Researchers at Sheffield University have analysed nearly 3m posts which appeared in the wake of the first publication of the photograph in September.
The team said initial postings by a handful of journalists soon went viral with 53,000 tweets per hour — a social media storm which saw a transformation of the language around what was happening in Europe, with uses of the word ‘refugee’ suddenly outstripping ‘migrant’.
Farida Vis, director of Sheffield University’s Visual Social Media Lab, said: “As soon as we saw the image and the response, we felt that something extraordinary was happening.
“We wanted to measure the impact these images have had on the wider public debate about the status of migrants and refugees.
"Our analysis clearly shows that this story not only engaged a global audience, but that it changed the way social media users talked about the issue of immigration.
“We show how a handful of tweets by journalists on the ground grew into a staggering 53,000 tweets per hour as interest in the story went viral.”
Vis and her team used data provided and analysed by the lab’s private sector partner, Pulsar.
Francesco D’Orazio, vice-president of product and research at Pulsar, said: “For most of 2015, the use of the words migrants and refugees was head to head in public conversation, accounting for pretty much the same volume over nine months — 5.2m tweets versus 5.3m tweets.
“From September 2 onward, this radically flipped. The numbers swing dramatically towards a clear focus on refugees — 2.9m tweets and 6.5m tweets.
“Twitter’s ability to act as a catalyst has connected emerging stories and relevant people, helping to develop and connect those audiences on a global scale and make a story go mainstream before the international press has even started to officially cover it.”