The political effects of migration-related fake news, disinformation and conspiracy theories - study

2017-05-24

In this study, we analyse the public discourse about international migration. This is a globally relevant topic, the discussion of which is characterised by the use of fake news, disinformation and conspiracy theories all over the world. International migration has also been the favoured topic of populist political forces, and this has become even more characteristic of them in the wake of the 2015 migration crisis. In the following, we introduce a range of case studies on migration-related fake news and disinformation categorised based on the misinformation method used in them, and, additionally, we also discuss what kind of counter-measures and efforts have been implemented recently.

Key findings

  • The public’s mood pushed political actors to the same direction regarding migration policy despite the fact that all countries face different issues and even within countries there are no unified immigrant communities. As a result, dumbing down these complex problems to the level of a cultural issue raises the question of whether this approach helps manage the social concerns connected to migration. The political conflict between the protection of minorities and the recognition of human rights and the nationality, ethnicity or culture-based majority has systemic importance. In the name of their capability to act, governments relegate human rights and procedural norms liberal democracies are built on to secondary importance. Certain governments use migration to reshape the political system, even to transform a liberal democracy into an autocracy.
  • The topic of migration also has geopolitical significance. It is exploited and used by anti-immigration and pro-Russian propaganda to support the Kremlin’s geopolitical objectives. Pro-Russian propaganda media is in large part responsible for the dissemination of migration-related fake news, which fit the pattern of anti-immigration propaganda in general and represent Russian interests in particular. The topic of migration is suitable to disrupt European unity and shake EU citizens’ confidence in European institutions. Russia’s national interest is the dissolution of the EU to be able to take advantage of relatively weak EU member states. The Putin-regime thus uses its propaganda media to support the narratives of pro-Russian, anti-EU populist political forces. Anti-immigration and pro-Russian propaganda repeats and reinforces the narratives of such political parties and contrasts the allegedly stable and peaceful Russia with the ailing West.
  • Fake news and anti-immigrant propaganda underpin the European far right’s political vision on immigration: cultural war, the impossibility of integration and all immigrants being public security threats are all views featured both in anti-EU parties’ rhetoric and the articles on pro-Russian propaganda sites. Disinformation methods therefore help propaganda outlets support the immigration policy of far-right parties and they are also perfectly suitable for delegitimising the very foundations of the current European system.
  • Those who disseminate fake news have a wide range of tools at their disposal to misinform their audience ranging from satire to fabricated content. The false context method involves disinformation outlets publishing correct data on a pick-and-choose basis, only selecting the pieces that underpin their views. Misleading information allows disinformation outlets to publish available facts in a way that helps them define an issue on their terms. Fabricated content is 100% false information solely intended to cause harm. In some cases, fake news articles forged on the basis on any misinformation tool can be used by Russian secret services as a part of active measures implemented to advance Russia’s foreign policy goals.
  • The issue of fake news has become the focus of much attention in the wake of the US presidential election in 2016. Since then, significant efforts have been undertaken to counter the influence of disinformation. Legal solutions to ban outlets spreading fake news are harshly criticised by experts due to the such measures restricting the freedom of speech, but anti-hate speech legislation may offer a legal remedy. Some of the most promising initiatives are self-regulation measures implemented by media giants such as Facebook and Google, aimed at filtering out disinformation and cut the financial resources of disinformation outlets. Nevertheless, educating the youth on assessing the credibility of information they read on the internet might prove to be the best solution to restrict the influence of Russian propaganda.

Conclusion

Migration is not a new topic in Europe, European governments as well as mainstream and populist parties have all put the issue on their agenda since the 1970s, constantly demanding more and more restrictive immigration regulations. Efforts to restrict migration failed, because states cannot influence the dynamics of migratory systems. The migration-related discursive strategies of populist political forces have not changed considerably either: they talk about border protection, the situation of women, criminality and the terror threat without being able to offer effective solutions to any of these issues.

However, two new developments aid the cause of populist, anti-EU forces. First, the internet and in particular social media offers a platform where the populist discourse and messages on migration can be spread with relative ease. Second, a revitalising Russia inspiring to at least weaken the European Union supports populist narratives through its pro-Russian propaganda machinery present all over Europe. Migration, especially in the wake of the migration crisis, proved to be a topic that anti-immigrant and pro-Russian propaganda can easily exploit in fake news stories.

Propagandists have a wide range of tools at their disposal to misinform their readers. These tools range from simple satire to fully fabricated content. Every one of these disinformation methods, as the examples above show, can be used to serve a wide range of purposes. In some cases, fake news can be disseminated as a part of an active measure implemented by Russian secret services aimed at lowering the trust of EU citizens in the institutions of respective member states or mainstream politicians, or to simply provoke chaos and confusion. In order to counter these propaganda efforts, the European Union and its member states must increase their commitments to this cause both in terms of financial resources and manpower.

As social media creates “echo chambers” for people with similar views, – rendering it unlikely that people meet opposing worldviews, opinions, news – the best way to combat disinformation might be education, helping children learn how to assess what they read. With the help of teachers and curricula developed by experts, together with legislative bills requiring schools to fight the phenomenon by education instead of seeking to punish those who spread disinformation, the next generation might be able to counter the effects of Russian propaganda simply by having the knowledge to distinguish between lies and the truth.

The complete study can be downloaded from here.

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