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Elin Ersson sets in motion a new era of real-time online and offline activism

By Yair Oded

Jul 27, 2018

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Human rights

Jul 27, 2018

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When Elin Ersson, a 21 year old Swedish student, heard about the scheduled deportation of a refugee from Gothenburg back to Afghanistan via Turkey, she bought a ticket for the same flight on which the man was to be deported. Live-streaming herself on her phone, Ersson refused to get in her seat until the Afghan man was removed from the plane. “I’m not going to sit down until that person is off the plane,” says Ersson in the beginning of the video. When confronted by crew members and impatient passengers, Ersson responded by stating, “I don’t want a man’s life to be taken away just because you don’t want to miss your flight. All I want to do is to stop the deportation and then I will comply with the rules here… I’m trying to change my country’s rules. I don’t like them. You can’t send people to hell.” Though visibly emotional, and faced with mounting irritation of some passengers (one of whom attempted to steal her phone), Ersson maintained her composure and demanded that the pilot announce he will not take off as long as the Afghan man is on board, insisting that “the pilot can decide not to go. That’s his ultimate decision”. Ersson’s resolve inspired several other passengers, who stood up in solidarity. By the end of the video, the passengers are heard applauding as, following Ersson’s protest, the asylum seeker was taken off the aircraft.

In the days ensuing the incident, the video went viral. It received over four million views and tens of thousands of shares on Facebook. Ersson’s courageous act vibrated across the net and has earned her interviews with major media outlets, such as the Guardian.

Ersson is certainly not the first one to use real-time streaming as a means of drawing attention to a distressing occasion, nor is she the first to attempt halting deportation flights. Since the inception of the live-streaming feature on Facebook, countless videos from around the world were taken to document varying degrees of injustice: from salespeople providing subpar customer service, incidents of bigots spouting racial slurs in public to the capturing of horrid cases of police brutality and murder of innocent civilians by law enforcement agents. Thus, pulling out one’s phone and hitting the ‘record’ button on any of the social media channels (primarily Facebook) has evolved into an incredibly useful tool to share disturbing events with the world as they transpire and shine a spotlight on various social ills.

Yet, in a cyber ocean of footage depicting unjust behaviour, Ersson’s video sticks out, for she defies a certain passivity that is often associated with live-streaming. Ersson is not merely a bystander recording an event, but is rather a defining figure in the situation, taking proactive steps to intervene on behalf of a vulnerable person and challenge what she regards as a ruthless policy. All the while, she utilises social media as a megaphone echoing her call for justice—impacting not only the man she set out to save and the passengers on board, but all who tune in to watch her in action. This isn’t to detract from the importance of people documenting displays of immorality or abuse that they encounter or that is inflicted upon them; rather, it is a call for recognition of Ersson’s unique breed of protest—merging technology and real life action.

If there were ever a doubt as to whether virtual activism (commonly referred to as slacktivism) has the capacity to morph into physical activism (one that breaks through the contours of the web and is manifested in actual, measurable results), Ersson proves that the two can not only coexist, but amplify and augment one another. The potency of social media as a tool to congregate a group of people and bring about change has gone through its ups and downs, but it is precisely cases such as Ersson’s—where the method is refined to become more relevant, more powerful and even more successful—that remind us that for significant progress to occur in our era, online and offline actions must be exerted in conjunction.