Disinformation on Migration: How Lies, Half-Truths, and Mischaracterizations Spread
Soon after the start of the massive human displacement to the European Union caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rumors and hoaxes about Ukrainian refugees began to spread online. In Czechia and Romania, social media and suspicious websites, some purporting to be genuine news outlets, were flooded with messages claiming that arriving Ukrainians were wealthy yet receiving significant social and financial support, while needy locals were left without help. In Poland, Ukrainians were falsely accused of committing violent crimes against residents. Resulting comments were resentful against refugees, aid groups, and governments alike.
This is just the latest instance of how disinformation about refugees, other migrants, and minority groups adapts to the shifting news cycle—while also appealing to people’s pre-existing convictions and tapping into current worries, in this case about generalized violence and household incomes struggling to keep up with rising prices. Salient events such as the war in Ukraine act as catalysts, enabling coordinated disinformation-producing activist groups and extremists to grab people’s attention and stoke fears, in some cases even setting the tone of the political discourse surrounding the management of migratory phenomena and the policies governing them.
To take another prominent example, a few days after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August 2021 it was falsely claimed that hundreds of thousands of Afghans were heading to Europe. Right-wing activists promoted mistruths that Afghan men were the only ones to escape, leaving their families behind, and that their lives were not in danger. Doctored images and sensationalist articles fanned fears about an imminent “invasion” of Afghans, turning European countries’ migration policy agenda into a discussion focused on security, neglecting humanitarian considerations.
From Afghanistan to Ukraine and beyond, each development concerning global migrant flows or the management of cultural diversity can give rise to a new stream of disinformation, with significant consequences for policymaking, public discourse, and social relations. Conspiracy theories are also frequently used as a rhetorical tool by far-right movements and nativist politicians to advocate for hardline anti-immigration policies and mobilize their voters. In the 2022 French presidential elections, right-wing candidates Valérie Pécresse and Éric Zemmour purposefully cited the White-nationalist “Great Replacement” theory in their campaigns, claiming that global elites were engaged in a conspiracy to “replace” White European populations with foreigners.
This is neither a purely European nor a recent phenomenon, however. Disinformation and conspiracy theories relating to immigrants and religious and ethnic minorities have a long history of being used to radicalize individuals, sometimes resulting in episodes of violence, as shown by the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque attacks in 2019 and Buffalo, New York supermarket shooting in 2022. It is clear that when it comes to the consequences of disinformation about migration, the stakes are very real and very high—as is the need to counter it effectively.
Why does migration, broadly understood, attract so much disinformation? What are the most common themes found in disinformation sources and in online content spreading hostility towards migrants, refugees, and minority groups? What strategies have governments and civil-society organizations taken to oppose migration-related disinformation and misinformation? Focusing on the European context, this article answers these questions by drawing on research carried out by the European Policy Centre (EPC) with the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in 2020 and 2021.
The Same Old (False) Story: Reinforcing Anti-Migration and Racist Narratives
Box 1. Research Methods
This article is based on the findings of the 2020 European Policy Centre’s (EPC) study into the prevalence of online disinformation narratives relating to migration. The authors identified 1,425 articles containing misinformation or disinformation on migrants and refugees published in blogs, other commentary websites, and online news outlets from Czechia, Germany, Italy, and Spain between May 2019 and July 2020. The research was carried out using the online analysis tool BuzzSumo, which allowed the authors to identify the articles that received the greatest engagement on social media (i.e., likes, comments, and shares on Facebook and Twitter), without excluding a priori any sources based on their characteristics (such as mainstream or fringe media). The sample of articles was instead selected by using a set of broad, migration-related keywords, such as “migrants” and “refugees.” Only articles generating high engagement and containing significantly questionable material—either recognized disinformation (as determined by fact-checkers or secondary sources) or misrepresentations of reality based upon manipulative use of information— were included in the dataset. Although not all 1,425 articles necessarily qualify as disinformation, they do all support hostile narratives found in disinformation sources.
In this article, disinformation is understood as “all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented, and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit”—the definition used by the European Commission to differentiate it from incorrect information which is not deliberately deceptive (“misinformation”). While intention may not be easy to prove, there are grey areas between outright false content and fact-based news coverage in which, for example, accurate figures or facts are used out of context, headlines and images have no connection to the content of the article, or unverifiable claims are cited. For this reason, on top of disinformation and misinformation, the term “malinformation” is sometimes used to reflect the fact that stories and articles based on some evidence or fact can still cause harm to a society or instigate hostility towards a particular group, for example through exaggeration, sensationalism, or sharing of sensitive information.
