The Art of Communication during Migrant Crisis

Interest groups across Europe are utilising the modern tool of false narratives to spur their own policies initiatives

Nurlan Aliyev
7 June 2017

Pitiful photos and information on the grief of migrants or news about raped women and other crimes allegedly or actually committed by migrants are among the most popular narratives of the current migrant crisis in the EU member states. For example, the tragic photo of Alan Kurdi, a migrant Syrian infant, spread throughout the international media became a supportive flagman for human rights activists and groups who endorse humanist approaches toward the migration crisis in Europe.

On the other side of the spectrum, the story of sexual assault by migrants towards the 13 years-old “kidnapped” Liza (ultimately accusations were not attested by investigation) or websites which use statistics as propaganda, erroneously reporting about the connection between migration and the increase in criminal activity which spreads the fear of migrants throughout the EU.

These accounts are used by national governments, political groups (from far-right to far-left), the EU and its allies, adversaries inside and outside of the EU in their communications for supporting and promoting their own interests; many of these and similar narratives are rooted in the range of public attitudes (from empathy to apathy of the citizens). All this leads to asking two questions: What might be the results of these negative communication campaigns? And is it possible to use these communication tools to reduce tensions arising from migration crisis?

Tracking the Shifting Narratives

In 2015, the EU saw their role change from being one of the strong solution-aimed brokers of migrant crises to becoming the home of a similar crisis itself. According to UNHCR data, more than 1.5 million migrants arrived through the Mediterranean over the last three years, and this years’ number (as of June 2nd) is already 71,080 people.

The origins of the arrivals are mostly from the Asian and the African countries; the majority originating from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The cultural differences among migrants and the local population in the EU are obvious, and the unaccustomed attitudes of migrants have irritated local populations.

This has been compounded by the terrorist acts conducted by ISIS in Paris and Berlin – as well as ISIS-inspired acts, like the recent bombing in Manchester – which have ignited public concerns across the EU. Even before the aforementioned terror acts, there had been worries regarding the possibility of terrorist groups penetrating the EU’s territories via the migrant flow.

In September 2015, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, claimed that migrants are being sent to Europe as a campaign of “hybrid warfare” in order to force concessions to its neighbours. Despite these warnings, Germany and several other EU countries declared an open-door policy for migrants in late 2015, while Eastern European member states resisted this policy and refused to accept the refugee quota.

Since then, the number of so-called willing countries is decreasing, while the number of countries supporting the sealing of EU borders for newcomers along the Balkan routes is growing. According to research by the LSE Media and Communications department, the amount of pro- and anti-immigrant information in the media has been simultaneously changing, showing a marked decrease of the former and a substantial increase of the later since the beginning of the crisis. The findings suggest that despite significant differences across the European regions, time periods and political stances of news outlets, there is a generally consistent switch from promoting humanitarian efforts towards rationalizing a more militaristic solution to the problem in the newspapers portraying the crisis.

The Rallying Call from the Far-Right

Besides the expected divergences among decision makers of the EU regarding the migrant crisis, this issue is actively exploited by far-right parties for their political struggle as well. Throughout the EU, far-right political groups have accused governments of destroying Europe by allowing migrants from different cultures to flow in, stressing the idea that they are potential threats for the security of states and societies.

These groups use similar narratives in their political campaigns, and the strategic delivery of such messages have been accelerated on the eve of elections in several EU countries.

For instance, the negative effects of the migrant crisis were among the main subjects of Mari Le Pen’s election campaigns for the presidential election in France; a tactic which is being mimicked by the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) led by Frauke Petry for the forthcoming parliamentary election in Germany. In the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom actively exploited similar anti-migrant sentiments in the last pre-election campaign. Like Le Pen’s failure, it is improbable, though not impossible, that Geert Wilders or Frauke Petry will be able to win the presidency and head their respective governments any time soon, but they have already succeeded in strengthening the anti-migrant discourse in public debates. These discourses will preserve their role as “the Sword of Damocles” for governments and political establishments in the upcoming years.

The Escalation of Misinformation

Accompanying the migrant crisis is a boom of fake news and news portals across Europe. One of them is an anonymously-produced map which has started to make its way throughout German social media. The map called “XY-Einzelfall” claims to show the spread of “refugee and migrant crime” throughout Germany. Unlike other information sources which spread news about migrant sinfulness that have turned out to be false, this interactive map appears to be professionally prepared: each case refers to a police or media report of crimes committed in the country.

