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Narratives Around Migration Online: Anxiety over facts

In this contribution, Kata Füge and Daniel Fazekas assess dominant narratives around migration on social media, their roots, and what policymakers can do to address them.

The 2015 migration crisis became one of the most important and controversial social issues of the past decade, forcing politicians to search for and implement policy changes with far-reaching consequences. In the meantime, the public discourse around the issue is monumental and extremely heated – especially behind the anonymity of social media.

How to Gauge Dominant Narratives Around Migration

In cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the UK-based market research firm Bakamo set out to map online conversations around migration and conducted social-listening research to explore how everyday people address the issue on public social media platforms.

The study analysed content which was published in a one-year timeframe (from 31 July 2017 to 1 August 2018), and included specific keywords such as ‘migration’, ‘migrant’, and synonyms. The organisations gathered data from 28 member states of the European Union, and analysed comments separately for each country and in their original language.

As migration is an extremely controversial topic heavily influenced by political correctness, social listening proved to be an efficient method to explore people’s unfiltered opinions about the issue. Instead of asking questions from respondents in a survey, social listening explores comments which were posted voluntarily on public social media platforms such as Twitter, blogs, forums, and the comment sections of online news sites, encompassing honest opinions, fears, and hopes of everyday people.

Five Narratives About Migration

Qualitative thematic clustering of the conversations revealed five narratives through which people create context for migration:

  • The economy narrative reflects the broad concept of immigration’s economic sustainability, discussing the zero-sum game between locals and migrants for social benefits and the impact of migration on the local welfare system.
  • The demographics narrative discusses the labour-market integration of refugees, and the potential to use migration as a tool to tackle the emerging demographic crisis.
  • The traditional narrative of humanitarianism considers the concept of moral obligation in the context of migration. While the difficult circumstances endured by refugees are discussed, this narrative is not necessarily supportive of migration. For example, while some people consider closing ports to rescue ships to be manslaughter, others applaud such action.
  • The narrative of identity reflects the influence of migration on local culture and social cohesion.
  • The security narrative discusses the perceived threat which migration poses to a given country, focusing on attacks committed by migrants, either in the given country or in other EU member states

Researchers measured the size or prominence of each narrative in each country separately, and due to cultural, geopolitical, and economic reasons, the results varied greatly. All country reports are available at the study’s website, but the overall interplay of narratives provides important insights into migration’s role in public opinion shift.

Roots and Expression of Narratives Around Migration in Social Media

Identity and security emerge as strong issues. They do not only displace other narratives but also alter them, as the threat of migration to personal security and collective identity is perceived as the most immediate and direct hazard. Public communication around migration is driven by three core anxieties: the fear for personal safety, for economic stability, and for cultural-communal consequences of migration. And while such fears might seem irrational, they are present and deeply rooted at an individual level for millions of European voters.

Social media is an extremely effective tool for mobilizing around migration, as these platforms provide venues for ordinary citizens to articulate their opinions. Social media provides the sense of being heard in times of growing detachment from and perceived disregard by political representatives.

In addition, migration proves to be a perfect vessel to channel mounting anxieties rooted in a globalised economy and modern world order. Right-wing populism could easily enter this space and gain political momentum after the 2015 refugee crisis: instead of addressing the complex and systemic problems related to migration, populism came across as the saviour with short-term, but seemingly bold solutions such as border walls, port closures, and the advocacy for strict limits on migration quotas.

In light of authentic conversations of everyday citizens posted on public social media,  policymakers should address underlying anxieties and structural inequalities perceived by citizens, to rebuild trust in democratic processes. The strategy should be threefold. First, addressing the economic fears, policy changes should enhance transparency in the taxation of multinational companies, provide economic protection against the influence of foreign superpowers such as China and the US, and support EU-level economic solidarity. Second, to enhance the sense of cultural and communal safety, the EU should openly support local culture of member states, without the discrimination of smaller EU members. Thirdly, measures that are taken to enhance citizens’ safety should receive more publicity, whether they regard refugees, data privacy, or health care issues.


Kata Füge is social media analyst at Bakamo

Daniel Fazekas, founder and CEO of Bakamo

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.