Migration is an ideal topic for those pushing lies and half-truths to spread confusion, fear, anger, or prejudice. It is a complex phenomenon where the facts can be difficult to ascertain or explain. It can also be linked to issues with great symbolic meaning, such as religion and identity, or sensitive matters such as jobs and security. Migration-related disinformation further exploits the voicelessness of the subjects it targets, who are under-represented in media and political debates and are frequently socioeconomically marginalized.
This also helps explain the long history of hoaxes about migrants and minority groups, especially religious and racial minorities. “Fake news” made its way into the press well ahead of the internet and social media. Fake stories about child-murdering and blood-drinking Jews (“blood libel”) were circulated as early as the 12th century, forming the foundations of anti-Semitism. In the 19th century, false claims attacking Black people as savage and crime-prone led to mob violence and lynchings, normalizing racist attitudes and systemic discrimination.
From its very outset, disinformation about migrants, religious minorities, and other marginalized groups has reinforced clichés, inflamed passions, and stirred social divisions. And many of the centuries-old tropes targeting them remain at the center of disinformation messaging today, although adapted to the distinct political (and media) context.
The Actors Generating and Hosting Disinformation
Today, most disinformation thrives on underground “fringe” channels such as blogs, social media platforms, and amateur media websites—which are often anonymous and therefore difficult to pin to particular political interests. However, the mainstream media also plays a role in spreading misinformation, malinformation, and, in some cases, even disinformation about migrants and refugees. Some established news outlets may not have sufficient time or incentives to check their sources, resulting in the unintentional spreading of false information. But in environments where some mainstream media outlets use sensationalist tones to attract readers, misleading and manipulative content can proliferate easily.
The war in Ukraine has also focused attention on the role played by Russian state propaganda and has led most European countries to ban the state-linked media outlets Sputnik and RT (formerly Russia Today). The authors’ research covering the years 2019 and 2020, however, found that known Russia-linked sources such as RT and Sputnik accounted for only a small proportion of online disinformation, while the same hostile narratives appeared on large numbers of apparently domestic European websites and blogs.
Nevertheless, in many cases, it remains difficult to reliably identify the actors producing and disseminating disinformation. Assumptions can be made about their motivations—to spread distrust, promote division, undermine mainstream politics, and push voters towards radical options—but their precise identity is hard to prove.
The Anti-Migrant Frames Predominating in Europe
Virtually all online disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation about migration in Europe depicts migrants as a threat to Europeans through one of the following frames: health, wealth, or identity. The authors’ research shows that the European media coverage and social media in several EU Member States have been dominated by stories identifying migrants as an invasion force, a vector for the transmission of COVID-19 and other diseases, a source of violent crime, or the undeserving recipients of social benefits, among other recurring themes reflecting the above three frames. Individual instances advanced by migration opponents and opportunists are generally consistent with some “established” narrative, with each story seeking not so much to convince about a particular incident as to reinforce the plausibility of the stereotypes.
Figure 1. Migration Disinformation Content by Frame in Select EU Member States
Notes: The health category refers to the depiction of migrants as a COVID-19 infection risk, potential terrorists, or violent criminals; wealth refers to coverage of migrants as social benefits cheats, unfair competitors for jobs, or a drain on community resources; identity refers to depictions of migrants as an invasion force, a threat to European or Christian traditions, or the subject of a conspiracy to replace White Europeans. Some articles employ multiple frames, so percentages refer to share of total frames, rather than total articles.
Source: Paul Butcher and Alberto-Horst Neidhardt, Fear and Lying in the EU: Fighting Disinformation on Migration with Alternative Narratives. Brussels: European Policy Centre. Available online.
