A Lesson in (Social) Media Manipulation

This is another ILPPS transplant. More commentary on the power of manipulation through the written word.

The migrant crisis seems to have brought out the best and the worst in everybody in Europe. Supporters at Bundesliga football matches in Germany last year held up signs saying “refugees welcome”. In stark contrast, right wing commentators on social media are asking “Why do they all want to come here?! Its obveius, its 2 take are benefitz!!!11!111”.

Source: Globe and Mail based on UNHCR stats.

Why Are They All Coming Here?

Figures released last week show that they aren’t all “coming here“. The UK has taken far fewer than anybody so far and in the grand scheme of things, there is not a single European or North American country in the top 10 of refugee destinations. Above are the top 5 destinations. Jordan, Kenya, Chad, Uganda and China complete the top 10. Please visit the link for a full report. Why does this belief persist? Because the mainstream media, even the BBC who are often accused of having a “leftie bias” (despite have spent all of 2014 sucking up to UKIP), only seem to interview those who wish to come to the UK and are nearly on our doorstep anyway. This fuels the false belief that “they all want to come here and steal our benefits and take our jobs” when those are the only people we see – merely a tiny fraction of those fleeing Syria and the surrounding region.

We do not talk to those moving to Turkey or to China, or for that matter, those going to Germany (who are taking more than anyone else in Europe). In turn, this belief about refugees flooding into Europe fuels resentment, even amongst people who might not otherwise consider themselves xenophobic. We then get more daily reports of migrants and asylum seekers at Calais trying any means necessary to get through The Channel Tunnel. It’s a vicious circle in which we get a false picture of the real situation which is self-perpetuating. By failing to focus at all on countries that are taking on far more than we are, it once again fuels this belief. Even within Europe, we are small fry in the numbers game. We need to take a look at the bigger picture before casting judgement and not letting the media fuel our prejudices.

IS Fighter Now Claiming Asylum?

Please consider the following two images and read the captions:

Remember this guy? Posing in ISIS photos last year – now he’s a “refugee”. Are we suckers or what?

Now look at this one and read the caption:

Remember this guy? A year ago, ISIS attacked his village, raped his wife and killed his 3 year old son. Now he's back in Syria helping militia fight against ISIS
Remember this guy? A year ago, ISIS attacked his village, raped his wife and killed his 3 year old son. Now he’s back in Syria helping militia fight against ISIS

Based purely on the caption and on your political view, which do you think is true? Take a minute to think about which you think is more plausible. The first is a widely circulating meme on Facebook (including the caption). You’ve probably seen it, you’ve probably shared it and you probably took it at face value – that the person sharing is telling you the truth. The second is a variation that I just made up. Yes, I made it up to appeal to another (but different) section of people.

Neither caption is true – both stories are made up. What you choose to believe and how each is presented are exactly the same regardless of which you felt with your gut instinct was the correct version of events.

  • We do not know who he is
  • We do not know where he is
  • We do not know how old either photograph is
  • We have no proof that the time frames are as claimed (in the second picture, I switched them around to support my invented story)
  • Dark skinned man holding a gun does not necessarily mean he is with ISIS any more than it means he is with any other militia group – with or against ISIS
  • We don’t even know he’s a Muslim
  • There is no context to either photograph by which we can make a proper and full evaluation of what we are being shown here

The problem is that people are reading, sharing and believing such stories uncritically based purely on what they choose to believe – in the first instance that this man is an evil Muslim murderer who is “coming over here” to take our benefits and then kill us. They accept that Europe is such a soft touch that we would give asylum to a man who just twelve months ago was fighting with ISIS against all of the forces united against them. There is a true story to pick out from these two photographs.

I was not surprised to learn that my totally made up version of events was not true. I was equally not surprised to learn that neither was the one doing the rounds on Facebook. The real story is here. This man has fought against Al Qaeda, he has fought against ISIS and he has fought against the Syrian Regime. He wants to come to Europe because he can no longer live in Syria – he is just the sort of person we should be helping to make a better life elsewhere.

Think before you share. You might think that your own political point of view is immune from such reactionary jumps to judgement, but it isn’t. Left and right are equally guilty. Think before you share, fact check before you share. Just because somebody is on our side politically, doesn’t mean they are not a manipulator or a liar.


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