The Networks and Narratives of Anti-Refugee Disinformation in Europe

1st July 2021

A new report from ISD details the findings of a study exploring digital manipulation around the refugee crisis in Greece throughout 2020. Grounded in a network-driven analysis, the research outlines the different online networks associated with anti-refugee disinformation and hatred in Greek, German and English languages.

The research reveals that the refugee crisis has acted as a catalyst for mobilising a transnational network of actors, including far-right extremists and elements of the political right, who often share common audiences and use similar tactics. It highlights that these networks do not act in isolation and evidences the dynamics by which anti-refugee disinformation is spread.

This dispatch outlines the key findings of the study and the broader impact of such analysis.

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Between 2015 and 2019, nearly 4.5 million people applied for asylum in the European Union, many travelling by sea routes across the Mediterranean. Over that period, 16,520 people died trying to make the journey. Dubbed the ‘refugee crisis’, migration remains a divisive and highly politicised topic in Europe. This crisis has taken place against a backdrop of widespread online manipulation. An increasingly diverse range of state and non-state actors are using a grab-bag of tactics to disrupt civic discourse online, stoking polarisation and extremism and inspiring violence. These actors have seized upon events such as the refugee crisis as a wedge issue, opportunistically using broader societal concerns around the impact migration may have on economic and social stability to galvanise hatred against minority communities.

Building a better understanding of the different networks weaponising the refugee crisis online and the narratives they employ is an important step in establishing evidence-driven responses to the proliferation of anti-migrant politics as well as hatred against refugees. ISD’s research seeks to contribute to this evidence base.

Key Findings

The Greek refugee crisis attracted and activated an international cohort of extremist actors.

Previous ISD research has demonstrated how far-right extremism is increasingly transnational in nature, and this research further evidences this dynamic. 60% of the sub-groups of accounts within the networks identified contained far-right elements. This included Identitarian accounts, conspiracy theorists, anti-Muslim groups and members of the alt-right.

Analysis of English language activity highlighted how the refugee crisis has activated networks in the UK, Canada, Australia and the United States. Similarly, it highlighted the involvement of Greek and German far-right networks in anti-refugee disinformation and hate.

These international actors are not operating in isolation. Analysts identified activity from one country that impacted on anti-refugee disinformation in another. In one instance, a German anti-refugee activist had travelled to Greece to produce content containing disinformation around the refugee crisis, resulting in spikes in anti-refugee disinformation in both Greece and Germany.

Anti-refugee disinformation has provided a crucial nexus for a range of far-right extremists, nativists and conspiracy theorists to overlap with political actors.

Across all contexts studied, analysts identified networked clusters of accounts connecting channels associated with the political mainstream with far-right extremists. This demonstrates how online support networks for political parties bleed into extremist ecosystems.

In the network of German language accounts associated with anti-refugee disinformation, analysts found strong evidence of cross-over between channels associated with the Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) and far-right extremist channels. The interconnection of AfD-affiliated channels with far-right channels represented 41% of the German language network analysed.

In the Greek language network, analysts found evidence of mainstream right and pro-government networks converging with the far-right in anti-refugee messaging and disinformation. During major incidents involving refugees, such networks and messaging converged on both Greek language Twitter and Facebook.

Greek political personalities such Artemis Sorras of the “Assembly of Greeks” party have established networks that serve as epicentres of disinformation in general and anti-refugee discourse and hate in particular. Across English language networks associated with anti-refugee hostility, there was evidence that grassroots ‘supporter groups’ for Boris Johnson and Priti Patel were networked with far-right entities. This networking does not show that political parties support extremist activity. However, it does show that their supporters online are also actively engaged in anti-refugee activity, and that their messaging is being shared by accounts associated with anti-refugee hatred and disinformation.

Elected officials were found to play a role in the amplification of anti-refugee disinformation and hatred.

In the Greek context, anti-refugee disinformation was found to occur in a feedback loop between the radical fringes, political actors and the media. In several instances, there was evidence that comments made by members of the New Democracy party in Greece were helping to fuel anti-refugee disinformation. For example, comments made by Greek government spokesperson Stelios Petsas promoting disinformation around the deaths of refugees on the Greece/Turkey border were amongst the most widely shared posts identified in our English language network. In the German context, several elected officials from the AfD were identified as promoting anti-refugee hatred and disinformation.

The direct overlap between networks associated with mainstream political parties in Greece and Germany and extremist ecosystems indicates that such political rhetoric, which draws on widespread concerns around migration, will find a receptive audience amongst a global network of far-right extremists which has been becoming increasingly violent over the past five years.

The Evros border incident and the fires in migrant camps in Moria highlight how key events can act as flashpoints for transnational, multilingual spikes in anti-refugee mobilisation.

In the German language network, activity surged by 115% between February and March 2020, which was associated with the Evros border crisis. The Moria fires in September 2020 saw the highest peak of activity in the analysed German language network throughout 2020, with 9,395 posts made.

Comparatively, in the Greek language network, activity surged by 35% around the Evros border incident, and by 75% around the Moria fires. In our English language network, the Evros border incident saw the highest peak of activity throughout 2020, with 147 messages made on 2 March 2020.

Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) working with refugees are common targets for harassment and disinformation, both on and offline.

Across the Greek, German and English contexts analysed, NGOs working with refugees were common targets for disinformation. This included the widespread promotion of long-standing conspiracy theories, such as that that NGOs are actively involved in bringing refugees to Europe with the express aim of ‘Islamising’ the continent and replacing native Europeans.

In the Greek and German contexts, more targeted anti-NGO rhetoric was identified, including suggestions that organisations working with refugees in Greece are actively involved in smuggling people and drugs. In Greece, these conspiracies were amplified by the national press. These narrative attacks do not exist in a vacuum and in a number of instances NGOs working in Greece have been subject to intimidation and violence. If such narratives are left unchecked and unopposed, these instances are likely to increase.

In the English language network, there was evidence of pro-refugee NGOs being mentioned by accounts associated with Greek nationalism, the Greek far-right and the far-right in the UK, demonstrating that accounts which are hostile to refugees are actively targeting organisations which are sympathetic to them. This demonstrates that online manipulation around the refugee crisis does not just target refugees themselves but the broader sector of organisations working to support these communities.

Broader Implications of the Analysis

The refugee crisis is a pivotal issue across Europe. The key findings outlined in this article highlight the way in which networks are activated around key crises, such as events on the Evros border or the fires in Moria, to agitate around long-established hostilities against refugees, minority groups, and the organisations who are deemed to have helped them. The fluidity of these networks helps keep migration consistently relevant to a multitude of different extremist ecosystems and makes clear that while migration to Europe has reduced dramatically, anti-migrant discourse has evolved to focus on the migrants already there.

The full analysis evidences that the increasingly concerted efforts of a range of actors involved in such discourse and that the promotion of hostility and hatred against refugees are transnational and long-range. These actors adeptly mobilise to take advantage of crises as, when and where they arise. That has serious implications not only for the safety of refugees, migrants and those who work with them, but also in terms of bolstering support for extreme and populist political forces in Europe over the longer term.

Effective response to this problem will require long-term investment into the analytical infrastructure needed to allow the continuous identification, exposure, disruption and mitigation of coordinated influence campaigns designed to undermine progress on migration policy and action. Such infrastructure will enable governments, policymakers and stakeholders combating anti-refugee disinformation and hatred to maximise the effectiveness of responses to a problem that will prove to be – along with climate change – an existential threat to the safety and security of the EU and its Member States over the coming decade and beyond.

 

This article is an abridged version of the full report which can be accessed here.

 

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