Nonetheless, misleading claims about migration are not always the same, even within these dominant frames. The authors’ studies detected significant variations over time and between national settings, also depending on the political salience of specific themes. For example, Spain and Italy—the countries most strongly hit by the first wave of COVID-19 in Europe—saw the dominance of anti-migration focused stories with health-related themes in spring 2020. These countries also experienced disproportionately high levels of wealth-related disinformation narratives (asylum seekers receiving high daily allowances or migrants having better access to housing or social benefits than natives), especially during the period after the first wave of COVID-19, when the political debate turned to the economic consequences of the lockdowns. By contrast, in the same period in countries with fewer foreign residents, such as Czechia, foreigners were portrayed as a threat to identity and culture rather than a drain on resources.
Disinformation is appealing not only for the claims it makes but also for the concerns it exploits and the pre-existing convictions it triggers. Some stories using the identity frame (depictions of migrants as a threat to European or Christian traditions) therefore seek to equate openness to migration with an inevitable erosion of the national cultural and social fabric. The claim that Europe’s Christian (or secular) traditions are being replaced by Islam—a religion often depicted as inherently violent—is especially dominant in the European context. Lies or exaggerations about migrants abusing social welfare systems or having access to better housing are often centered on a “reverse-discrimination” assertion, whereby newcomers supposedly receive preferential treatment from authorities compared to locals. Each of these claims may particularly resonate with certain population segments if their underlying narratives align with personal values and concerns, whether these are centered on national security and a sense of belonging, respect for tradition, or perception of social justice.
If it resonates, disinformation—like misinformation and malinformation—captures more peoples’ attention, making it harder to refute its underlying false or misleading claims. The relative appeal of each blog post, commentary, or article and its narratives can be roughly evaluated with reference to the level of social media engagement it receives—for example, retweets on Twitter or likes, comments, and shares on Facebook. A story that resonates more strongly among its target audience is likely to elicit a high level of engagement, stimulating discussion and reaching more people. Prominent events in the news cycle that temporarily raise or lower the salience of specific topics also stimulate readers’ interest and susceptibility. For example, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a growth in interest toward mis/disinformation featuring migrants in the health frame, while later, wealth-related narratives received higher levels of engagement when joblessness and the economic impacts of the pandemic became a greater concern.
Figure 2. Migration Disinformation Content by Frame over Time, 2019-20
Note: Data refer to use of migration disinformation frame in articles published online in Czechia, Germany, Italy, and Spain.
Source: Butcher and Neidhardt, Fear and Lying in the EU.
The Techniques of Disinformation
Although disinformation varies across time and space, certain cross-border trends exist. The same manipulation techniques, for example, tend to be used across countries with the same fake stories also periodically re-emerging. In the case of “(dis)information laundering,” a story that lacks sources is later cited by different outlets crediting the original website. For instance, a German online story falsely claiming that European governments secretly flew thousands of refugees into Europe in 2019 was later reused by Czech and Slovakian websites.
Some websites instead exploit confirmation bias, often in relation to widely publicized events, to trigger fear, anger, and prejudice. Videos from 2016 resurfaced in Germany in 2020, showing men, seemingly of foreign descent, shooting weapons in the air on New Year’s Eve, an episode designed to evoke fears of violence and remind susceptible audiences of the 2015-16 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne attributed largely to North African migrants. The video was presented as evidence that Europe is descending into lawlessness because of the presence of Muslim migrants.
Strengthening Societal Resilience against Disinformation and Depolarizing the Discourse
Fake news may take root and leave persistent negative impressions on those who come across it, leading to further polarization and undermining the promotion of evidence-informed policies. With the decline of trust in public institutions and legacy media, however, who can stop disinformation, and how?
While hoaxes about migrants, refugees, and minorities remain rampant, the fight against online disinformation has been put at the center of many recent initiatives by states and civil society across the world. With the Digital Services Act, the European Union is seeking to facilitate the removal of illegal content online while also increasing the transparency and accountability of social media companies. The Media Freedom Act, another EU proposal, aims to promote independent and plural media across Member States. At the same time, with the recently revised EU-led Code of Practice on Disinformation, social media platforms, advertisers, and other leading online companies have committed to cutting financial incentives for purveyors of disinformation (“demonetization”) and empowering users to recognize, understand, and flag disinformation through media literacy initiatives—the latter being an area where there is still a large amount of fragmentation between EU Member States.
In the United States, meanwhile, the largest initiatives concern the monitoring and verification of online content by academic and other research institutes as well as targeted policies adopted by platforms and tech giants such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter to limit the spread of disinformation. The U.S. government has also taken some steps, such as the recent signing of the Declaration for the Future of the Internet, to work alongside other like-minded democratic countries, including European partners and the European Union as a whole, to combat online disinformation.
