Policy-makers should develop ‘vaccine’ against disinformation about migrants

A carve out for media in the EU’s Digital Services Act would leave a dangerous loophole in legislation that is desperately needed to tackle disinformation, writes Diana Wallis. [Shutterstock/Fishman64/Casimiro PT]

This article is part of our special report Media society and non-discrimination: Are we doing enough?.

You can also read this article in Romanian.

Instead of countering disinformation about migrants head on, communication professionals and decision-makers should promote alternative messages to undermine narratives sowing fear, a new study finds.

In a paper that looked at nearly 1,500 news articles that received the greatest engagement from Germany, Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic published between spring 2019 and July 2020, researchers found that instead of debunking false, manipulated, out-of-context or unverifiable information, “the goal should instead be to develop a ‘vaccine’ to disinformation, promoting the development of ‘antibodies’.”

According to the authors, “this can only be achieved by eliminating the root causes of disinformation’s appeal, while also promoting a healthier political discourse.”

The paper suggests that alternative messaging should be targeted at the “movable middle” people who do not hold beliefs on either extreme and, as previous research suggests, form the majority of the population in high-incoming countries.

At the same time, prior studies suggest that attitudes on migration tend to remain stable and it is hard for the narrative that narrative occupies the majority of public discourse to change.

However, the attitudes of youth, which are formed at an early age, are still malleable and up for grabs seeking to influence them.

“It is likely that the kind of media environment which younger generation are exposed today, will actually manifest itself in 10 years, 15 years time. That is why it is urgent to find solutions now, both from a communications perspective and, most importantly, also from a policy policymaking perspective,” said Alberto-Horst Neidhardt.

Mainstream media also has an important role to play, not only because it can be the platform to presenting an alternative narrative, but also because it is one of the carriers of disinformation.

15-25% of the most popular disinformation articles analysed by the researchers appeared in mainstream publications.

Disinformation narratives often present possible attitudes on migration as a binary choice – one is either a complete opponent or wants to open the floodgates.

“The reality is that we have a range of options available, and the fact that there is this polarisation makes it harder to reach a compromise and achieve more manageable and sustainable policies in this area, as well as in other other areas,” Neidhardt told EURACTIV.

“The lesson there for the media is that there is absolutely a demand for reasoned objective, accurate reporting, which doesn’t need to try and convince people that migration is a great thing, it’s wonderful, and there are no problems with it, that would be counterproductive, if anything,” said co-author Paul Butcher.

“But what I can do is try and reframe the debate away from disinformation narratives which are deliberately divisive, and that are based on misleading figures or distorted information,” he added

Besides conservative publishers who are more prone to present migration issues in a negative light, news outlets using a more sensationalist tone are often the sources of mainstream media publishing disinformation content.

“It seems that there are cases where a certain kind of claim first appears on the fringe side of things and is later picked up by mainstream media,” according to Butcher, who described the relationship between media and public opinion as a vicious circle.

“If the media thinks that they get more response from anti-migrant positions or stories, then they’re more likely to write more of them. And that will make people even more hostile towards migration.”

“Actors should be really careful in not contributing to giving further visibility to the disinformation narratives out there,” Neidhardt said.

Meanwhile, disinformation actors are pushing migration into public discourse by linking it to existing concerns, for instance by framing migrants and asylum seekers as COVID-19 carriers.

According to Neidhardt, “oftentimes disinformation actors are trying to simply divert the attention away from concrete issues and put the blame on migrants for everything that doesn’t work in society.”

“There is an appetite for a more balanced account and narration that, of course, doesn’t try to minimize the concerns [about migration and] doesn’t try to necessarily play down what are effectively problems, but also at the same time [attempts] to sort of break the link between existing concerns and migration.”

“Of course the communication side of things in one part of the story but there needs to be effective policy well to really resolve the kinds of concerns that make disinformation attractive,” Butcher added.

The study suggests that the overarching message or “metanarrative” should be broad enough to support the localised individual messages that seek an “entry point” where the messenger and their audience share a common ground.

One example of a successful campaign using such entry points was conducted in Upper Austria, in which people with a migrant background were posing with white compatriots, both wearing uniforms of service workers such as firefighters.

Such an approach, researchers say, speaks to citizens who value security and give more deference to authority while simultaneously presenting the valuable contribution migrants make to society.

The European Commission’s new guidelines, published on Tuesday (24 November), on migrant integration specifically mention the importance of tackling the distorted portrayal of migrants’ lives.

“Working with media representatives, education institutions as well as civil society organisations is key to better inform citizen in the EU about the realities of migration and integration,” the document reads.

The Commission is also set to publish its Democracy Action Plan next Wednesday (2 December) that will attempt to foster a digital ecosystem resilient to disinformation and is touted to include more support for the press and media literacy.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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