The COVID-19 pandemic is dramatically increasing the polarization of migration narratives. We can act before it distorts migration policy making.

Ways of life. Ways to move.

COVID 19 has not only caused an unprecedented damage to the world’s health systems and economy. It has significantly “infected” our societies with a sense of insecurity, fear and fragmentation. Our current conceptions of human contact, exchange, trade, and discovery are wandering towards unknown directions.

In this transitory ideological dilemma, global conceptions of “home” are gaining new value. In his book Demeure, French philosopher Francois Xavier Bellamy explains the difference between “Somewheres” citizens, rooted in a specific place or community, usually a small town or in the countryside, socially conservative, often less educated – and those who could come from “Anywhere”: footloose, often urban, socially liberal and university educated. This idea was first developed in a more specific British context by David Goodhart in “The Road to Somewhere”, where he explains that Somewheres are characterised by an unease with the modern world, a nostalgic sense that “change is loss” and the strong belief that it is the job of British leaders to put the interests of Britons first. Anywheres, meanwhile, are free of nostalgia; egalitarian and meritocratic in their attitude to race, sexuality, gender, and light in their attachments “to larger group identities, including national ones. They value autonomy and self-realisation before stability, community and tradition”. One key element to consider in the analysis of the current migration narrative in Europe is, according to Goodhart, that Anywheres have ignored and labelled as xenophobic the discomfort that many people felt over the rapid ethnic change across the country.”  This caused a sentimental and emotional alienation of Somewheres, resulting frequently in admiration for new populist or extreme positions on migration. Inevitably, the COVID19 pandemic will further embitter this debate, not only by challenging the reasons for people to move and settle in new places but, even more dangerously, criticizing the values behind those reasons.

Everywhere the virus goes, it will affect the local way of life.  Especially in Europe, where society draws its principles from the Enlightenment, where life is lived ordinarily on an intimate scale, where people bump shoulders on the street or in the café and friends great each other with kisses on the cheeks, this way of life will be affected greatly.  People are now “told” or “highly encouraged” to hide inside their cities and neighborhoods, to “protect themselves” from friends, colleagues and even family. This situation makes the title of EU Commissioner for “Promoting our European Way of Life” Margaritis Schinas more timely than ever. Will we now need to protect, promote or renew what we call “European way of life” after COVID-19?

Stronger polarization

The crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic has overshadowed existing migration debates in the Euro Mediterranean region. Yet, this very crisis is inextricably linked with mobility, movement and its governance. This pandemic reveals the actual complexities of migration debates, too often reduced to a simple polarized dichotomy: On one side, we have the highly emotional reporting of the humanitarian plight of desperate migrants who risk their lives on treacherous journeys. On the other hand, we have coverage that depicts migration as a threat to the security, welfare and culture of host communities. However, the reality of migration is a lot richer and full of positive stories and data than that.

In the media coverage and public discourse, migration is frequently presented as “out of control”. Irregular migration, which makes up a tiny proportion of actual mobility, dominates the discussion, despite the downward trend in overall in asylum applications in comparison to the peak of migration pressure. The notion of migration perceived as a threat to host communities has become the norm around much of the region. Unfortunately, on the policy-making side not enough has been done to close the gap between public perceptions and the real figures and actuality of migration.

Images of vulnerable families crossing oceans on precarious boats and enduring winters in makeshift refugee camps have become ingrained parts of this narrative. It is important for all professionals in the field of migration to remind our audiences, from large conferences to family dinners, that this is not the full picture. The reality, root causes and trends of are very different and complex. Every time anyone falls into the tempting arms of simplification for the cause of visibility or inability to explain contributes to distorting this narrative.

The alarming surge in disinformation related to the Covid19 pandemic prompts similar questioning. In both cases, public communication is facing tremendous difficulties in asserting scientific evidence and regaining control of the overall narrative. The coronavirus pandemic has only fanned the flames further. A number of political leaders have tried to capitalise on the disease’s spread to fuel anti-migrant narratives and curb migrants’ rights to protection while references to the “Chinese virus” fuel a narrative of fear, discrimination and conspiracy. Migration evokes strong emotions: it gets tangled up with suspicion of difference, hostility to anyone outside the “we” group. In an age of fake news and deliberate misinformation, migration is perhaps most susceptible to this distortion.

An unexpected change of narratives

The story of migration from Africa is typically told as an irreversible mass exodus from conflict or climate change, from social unrest to lacking resources. However, despite popular belief, in almost 30 years, the scale of the global migrant population has increased only marginally, from 2.9% of the global population in 1990 to 3.4% in 2017. Migration patterns may have changed, but they have not significantly increased. African migrants account for only 14% of the global migrant population: significantly less than migrants from Asia, which account for 41%, or Europe, which account for 24%.