Civil society around the world also plays a key role in counter-disinformation efforts, particularly through fact-checking initiatives, but these also face challenges and constraints. Fact checkers verify online content and expose lies spread daily by disinformation actors. Yet, they cannot possibly catch all stories with outright false or misleading information. Also, many users are exposed to private messages containing disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation via encrypted messaging applications such as Signal or Telegram, which are for the most part outside the reach of fact checkers. Furthermore, simply labeling something false is not enough to convince all those exposed to the information to stop sharing it, particularly when the broader narrative or claim resonates with individuals’ pre-existing convictions and concerns. In some cases, telling people they are wrong may even backfire, strengthening misconceptions and reinforcing prior beliefs, or even inadvertently spreading the message more widely.
By contrast, media and information literacy programs aim to raise citizens’ agency and enable them to identify disinformation and misleading information on their own. The authors’ research suggests that individuals’ existing media and information literacy levels can significantly influence the reach and appeal of disinformation. Overall levels of engagement for all anti-migration narrative themes were notably lower in countries with comparably better-developed media and information literacy educational programs, such as Germany, in the 2019-20 period at the height of the so-called infodemic.
With greater critical skills, people can learn to spot manipulation techniques, distinguish facts from falsehoods and filter out disinformation and misinformation. These skills include recognizing bias, selective reporting, and appeals to emotion; understanding how to analyze and evaluate claims for their legitimacy; and assessing the trustworthiness of sources.
Media literacy initiatives tend to take a neutral ideological stance, staying clear from accusations of engaging in propaganda. Yet, disinformation actors deliberately exploit the complexity of topics such as migration to promote simplistic ideas and raise fears about migrants and marginalized minority groups, polarize public opinion, and influence citizens’ views. Providing the public access to quality information in this context also involves providing subject-specific competencies to key intermediaries between policymakers and the public such as journalists and schoolteachers. This kind of subject-specific awareness, or migration literacy, would help them avoid disseminating disinformation unintentionally.
To further undermine the appeal of disinformation and depolarize the discourse, politicians and public figures also have a particular responsibility to talk about migration in a truthful and measured way. Evidence-based articles and messages that acknowledge people’s concerns without inflating them and at the same time offer a more balanced view of migration can help reframe the debate away from divisive disinformation narratives.
The Future of Disinformation in the Context of War in Ukraine
The need to strengthen societal resilience against disinformation and the promotion of an informed and balanced debate on migration and refugee policies are becoming more and more urgent, as a wide array of malicious actors may be prepared to exploit attention-grabbing events to undermine trust in public institutions and widen social divisions, which are already large problems in many countries in Europe, the United States, and beyond.
In the European context, the present and future of migration-related disinformation is closely connected to the Ukraine humanitarian emergency. So far, lies about Ukrainian refugees and efforts to capitalize on Europeans’ fears have not been particularly successful, in large part because an overwhelming outpouring of solidarity has overshadowed them. However, as EU citizens start to feel the full socioeconomic effects of the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia, including in rising energy and food prices, disinformation actors may become more effective at manufacturing discontent. Recent reports show a dominance of migration disinformation stories using the wealth-based frame in many European countries, especially in those worst affected economically, with Ukrainians being systematically accused of being treated more favorably than locals or of abusing social support. This is a foreseeable development in light of disinformation shifts during the pandemic when fears about recession and joblessness became more salient.
Against this background, the European Union’s increased efforts to monitor disinformation trends and to improve societal resilience through media literacy, among other efforts, may help bring about a more balanced public debate and understanding. However, these initiatives may take years to be implemented and yield concrete results. The war and consequent rise in inflation and energy prices are already hitting many ordinary residents hard, making their exposure and susceptibility to disinformation about Ukrainians and other migrant groups a worrisome prospect. Poorer households already struggle to pay their bills, while higher food prices are lowering living standards. Meanwhile, Ukrainian refugees need support to access work, education, and housing. In this context, mass displacement from Ukraine is not only Europe’s biggest migration challenge since World War II; it also constitutes a litmus test for assessing the current state of European societies’ resilience against migration-related disinformation.
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