil rigs, and other brightly lit objects near the shore to help them navigate. If we know where those things are located, we can find out what route the Ghost Boat might have taken.
So we’re currently making a spreadsheet of lighthouses, oil platforms, and other offshore objects in Libya and Tunisia. Can take five minutes to hit Google, Wikipedia, or other sources, and help us add to it?
As dedicated as Whiteford and other citizen journalists have been in helping with the Ghost Boat search, the team at Medium needs more eyes on the case to handle the sheer scope of the project. Johnson attributes low participation rates, in part, to information overload.
“When we started we pushed a bunch of information into the public domain that we had and were like, ‘If you’re interested in maps, you could go down this route. Or if you’re interested in the law you could go down this route.’ But in fact that gave people too many choices,” Johnson says. “The thing that I’ve learned so far is that it works when you’re extremely specific and extremely small in your requests from people. We’ve seen more movement when we’re asking, ‘Can you look at this one thing?’”
And that is what Daren Brabham, assistant professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, says is the key to crowdsourcing journalism.
“The more narrow and clearly defined the problem or the smaller the scope, you can focus the crowd to get [it] working productively on something,” he says.
Delivering broad tasks to your community is only part of the problem with crowdsourcing journalism–the real danger can come from false tips, as evidenced in the immediate wake of the 2013 . Reddit users, who often provide helpful, breaking news information, falsely pinpointed Brown University student Sunil Tripathi as a suspect. If that wasn’t bad enough, Tripathi was later found dead after he’d gone missing a month before the bombing.
Granted, Reddit isn’t solely to blame for the vitriol wrongly endured by the Tripathi family–media outlets, including BuzzFeed and NBC News, also fanned the flames of misinformation. But as Brabham points out, incidents like this can create an unsavory perception of crowdsourced journalism.
“I have a lot of faith that the model is working,” Brabham says. “As much as professions tend to be threatened by crowdsourcing, I think actually this emphasizes the need for the professional journalist to exist even more because they act as a maestro where they’re conducting this orchestra of sources and energy.”
As one of the maestros of the Ghost Boat series, Johnson isn’t faced with the aggressive speed of a breaking news cycle or vetting mass amounts of users–he’s dealing with how to make people care about the refugee crisis beyond sharing a story on social media or dismissing it altogether.
“I’m not diminishing the act of sharing–that’s really important,” he notes. “You look at the refugee crisis and it’s a huge fucking problem–way too big for any of us to deal with individually or make a difference in. Most of us turn to something simple like donating to charity or attending a meeting or rally. So the hypothesis was what if you could transfer that into something that could make a very tangible difference to the lives of everyone involved in the boat?”
On a deeper level, what’s holding back Medium’s ambitious, commendable project, and holding back proactive solutions from Europe and other parts of the world is a pervasive lack of empathy.
“It’s interesting how it takes a photo of a dead toddler on a beach to make people care. There are thousands and thousand of human beings going through tremendous, difficult, horrific things every single day and the West can’t relate to that somehow,” Johnson says. “When the Air Malaysia flight goes down, we’ve all had that moment when you’re on a plane and you think, ‘My God, what if this is the last thing I ever do?’ We can’t all relate to being so desperate that you will take your child on a packed boat in which the journey is so deadly that dozens of people will die. Not being able to relate to something doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t empathize or understand what drives people to it.”
There is, potentially, good news on the horizon. A recent update on Medium hints at a breakthrough in the case:
The last few weeks of the Ghost Boat project have been pretty grim reading: Sinking boats, dead ends, and now the discovery of mass graves where refugees bodies are dumped. But finally–maybe–we think we have a ray of hope that may help us discover whether the occupants of the Ghost Boat are, in fact, alive. We can’t share much now… it’s incredibly sensitive stuff. But the next installment is going to explain precisely what’s going on: Watch out for it on Wednesday.
UPDATE (MONDAY, 10/26/15, 5:30 PM): Leading up to Medium’s Wednesday installment with a potential breakthrough in the Ghost Boat project, Johnson had this bit of information to offer via email: “Early on, there was a mysterious phone call that suggested the occupants of the boat might be in a Tunisian jail. We have tracked down the source of that phone call and found out what he knows.” Johnson is referring to an incident in the first installment where a family member of one of the people onboard received a phone call from a person who claimed to be a prison guard, stating that the passengers on the Ghost Boat were being held in his jail in southern Tunisia. Johnson declined to go into greater detail on Monday afternoon, and suggested more information would be disclosed on Wednesday.
UPDATE (THURSDAY, 10/29/15, 11:30 AM): The phone call that could have been a major breakthrough turned out to be a dead end. There were two possible leads stemming from the phone call: One from a man named Asaad who was deemed an unreliable source and another from a man named Riadh who called his father from a prison in Sfax, saying there were more than 150 sub-Saharan Africans in prison with him. However, after speaking with Riadh, it became clear that the version of his story didn’t match the timeline of the Ghost Boat. We’ve reached out to Bobbie Johnson at Medium for more information on the call and reporting this newest installment of the series–we’ll update the story again when we have more details to share.