Facts Still Matter in Immigration Policy Debates, But Evidence Must Be Deployed Much More Strategically in Era of “Fake News”
WASHINGTON — At a time when people have more information than ever at their fingertips, it has become easier to ignore, discount or discredit inconvenient facts. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in debates about hot-button issues such as immigration.
Emotionally charged and anecdotal narratives about immigrants and refugees often seem to drown out arguments made on the basis of robust data and evidence. From the 2016 referendum on Brexit, to recent elections across Europe and North America, facts seem to have lost their gravitas. Sparring accounts of the composition and motives of the migrant caravans currently traveling across Mexico to reach the United States only confirm this trend.
Several factors have contributed to this reality, as a new report from the Migration Policy Institute’s Transatlantic Council on Migration explores. In When Facts Don’t Matter: How to Communicate More Effectively about Immigration’s Costs and Benefits, Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan wades into human psychology, political communication and the rise of new media platforms to explore why there is often a pronounced gap between what research has shown about migration trends and immigration policy outcomes and what voters believe.
One of the takeaways is that human nature shapes how people consume and recall information, making them more likely to resist knowledge that contradicts their existing beliefs and personal experiences.
“Political positions are often inextricably intertwined with personal and group identities, making them highly resistant to corrections,” writes Banulescu-Bogdan, who is associate director of MPI’s International Program. “The drive to preserve one’s sense of self goes beyond politics and often makes it nearly impossible to change beliefs even in the face of relatively clear-cut facts. Leading with data-based arguments can therefore be counterproductive if not informed by an understanding of the emotional environment into which these facts land.”
Policymaking in democratic societies relies on the engagement of an electorate able to access and think critically about new information and to adjust their views accordingly. The report concludes with a re-examination of what it takes to make the “expert consensus” resonate with skeptical publics.
Among the report’s recommendations for policymakers and researchers seeking to communicate more effectively the costs and benefits of immigration:
- Give people a way out instead of trying to prove them wrong. People do not react well to being told they are wrong; instead of trying to disprove widely believed pieces of misinformation, policymakers should help members of the public “save face” by acknowledging their concerns while at the same time showing them how new information has come to light or circumstances have changed.
- Avoid repeating false ideas—even to debunk them. The simple act of repeating misinformation (even to correct it) can increase the likelihood that people misremember it as true. A better strategy may be to focus on creating a new narrative.
- Engage credible messengers from across the aisle. People are more likely to hear and absorb unexpected information from messengers within their own circles of identity.
- Start building a culture of critical thinking long before an election cycle or crisis. Waiting until the middle of a political campaign to introduce new facts is often too late. Voters’ political positions will already be closely bound up in their personal identities, and there will be little space for thoughtful debate around complex issues or to meaningfully shift views. Instead, the best inoculation against misinformation may be to foster a habit of fact-checking and critical thinking among members of the public as part of daily life.
Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/when-facts-dont-matter-immigration.
It is the penultimate report in a Transatlantic Council series focusing on the future of migration policy in an era of growing skepticism about immigration and rising populism. The series, which will conclude Thursday with a Council Statement authored by Demetrios G. Papademetriou that offers topline reflections and recommendations, can be accessed here: www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/transatlantic-council-migration/volatile-political-landscape.
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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at local, national and international levels. MPI’s Transatlantic Council on Migration is a unique deliberative body that examines vital policy issues and informs migration policymaking processes across the Atlantic community.