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Refugees and Social Media Running Amok: A Special Season’s Greetings

To overturn “fake news” demands so much more than fact-checking. It takes educating society with critical thinking skills.

December 23, 2018

To overturn “fake news” demands so much more than fact-checking. It takes educating society with critical thinking skills.

If the benefit of letting social media run amok is that doing so lays bare some chronic and unrevealed ills in democratic society, then we better act upon those insights. Because they come at a very high cost.

To see what can be done to manage the tide of dubious “news” circulating on social media, I have been in touch lately with Gülin Çavuş. She is a journalist and the chief editor of, the Turkish fact-checking platform.

Earlier this year, Gülin compiled the first proper database of false news stories in social media (whether told in text, photos or video) that pertain specifically to migrants and refugees. (She did so while on fellowship in France with the International Fact-Checking Network).

Many commentators and researchers label people’s willingness to accept false stories in social media as “gullibility.” At, Gülin prefers “receptivity.”

Gullibility focuses attention upon the recipient’s (lack of) critical thinking skills—and intelligence. Receptivity, in her view, focuses attention more helpfully upon the recipient’s social context.

To summarize what I’ve learned from her work:

1. Telling a lie is quick and easy.

2. Telling that a lie is a lie is slow and difficult.

3. Telling people that a lie is a lie may be a near-utopian task.

The case that cracked a continent

Gülin focused her fake news gathering efforts upon German, French and Swedish social media from 2015 onward. All three countries were popular destination countries for migrants fleeing the collapse of Iraq and Syria during the European “refugee crisis” of 2015.

For political opponents of the EU and of its member governments, this dual humanitarian and governance crisis that emerged after the fall of 2015 presented a giant opportunity to mobilize popular support for their anti-EU and anti-establishment causes.

They took migration politics as a gateway to get people hooked on whatever other political message(s) they are keen on pushing.

Gullible—or receptive?

There are probably many reasons why people are receptive to the scapegoating of migrants for their grievances. With Gülin Çavuş, I explored three:

1. Tribal tendencies

One idea that is often floated, or hinted, in the op-ed pages is that anti-migrant rhetoric appeals to our tribal nature. We are, after all, social animals. Migration feels almost “refreshing” as a topic because so many other political issues, like trade, feel technical.

It is very hard to reach out and pull in new adherents by talking about trade – even though it, too, may impact one’s livelihood.

Other issues, like health, feel personal. Talking healthcare can elicit strong support, even strong emotion, from people. However, the messaging and the mobilization required have an individualized character.

Migration politics indeed feels tribal. It is by nature divisive—it’s about “us” and “them.” The messaging and the mobilization therefore have a collective character. That can be alluring and addictive.

Migration taps a belonging need inside us that most other political issues don’t. It thus taps even into evolutionary psychology, a powerful force.

2. Historical grievances

Another reason for people’s receptivity to anti-migrant rhetoric is probably history—so much of which is a story of the struggles between “us” and “them.”

Remember that, across the EU, member governments took diverging, sometimes opposite, actions in response to the 2015 refugee crisis. History is surely part of the reason why.

In Germany, when Angela Merkel’s government announced in August 2015 that it would accept and process every one of the estimated 800,000 asylum claims that migrants presented to German authorities that year, German history — particularly the shadows of World War II — played a powerful role.

With regard to Viktor Orban’s hyper-restrictive refugee policies, although I am a bad student of Hungarian history, I do wonder how the Hungarian people’s collective memory of life under the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918) and then as a satellite of the Soviet Union (up until 1989) informs their migration politics today.

In both those empires, Hungarians were often treated as second-class citizens. As much as we may dislike Orban’s approach, in a country that has only enjoyed the free exploration and expression of national identity for three decades, we must at least recognize that the fear of “losing control again” to outsiders still plays powerfully.

I likewise wonder how earlier times (when, for centuries, people in what is now Hungary stared distrustfully eastward at the Islamic Ottoman Empire—and at times lived under Ottoman rule — still inform their present-day attitudes toward Islam and Muslims.

In that perspective, the European Union is only a recent add-on chapter in Hungarian European history (Hungary joined only in 2004).

No wonder then that the unanticipated arrival of a million newcomers to the EU borders in 2015 exposed how different the bloc’s collective imaginings remain.

3. Unconscious stereotypes

A third reason for people’s receptivity to anti-migrant rhetoric lies in how we all stereotype migrant issues in everyday political discourse—probably without even realizing it.

Last year, the Irish sociologist (also poet and guitarist) Eoin Devereux published a fascinating article. It was a blistering critique, really, by academic standards on how not only “social media” and “far right” political parties, but also “mainstream media” and mainstream politicians frame the debates surrounding migrants and migration in ways that muck up the real issues.

In the academic lingo of his paper, Devereux argues that:

Mainstream media coverage…has tended to reproduce hegemonic understandings of migration that have done little to inform the public about the many complexities involved…The abject failure by the media industries to explain migration in more critical and nuanced terms has a direct bearing on public knowledge and public responses to these issues.

He goes on to point out that news reports:

emphasize how the movement of people will inevitably have a negative impact on ‘us’ in the developed West and are conspicuously silent on the geopolitical and economic reasons why people are forced to flee from their homelands in the first place.

In a similar, 2018 critique of how European journalists covered the 2015 crisis, two Swiss academics, Vittoria Sacco and Valerie Gorin, observe that “the refugee we see in the media…always emerges as an essentially ambiguous figure, suspended between victimhood and malevolence.”

The refugee-as-victim is portrayed as the pained individual, or the suffering mass of unfortunates, lacking basic resources for survival and in need of our mercy.

But when, instead, the refugee stops being portrayed as a victim and instead is imbued with agency, we are then shown the refugee-as-evil-doer—imbued mainly with the capacity to do us harm, through greed or deception or malice or stealing our jobs away.

Vulnerable — or lethal. Submissive victim — or active terrorist. Mainstream discourse on migration is, for the most part, trapped in a simplistic dualism between charity and security that omits much of what makes migrants not just migrants, but human, too.

The post-truth reconstruction

Tribal tendencies. Historical grievances. Simplistic and exploitable stereotypes. Democracies have carried with them into the social media age a receptivity for ideas and attitudes that are fundamentally at-odds with the universalizing ideals upon which post-World War II institutions (like the European Union) were built.

That is why social media is dangerous. That is why Gülin’s job, telling people that a lie is a lie is so hard. It is simultaneously utopian, romantic and idealistic.


In short, to overturn “fake news” demands so much more than fact-checking. It takes educating society with critical thinking skills.

Editor’s Note: To read more articles by Chris Kutarna, visit his website by clicking here.


Many commentators label people’s willingness to accept false stories in social media as “gullibility.” But “receptivity” is a more accurate term.

Mainstream discourse on migration is trapped in a simplistic dualism between charity and security.

There are many reasons why people are receptive to the scapegoating of migrants for their grievances – tribal tendencies, historical grievances and unconscious stereotypes.

To overturn “fake news” demands so much more than fact-checking. It takes educating society with critical thinking skills.