Heliotrope

Dr Maria Kyriakidou

STORIES

It is a testament to her feelings for Cara that Greek media scholar, Dr Maria Kyriakidou agrees to a conversation about her work amidst a busy afternoon, which includes catching a flight to Andalusia. An array of fascinating subjects emerge in the brief encounter. She talks about the recent pandemic and work spent analysing the different and competing lockdown rules, the reporting from the ICUs, the nightly fact-checking and conspiratorial fantasies, and the genuine political and socioeconomic upheaval which swept the world. “We felt everything from then on would be about covid,” Kyriakidou recalls. “It was such a big moment for media coverage for public service broadcasting and for misinformation; everyone was watching the BBC and was also on social media. Part of our research was how people and different communities understood misinformation. People didn’t know what to believe. It was a very frightening time, but in the end, even researchers got a bit bored with it.”  

Restless, perhaps, because, in the past 20 years, Kyriakidou’s work constantly swivels to capture the revolutions in communication, tracking how the media communicates or obfuscates stories, and how we as its audience, navigate mediated encounters with one another; how we build honest relationships and discern meaning from accounts of the human condition in a globalized, interconnected world disoriented by catastrophic social and natural upheaval.

She describes herself as a migrant academic who grew up in northern Greece close to the border of Turkey and Bulgaria. She did her undergraduate work in Athens, and when she finished her studies, discovered she didn’t have a plan. “I couldn’t imagine myself doing normal work.  I thought I would apply for a scholarship and one thing led to another and I ended up being an academic. It was just random.” She got a scholarship to do her postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics and upon its completion ended up finding ground in the UK, making her life here, first getting a job at the University of East Anglia, then settling into her current appointment at Cardiff, a famous port town with a long history of successive waves of global seafaring migrants, where she feels embraced as an academic.

Seated in her sunny flat, in a city she thinks of as home, she feels she has been afforded the space to work on issues that bring her genuine satisfaction. “I like being an academic; the job suits me. You meet interesting people. As a woman and as a migrant in British academia, I have never been judged. I spoke, made my mistakes in English and nobody cared. My colleagues don’t care. My students don’t care. It’s an open space. As a woman, I never felt that I was victimised, at least not in my field!”

Cardiff University, which has “university of sanctuary status”, has a longstanding relationship with Cara, but Kyriakidou found out about working with Cara through one of her colleagues involved in a project with a Syrian academic. Now, at the mention of Hala Mulki, she smiles broadly, shakes her head in admiration, and says simply, “She is fire! She is brilliant.” and about her first time working with Cara, she says, it is “one of the best decisions I have ever made.” 

It was a project on disinformation that brought Maria Kyriakidou and Dr Hala Mulki, a Syrian data scientist living in Turkey, together on her first Cara-sponsored research project. They began working during the pandemic, over Zoom, analysing over 30 thousand tweets from Turkish Twitter about Syrians. The amount of vitriol against refugees was eye opening. Disinformation, she concedes, has long been around in politics, but post-Trump and Brexit, its growth has coincided with the rise of digital media and the use of such media by politicians, who have become more savvy in using social media, and who bypass journalists, tweeting their opinions directly. “We never thought disinformation would affect politics with a capital P and now it has, but we are also exaggerating our fears. We shouldn’t be so afraid of digital media because I don’t think the public is so easily duped. And at the same time, we worry so much about politicians lying to us, and yet we still allow disinformation about refugees to go unchallenged. We only focus on specific types of disinformation and not others, and in that respect, I thought the work that Hala and the team did was interesting because they showed how disinformation against refugees also links to cultural politics and parliamentary politics. She had all the data.” Kyriakidou explains that their experience delving into social media together using AI was a novel and data-driven experience: “She is an interesting case of a computer engineer, who has the willingness and the brain to move towards social science and combine both.  Her work, her interests, her focus really fits in with social sciences and the humanities, but her empirical and research skills are engineering and data science. She is a kind of a unicorn. These are the academics that we are really looking for.”  

Kyriakidou had not expected to encounter such resonance on her first Cara mentoring project. She had been prepared to offer her expertise in publishing academic papers. Everyone in academia knows there are power asymmetries, that one has to deal with. Conforming to western academic rules, particularly longstanding European rules around publishing, is one such asymmetry. But publishing is only one way to collaborate. Syrian academics face many barriers: “They want to lecture, do research. So many who have found work in academia face prejudice and sometimes they do more work than their counterparts. Some of them are forced to leave academia and to get another job that will help them financially. In general, there is no visibility outside Syria or Turkey and that is why I think Cara is so important. You go to conferences on the media, and you see Scandinavians, Americans, Europeans, mainly Western Europeans, no Syrians. It is not only their visibility in the broader academic world, but it is also very important to make their work known outside Syria through publishing. Of course, if you ask an academic, most of them would like to go back and work in Syria, but for most it is impossible. For some it is survival. These are fully equipped academics like anybody else, but they have been just so unlucky.”

Kyriakidou initially thought of herself as useful, but now she thinks of Mulki, who will soon take up a remote Cara-related research fellowship at Cardiff University as a fellow travelling academic and wants to see her and others flourish. Beyond their shared interests in global affairs and identities, both are fiercely bright, deep thinkers and feminists, both think about the importance of information and its uses and misuses and are driven by a moral imperative to speak and write about the media.

Kyriakidou’s body of work contributes to a body of literature on the mediation of “distant suffering” in media representation–how we relate to the human suffering we watch on the screen, whether it is something distant or close by and how disempowering or informative it is for the ordinary citizen. Her publications cover the refugee crisis in Greece and crises such as the Indonesian Tsunami in 2004, and Hurricane Katrina and the Kashmir earthquake in 2005. “A lot of the literature says audiences cannot feel empathy or have compassion fatigue and therefore, cannot relate. I think people do relate but they feel powerless, not only because this is far away but, as citizens, they feel that their decisions have no impact upon their own lives, let alone other peoples’. This powerlessness means sometimes people choose to switch off or become susceptible to easy and totalising narratives. “It’s the government that needs to do things and it’s the more powerful who need to change. Policies need to change a crisis that is much bigger than simply giving money to alleviate its symptoms.” 

She thinks that a lot of responsibility lies with the media. “We saw that with the comparison with Syrian refugees and Ukrainian refugees. The media told us that this sad and horrific disaster is happening to people like us. Syrians are also people like us, but their story was presented as one of those things that happen during violent conflict in those faraway places, in those countries. So, the media constructs Syrians as others and Ukrainians as people like us. And we did see this as the way the public reacted in the way they opened their homes.” The experience of working with Cara is one way to challenge powerlessness and to rediscover solidarity. “We watch and read news and we tend to think of suffering as something that happens to other people, to victims who live in bad buildings, who live in poor areas, who are victims of war and disaster of conflict and violence, so to meet academics who are just like us, highly educated, but who have gone through so much, was eye opening. We finally met last March [2022] at a Cara meeting in Istanbul. There was a snowstorm, but we loved it so much. I really loved it. It was so great, hearing people’s stories and understanding their experiences.”