According to the analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism,”XY-Einzelfall”‘s methodology is systematically misleading, more of migrant’s criminal cases on the map are referred to witnesses claims that the culprits were “dark-skinned” or “Southerners”. Although it uses police reports, the numbers on migrant crimes through skewed use of statistics were vastly exaggerated. The information on the map’s is actively used in social media not only by the activists of the anti-immigrant party (AfD) in Germany, but it is also used by Russian and American far-right groups who are against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy.

The main threat of this map is its slick distortion of reality which is much harder to track than easily fact-checkable fake stories. According to Jonas Kaiser, an expert on German media at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center, these cases are more problematic than outright fake news and the instances of these cases are going to rise. He affirms that, fake news may not have an impact on the German election, but the unreliable maps could. Besides “XY-Einzelfall”, recently rightist websites that focus on the danger of open borders have strengthened their rhetoric by promoting the migration crisis ahead of elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Interestingly, the web outlets linked to conservative and far-right groups in Russia and the United States actively support such communication campaigns as well.

The Other Side of the Coin

Despite the negative impact of communication tools which aim to exert an influence on political and social processes in the EU, there are positive cases as well. One of them is “WirZusammen” or “We Together“, an initiative of entrepreneurs which envisages the integration of migrants through educational projects.

The initiative which was launched in 2015 by German billionaire Ralph Dommermuth encourages companies make jobs, apprenticeships, language training and housing available for migrants.

Along with this, a WirZusammen advertising campaign has also tried to motivate Germans to view migrants as potential partners, not threats. Three 20-second ads demonstrating friendships between Germans and refugees have garnered more than 47m internet views between September and November 2016.

Other communication channels which have been used for telling stories about the migrant crisis in Europe are comics and graphic novels. Comics such as “A Perilous Journey”(a series by Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock) and the Marvel produced “Madaya Mom” depict the difficulties refugees must contend with and familiarises them with European readers through the dramatic realities that refugees face every day.

Similarly, graphic novels have also become useful instructional tools for some local and state governments that have turned to comics to inform the newcomers on the societal norms and appropriate behaviour of their new communities, like one such initiative from the Department of National Policy, Interregional Relations and Tourism in Moscow who teamed up with a German public broadcaster to published a comic guideline. Some of the information in these guidelines are practical, but in each of them the ethnic differences between local citizens and newcomers are noticeable and include examples of inappropriate behaviour such as the groping of women and the use of violence to solve conflicts.

However, there is an example of an empathetic and instructive guideline for refugees as well. International Medical Corps UK developed a series of comic books for children displaced by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq in order to teach them important messages about disease prevention, safety in the camps and about how to promote their well-being. It is appropriate and effective to use graphic novels as a communication channel to inform target audiences, especial the most vulnerable.

The Solution: A Well-informed Public

Correctly informed citizens play a huge role in the security and prosperity of states. Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol in the UK, who studies the persistence and spread of misinformation, stressed that having a large number of people in a society who are misinformed and have their own set of facts is absolutely devastating and extremely difficult to cope with.

Information security, which is the pinnacle of national and public security, must be protected not only by technological and cyber tools, but also by narratives and other strategic communication methods. Technical solutions are not enough to protect information security in the modern world where the numbers of websites, social media accounts and trolls armed with a plethora of fake news stories and alternative facts continue their subversive activities.

The mechanisms of inoculation theory might be an appropriate strategy to combat with these fake news and misinformation operations. The theory is a model for building resistance for persuasion attempts by exposing people to arguments that are against their beliefs and give them counter arguments to refute those attacks.

Governments and public institutions should be continuing to work on the prevention of these misinformation activities through. For instance, they could launch reliable online resources and portals with data to explain, in an easily understandable way, information regarding the criminal situation of migrants to counteract unreliable statistics and statistical maps spread by far-right or simply misinformed sources.

Increasing security measures and sealing the borders will not be enough to prevent asymmetric threats, such as terrorist acts or the intervention of external actors in the political situation in the EU. Furthermore, appropriate and professional strategic communication activities and educational awareness campaigns might play critical roles in the softening of migrant crisis, and, more importantly, they might decrease the internal and external actors’ intentions to use the migrant crisis for their own interests, which are against the very values of the EU member states and their societies.

The author is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan. His research area is primarily focused on political and social processes in Central and Eastern Europe countries, including strategic communication and asymmetric threats.