As reported by ECPDM, two interesting and at times ironic, perceptions and narrative shifts have emerged during the fight against COVID-19 and the macroeconomic doom the virus has generated. The first relates to how tables have turned on migration and mobility between Europe and Africa, and to how the general “control and contain” attitude towards African mobility to Europe is currently reversed, albeit temporarily. The second is the realisation that limitless mobility within Europe and easy travel access to much of the rest of the world has been taken for granted when it was in fact a privilege.

European visitors and migrants in Africa shared their experiences of social rejection and harassment, though this is occurring on a micro-scale and such anecdotes are more an anomaly than the norm. Nonetheless, these incidents mimic the sentiments we so often see in European populists’ narrative towards migrants. In time of crisis, policy-makers have a particular responsibility in ensuring the credibility of public responses. This requires understanding first where and why institutional communication fails to convince.  In this sense, the ICMPD’s flagship policy initiative “Breaking Gridlocks and Moving Forward: Recommendations for the next five years of EU migration policy” calls for more transparency in migration communication as a way to reach out to sceptical demographics.

It is time to shift the conversation on from migration crisis to migration capital and Covid-19 is a good time to dig out good news. The benefits of migration are directly proportionate to the visibility of positive stories about it and the great thing is that the vast majority of these stories are very beneficial to host communities.

There is unexplored potential, now more than ever, to discuss about “champions of migration”: individuals, or groups of people, who have made a powerful contribution to their host society, and often country of origin, in ways that are not publicly recognized. They are men and women demonstrate exceptional ability in in different realms, from entrepreneurship to public service, from health to innovation, from academia to sports. Their experiences offer a counterpoint to stuck conversations about the burdens and pressure of migration. They are examples of potential being realised, opportunities being seized in ways that make them active members of their new city, region or country.

In most high-income countries, migrants make up a large share of health workers and are more likely to be on the frontline of the COVID-19 response. Furthermore, “key workers” performing ‘systemically relevant’ jobs, like the example of formerly exploited African migrants that have now set up a co-operative near Rome selling vegetables and yoghurt, cannot be neglected. Now societies appreciate the importance of these sectors more and show them the recognition and respect they deserve but usually do not receive.

If these people were framed as “champions” not as “burdens”, their potential to rebalance a hyper-distorted narrative would be impressive and beneficial for all policy makers. Too often, these stories remain limited to greatly written articles on international outlets, but hardly touch the hearts of citizens outside of great urban centre. Rarely such stories are advertised in local papers, TV stations or targeted Facebook groups. While these stories get international attention in communities that already embrace an open attitude towards migration, they remain buried in communities where the migration debate is the harshest. More accurate targeting (especially digitally) is fundamental to reverse this trend.

What can international organizations to tackle the polarization of the debate?

  1. Let positive stories be heard

Migration is not an inherently negative phenomenon. For centuries, migration has fostered global trade links, shaped nations, fueled human endeavors and enabled skills and cultures to be shared across the globe. As world leaders recognized in the first-ever United Nations Global Compact on Migration in December 2018, migration, “is a source of prosperity, innovation and sustainable development in our globalized world.” Humanity has always been on the move. Migrations are the fabric of our shared existence and have strengthened continents, countries and communities for millennia. Migrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. Migrants are net contributors and demographics trends make clear that labour market demand for migrant labour will increase in the coming decade. Economically, they invent products, start companies and create jobs. Mobile foreign-born and technically skilled entrepreneurs are bringing about profound transformations in the global economy. Hence, it is important to talk about mobility and migration in a realistic and balanced way as a human condition that can affect us all positively and deliver progress in the region.

It is time to shift the conversation on from migration crisis to migration capital, from the perception of threat to the recognition of opportunity.  Data on its own has proved to be a limited tool in responding to imbalances in perception. Real-life examples, human stories and symbols can provide a more relatable way to engage public opinion. Success stories, large and small have a vital role to play in shifting attention and salience from the negative to the positive side of this phenomenon.

The benefits of migration are directly proportionate to the visibility of positive stories about it. The great thing is that the vast majority of migration stories are very positive and beneficial to host communities.

Introducing “Champions of Migration”

In particular, we find that there is unexplored potential, now more than ever, to discuss about “Champions of migration”: individuals, or groups of people, who have made a powerful contribution to their host society, and often country of origin, in ways that are not publicly recognized. Champions of Migration are men and women who demonstrate exceptional ability in in different realms, from entrepreneurship to public service, from investments to innovation, from politics to academia and from sports to arts. Their life stories and experience offer a counterpoint to stuck conversations about the burdens and pressure of migration. They are examples of potential being realised, opportunities being seized in ways that make them active members of their new city, region or country.

