Bana al-Abed, a 7-year-old Syrian girl, has used her Twitter account to bring attention to the suffering of the people of Aleppo. With the help of her mother, an English teacher, Bana has tweeted about airstrikes, hunger, injury and death in the sieged Syrian city.
The account quickly came under criticism. Although queries about the existence of Bana and her family were discounted, her mother has been accused of using Bana for propaganda reasons – especially due to tweets about Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.
Whilst some have expressed disdain for this ‘propaganda’ technique, others have shown solidarity, arguing that even if the tweets are not genuine, the suffering in Aleppo is, and so disputing the authenticity or morality of the account is of little importance.
People will have differing reactions to the moral and ethical questions raised by this. Whilst most will surely agree that it’s terribly sad that a young girl should experience the horrors of war in her daily life, they will disagree about whether it is ‘right’ that her face should come to represent a political message about war. Bana has, essentially, become the face of a campaign to put pressure on Assad and Putin to end the bombing of Aleppo. The response to the young girl’s Twitter account shows that the public is unsure of where this is OK.
In our class last week, we discussed the ostensible absence of a go-to code of ethics for campaigners. We looked at a Code of Conduct ‘Decision Tree’ from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, UN Women’s guidelines for adhering to ethics in campaigning, and the International Public Relations Association’s Code of Conduct. Although each can be helpful when approaching ethical dilemmas in campaigning, none serve as comprehensive manuals for the morally-challenged activist.
According to Fitzpatrick and Bronstein (2006, p. 2), people often consider that “ethics begins where law ends.” Whilst law is about what people must do, ethics are about what people should do. But in reality, it’s not so simple. Ethics inform law and laws inform ethics. Furthermore, when it comes to campaigning, we may feel that some ‘unethical’ practices should be illegal, but in reality, they come down to questions of taste and preference (e.g. using images which evoke fear or guilt, or that vilify groups or individuals).
Fitzpatrick and Bronstein (Ibid., p. 76) highlight that when campaigning for things we are passionate about, “the temptation to do or say whatever is necessary to draw attention to an issue can prevail, even if it means overstepping the boundaries of responsible advocacy.” Is it responsible to allow a young girl to become a voice and face of a deeply complicated and destructive conflict? Or is the means worth the end if it brings home the reality of daily suffering to a wider audience?
Bana illustrates the complexity of this issue. Are there right or wrong answers to these questions? Can a comprehensive guide to ethics in campaigning exist? It is very hard to draw lines about right and wrong when it comes to issues that have already long surpassed most people’s feelings of what is unethical, immoral, wrong. Is all fair in love and war?
Bronstein, C., and Fitzpatrick, K., 2006. Ethics in Public Relations: Responsible Advocacy. London: Sage.