Online disinformation targeting refugees and NGOs working with them acts as a “crucial nexus” between extremist far-right figures and mainstream politicians, a study has found.
A report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) examining the online communities in which anti-refugee disinformation was spread throughout 2020 has found significant overlap between established political parties and personalities, and fringe actors and conspiracy theorists.
The research also finds that elected officials have played a role in amplifying anti-refugee disinformation and hatred in a number of countries and that NGOs working with refugees and migrants have come under fire from conspiracy theorists and disinformation.
Last week (13 July), a hearing of the European Parliament’s Special Committee on Foreign Interference (INGE) examined the impact of this kind of disinformation on discrimination against different minority groups within the EU, including migrants. Narratives about the COVID-19 pandemic, it was heard, have accelerated the targeting of these communities.
“The fact that it’s a very diverse field in terms of actors, in terms of tools and methods is partly why it’s really difficult to cope with disinformation” and complicates efforts to tackle it, Éva Bognár, a researcher at the Central European University’s Centre for Media, Data and Society who presented research at the hearing, told EURACTIV.
When it comes to devising responses to disinformation, she said, the focus is often on state action, but this can be “highly problematic for the reason that, in some cases, the state is not a benign actor.”
The ISD report, which examines the shaping and spread of anti-refugee narratives throughout 2020, found that clusters of accounts within the networks sharing disinformation about refugees contained both mainstream political and far-right extremist accounts, across different languages and countries in the EU.
While the ISD notes that their analysis doesn’t show that these parties necessarily support extremist activity, it “demonstrates how online support networks for political parties bleed into extremist ecosystems.”
In some cases, however, political figures associated with, for example, Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), were identified as having engaged in this kind of activity to promote or fuel anti-refugee hatred and disinformation.
Villads Zahle, senior communications coordinator at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, told EURACTIV that this was indicative of a broader trend of “fringe positions that have now transformed into what we call mainstream political debate.”
He noted that the inclusion of misleading and increasingly securitised language in more mainstream press, political and policy discussions dehumanises and poses a very real danger to people on the ground.
“This kind of approach legitimises and informs the violence and abuse that we are seeing at the borders of Europe”, he said.
He also cited as an issue the algorithms used by social media platforms. Recent calls for increased transparency when it comes to algorithms have caused divisions among EU lawmakers.
Targeting of NGOs
NGOs were also found to feature heavily in the online networks studied, where they are often the subject of conspiracy theories. Narratives depicting advocacy and aid groups as, for instance, people smugglers, have led to widespread hostility towards these organisations both on and offline.
Zahle told EURACTIV that the implications of this kind of discourse can be seen “at the highest level of policies, where you’ve got a technical version of this dehumanisation.”
This is particularly so, he said, in cases where civilian search and rescue vessels running operations to assist refugees and migrants in distress on the Mediterranean have been seized by authorities or have seen their crews prosecuted.
A UN report earlier this year found that the EU was partly to blame for the deaths of people trying to cross the Mediterranean by boat, in part due to obstruction of humanitarian rescue efforts. These policies, Zahle added, would not be possible without false information having made its way into mainstream political thinking.
“From misinformation and from a certain narrative goes the reality,” he said.
Bognár notes that part of the difficulty of dealing with this disinformation lies in the fact that it uses narratives stemming from much deeper societal conditions and prejudices, which are much harder to challenge through policy.
Similarly difficult is the fact that disinformation appears in a variety of forms, from overtly illegal hate speech to content that may hold some element of factual truth but which has been misrepresented or only partially disclosed.
In May, the European Commission issued its guidance on strengthening its Code of Practice on Disinformation, voluntary measures for confronting disinformation first agreed to by all major online platforms in 2018.
For Bognár, however, voluntary measures do not go far enough. “We cannot let corporations self-regulate, because it doesn’t seem to be working”, she said. “It’s not in their interest to go through with some of the necessary changes, so there should be a policy response.”
The Commission has also pitched measures on disinformation as part of its proposed Digital Services Act, which emphasises transparency when it comes to the way in which platforms return and regulate content.
While many groups have welcomed the initiative, some have urged that more could be done, both on a policy front and by big tech platforms themselves.
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]