Rather than trying to counter disinformation stories about migrants directly, communication professionals and policymakers must instead promote alternative narratives that undermine the appeal of messages that incite fear and rage, and reframe the debate on migration entirely.
This is the conclusion of a collaborative research project between the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, the European Policy Centre, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and the Fundación Pablo Iglesias. Its aim was to identify and analyse misleading and hostile narratives on migration in Europe and formulate concrete recommendations on how to tackle them. The authors examined nearly 1,500 news articles from four EU member states (Germany, Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic), published between May 2019 and July 2020.
Based on their research, the authors argue that disinformation narratives about migration seek to exploit readers’ fears to polarise public opinion, manufacture discontent, sow divisions and set the political agenda. They tend to adapt and change alongside the public’s main concerns. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has led to a growing stream of articles linking migrants to infection risks and accusing them of receiving preferential treatment.
Disinformation narratives are so successful because disinformation actors link migration to existing insecurities, depicting it as a threat to three partly-overlapping areas: health (migrants as violent criminals, terrorists or carriers of disease), wealth (migrants as social benefits cheats or unfair competition for jobs) and identity (migrants as a hostile invasion force, threatening to replace white, Christian Europeans and their traditions).
Any communication strategy seeking to undermine disinformation on migration effectively should therefore be based on alternative narratives that take into account the following recommendations:
The message should aim to reframe the debate. It should resonate with the target audience’s lived experience, acknowledging their values and concerns, but avoid amplifying anxieties. Messages promoting alternative narratives must be timely and reflect the news cycle. Like a vaccine administered at regular intervals, communicators should repeat simple, specific messages that can prompt the best immune response against hostile frames spread by disinformation.
The medium should aim to restore trust among groups. Institutions, which are often subject to discrediting campaigns, should prioritise communication through trusted intermediaries who can get messages to the hard-to-reach. They should work in partnership with civil society and local actors to deliver coordinated messages in the right environments. They should seek to reach people ‘where they are’ using the most appropriate communication channel, taking into consideration where their audience consumes information.
The selection of the audience should aim to reclaim readers from the fringes. Audiences should be targeted based on their values and what they feel is important. Communicators must find an ‘entry point’ where the messenger and audience share common ground.
These narrative strategies must also be backed up by policy changes. Effective policies combined with alternative narratives will go a long way towards resolving the concerns that drive disinformation on migration. A more balanced debate will, in turn, facilitate the adoption of meaningful reforms in line with EU fundamental values and human rights, thus creating a mutually reinforcing cycle of alternative narratives and policymaking