Their power lies in the profoundly personal ways they contribute to changing perceptions at the local level and provide a means to amplify their message in a wider context and promote a new balanced narrative on migration.

While displaying greatness, virtue and merit it is important to point out that migration is not a story of winners and losers. Members of the hosting community must not feel like they are “giving in” to a situation they cannot control or that their emotions and concerns are not taken into account by governments and policy-makers. Rather, they must be empowered to promote their way of life instead of feeling the need to protect it from an external threat. On the other hand, migrants must not feel like they are taking part in a competition where only a few exceptional members of their community are rewarded for doing things that receive attention, praise and media visibility.

Extremely successful migrants in sports, business, science and arts already have a powerful impact on public perception of people born outside their country of residence.  But “champions of migration” is not a concept intended only to exalt the exceptional few at the expense of embracing the many. It is a concept that seeks to make the everyday accomplishments and contributions of migrants visible, human and relatable.

  1. Analyse issue salience.

As explained in “Impact of Public Attitudes to migration on the political environment in the Euro-Mediterranean Region” as salience increases, both emotion and knowledge of the issue increase. Journalism that is well-informed, value-balanced and evidence-based is crucial to informing the public and creating an environment in which negative feedback loops are avoided. Emotional engagement is how media framing is likely to have the most influence on issue salience, and subsequent political behaviour. Polarisation results from individuals selectively choosing which information they are exposed to following emotional activation. This seems to be a self-reinforcing cycle.

The causes of variation in issue salience remain undertheorized and are rarely tested. Salience varies between individuals according to three factors: self-interest, social identification and values, whereas it varies across time according to ‘prominent events or problems’ that ‘focus national attention.’

Higher salience causes activation of one’s emotional systems and interest in the issue by citizens. Emotions activated via higher salience include anger, sadness, disgust, pride, hope, happiness, fear and sympathy. It is this emotional activation, which may be why individuals base their political behaviour on certain issues, this seems to be the case for immigration. There is a need for more detailed data on migration issue salience—not just the salience of ‘immigration’ but also particular aspects such as irregular immigration.

  1. Fight disinformation

Unreliable and false information is spreading around the world to such an extent, that some commentators are now referring to the new avalanche of misinformation that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic as an “infodemic”. In times of high fears, uncertainties and unknowns, there is fertile ground for fabrications to flourish and grow.

According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), Anti-migrant and far-right networks are exploiting the Covid-19 situation to spread disinformation targeting migrants, refugees and other vulnerable populations on- and offline, as well as explicit threats of violence. In such an environment, it is hardly surpris­ing that broader conspiracy theories are flourishing. The general use of the term ‘coronavirus’ for this specific outbreak has fed many conspiracy theorists, as the term is actually broadly used in epidemiology for a family of viruses, meaning that refer­ences and patents relating to ‘coronavirus’ existed well before this specific outbreak in 2019-2020.

Conspiratorial narratives targeting migrants detected on social networks include:

  • Suggestions that migrant routes, and in particular the ongoing situation on the Greece/Turkey border in Europe or the Mexico border in the US, will act as a vector for the virus to spread.
  • Speculation that immigrant and minor­ity communities in major cities will use the virus as an opportunity to riot.
  • Migrants specifically are ignoring coronavirus lockdown rules and asylum seekers are rioting against quarantine and flying ISIS flags.
  • Migrants are taking the opportunity of the pandemic to “invade Europe”

This surge in anti-migrants narrative is extremely dangerous. Beneath the spread of all “fake news,” misinformation, disinformation, digital falsehoods and foreign influence lies society’s failure to teach its citizens information literacy: how to think critically about the deluge of information that confronts them in our modern digital age. Instead, society has prioritized speed over accuracy, sharing over reading, commenting over understanding. To truly solve the issue of disinformation we must blend technological assistance with teaching our citizens to be literate consumers of the world around them.

  1. Cooperate with social media companies

As I openly advocated in a keynote at the latest Club of Venice plenary, the power to tackle disinformation is in the hands of social media companies but governments and international organizations have a role to play in pushing for stronger and firmer policies and laws to prevent the spread of disinformation.

Fighting disinformation has to be a coordinated effort involving all relevant actors, from institutions to social platforms, from news media to consumers’ associations. These must closely cooperate with online platforms in order for them to promote authoritative sources, demote content that is fact-checked as false or misleading, and take down illegal content or content that could cause physical harm.

