The perpetuation of fear and disinformation around migration by the media in the EU

21 December, 2020

Images and videos of French police officers employing violence against migrants protesting in Place de la République in central Paris were broadcasted to the world on November 23. The protest in Paris was organised by humanitarian organizations to claim against the unjust displacement of hundreds of people and alert the public to the plight of migrants and refugees. However, the situation resulted in chaotic reactions from the police, with several beatings and the use of tear gas. Rémy Buisine, a reporter from Brut FR, claimed he was assaulted three times by the same police officer.

This case has, once again, turned the spotlight on the behaviour of authorities towards migrants and the use of unjustified violence against them. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly reported and condemned police brutality towards asylum seekers and migrants in France. However, this country does not represent an isolated case in Europe. For instance, allegations of systematic and organised violence by Croatia’s border police have frequently emerged as well. As stated by the Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, brutal pushbacks and anti-migrant violence are too often justified in the name of European borders’ protection.

It is legitimate to continue to investigate and wonder who the actors facilitating and enhancing this climate of violence and fear are. These reactions from police officers symbolise widespread malcontent, ignorance, fear and disrespect towards migrants and their rights. These actions also result from the stigmatization of migrants and the prevention of their integration within societies, as well as the promotion of a rhetoric aimed at radicalising the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The media detains a relevant role when it comes to assess the current situation and sentiment around migration. This climate needs systematic changes, starting from tackling bad media coverage, disinformation and stigmatized ways of portraying migrants and refugees. This article analyses some of the strategies used by communication channels to depict migrants so as to reflect on how they work, and how they can change.

The language around migrants

Disinformation narratives around migration by the media aim at polarising the public opinion. They address individuals’ fear and discontent, sow tensions and favour the political agenda. Disinformation is built around and enhances public’s main concerns. The way the COVID-19 pandemic has been manipulated to increase stereotypes and fear towards migrants is an example of how narratives change through time and adjust to the socio-economic background in which they are embedded. An increasing flood of stories has connected migrants to infection risks and accused them of receiving preferential treatment.

Linking migration to contemporary fears and issues is a strategic move to produce captivating information which can easily charm the audience and relate to their existing insecurities. This creates a climate which boosts stigmatisation and stereotypical representations. On the one hand, some stories and reports aim at addressing people’s fear with unverified and fallacious information. On the other hand, the description of certain episodes is developed by highlighting specific features, not necessarily relevant, but aimed at shaking the public awake through stereotypes. For example, some articles associate particular typologies of crimes with an individual’s nationality by creating a portrayal based on someone’s ethnicity rather than the actions that were committed. Though there is very little evidence of the relationship and correlation between ethnicity and criminal involvement, some media use this association to engage their audience and appeal to a series of biased but well spread opinions.

These ways of depicting reality lead to narratives which aim at easily engaging with individuals, grasping their assumptions and their feelings. Media have a huge responsibility when it comes to depict the complicated and, often, harsh reality which involves migrants and refugees. The use of words, pictures and videos impact the climate surrounding migration, and the approach individuals assume towards migrants.

It is relevant to highlight the duty media have in restoring trust and understanding of the contemporary landscape. The episodes of violence and brutality towards migrants, including those related to police brutality, depict a climate which lacks capability to ethically and lawfully deal with refugees’ accommodation and integration. The communication’s approach used by media can offer a valid path against hostility, stereotypes, discrimination, and brutality.

How to improve the language around migration

There is need of alternative narratives which can play as counterparts to stereotypical images and mainstream representations of migrants. A first step to move in this direction would entail the implementation of communication through sources and who can get trustworthy and fact-based messages to the hard-to-reach audience. Informants from civil society movements and local actors are key players to deliver coordinated and reliable messages. They can help reframing the debate and provide unbiased information which, in turn, can help to keep institutions accountable for the protection of migrants and refugees.

It is also important to consider the audience that a certain message is addressing. An ‘entry point’ where the messenger and listener share common ground must be sought by communicators. In addition, simple, specific and targeted messages can foster good responses against hostile narratives associated with disinformation. Data can also play an important role in the implementation of reliable facts and knowledge around migration. Backing up information with advanced data literacy can tackle bias, generalisation, and raise awareness on the contemporary landscape.

Lastly, the focus should switch to the wider picture and a more comprehensive approach around migration. The exclusive attention towards single tragic events or some specific migratory movements can be misleading. There is also a need to look at migration in its many forms, to consider both internal and external migration, to portray migration as something embedded in the human experience, and as an important part of life. This is an extremely important point which allows to change the perspective around migration, to broaden it and destigmatize its mainstream characterizations. Framing migration as a recurring feature across time and space can help to acknowledge its relevance, to normalize it, to eradicate the stigmatisation of migrants and avoid unbiased accusations, aimed at turning migrants into a scapegoat and appealing to individuals’ fear.

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