From the side of the institutions, three things can be done:

·         Increase the technological knowledge of policy makers. There is still an important gap between the institutions’ knowledge of how social media work and the knowledge needed to effectively legislate to regulate the spectrum of action of tech and media companies. This is a good time to invest in related knowledge and expertise.

·         International organizations and governments have the legal, legislative and normative power and the political weight to push for responsible advertising. While internet companies have taken major steps in this direction, the ultimate legal framework for action must be led by governments.

·         We must not fall into the tempting arms of “fashionable hating” just because it may benefit our image. Many celebrities, including prominent European and American politicians are using Facebook as a scapegoat for their own inability to address the public, labeling it as some sort “disinformation-for-profit machine.” Simply resorting to accusations, that paradoxically are often intended to get likes, views or engagement on the very platforms that are criticized, solves no issues.

What can internet companies do?

Social media companies are in the front line to tamp down coronavirus misinformation. While Facebook has recently been criticized for its unwillingness to block false political ads, the company has had the most clear-cut policy on COVID-19 misinformation. It relies on third-party fact-checkers and health authorities flagging problematic content, and removes posts that fail the tests. It also blocks or restricts hashtags that spread misinformation on its sister platform, Instagram.

For reasons of credibility and reliability, it is time that internet companies co-draft standards of practice like tv, radio and newspapers do. As mentioned before, this needs to be enforced by institutions and still today more legislative work is needed. In every industry, a company is liable when their product is defective. In every industry you can be sued for the harm they cause. Government can push to have social networks accountable when this happens, the power is in their hand. Companies should be more proactive in making this would-be-historic step a reality.

Enact coordinated and positive communication action now.

ICMPD has long been leading the way in supporting the establishment of a more balanced narrative on migration especially via the The Mediterranean City-to-City Migration Project (MC2CM) and EUROMED Migration IV. The former brings together experts and cities to contribute to improved migration governance at city level, including migrants’ access to basic services and human rights. The latter supports EU Member States and the European Neighbourhood Instrument Southern Partner Countries in establishing a comprehensive, constructive and operational dialogue and co-operation framework on migration. These activities are implemented with a constant view to the cross cutting issue of reconnecting migration and knowledge. It aims to accumulate evidence-based knowledge, and establish effective communication, in order to contribute to a more balanced narrative on migration in the region. These efforts are today more important than ever and they must continue their work for better migration governance, better protection of migrants and better inclusion of the voices of host communities.

Organizations and government must work together to offer a dignified life to displaced people in a way that they can be active contributors to their host communities. They must make sure that great examples of success are well communicated and presented as a demonstration that cooperation, even in the toughest situations, is stronger than division. It is essential that we cooperate to prevent that hate-speech and inappropriate language poison relationships and divide people more than this pandemic is already doing. It is of the utmost importance that the lives of migrants are not considered political pawns or mere rhetorical bargaining chips.

We need clear, honest and open voices to start this new narrative. This pandemic represents an unfortunate but unmissable opportunity to start.

How the COVID-19 ‘Infodemic’ targets migrants

One of the more sinister aspects of the global pandemic is the spread of deliberately misleading information online. ICMPD’s Regional Office for the Mediterranean considers how disinformation networks work to falsely portray migrants as vectors for the disease.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a threat to health. It has also increased the potential for panic within societies. Aggressive states and political extremists want to manipulate this for political ends by spreading disinformation — to the extent that the UN has declared a global ‘infodemic’ a alongside the crisis itself. Migrants are a classic and very vulnerable target of such networks, first because the subject of immigration itself generates fear; and second because migrants are over-represented in the populations of 10 of the 15 countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases.

Fertile ground to misinform

Disinformation is used to sow panic and dismay in the target population, lower trust in authorities and fragment social cohesion. According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), disinformation networks are now trying to combine the low level of public debate on migration with anxiety about COVID-19 to depict migrants as an elevated threat to public health. Typically, the tools used are automated software programmes (‘bots’) which spread stylised messages across social media platforms in the hope they will be picked up and repeated.

Some narratives include:

  • Suggestions that migration routes, in particular along the Greek-Turkish border, are acting as a vector for the virus to spread
  • Speculation that immigrant and minor­ity communities in major cities are using the virus as an opportunity to riot
  • Claims that migrants specifically ignore lockdown rules and asylum seekers are violently resisting quarantine
  • Claims that migrants will use the pandemic as an opportunity to ‘invade Europe’.

Certain categories of migrants such as irregular migrants in the Mediterranean are particularly affected by COVID-19 -related disinformation since they are already subject to overly simplistic media framing. Under lockdown, Italy and Malta closed their ports in response to the COVID-19 crisis. But irregular crossings in the Mediterranean continue as do tensions over how to handle the people rescued.  Disinformation campaigns threaten to inflame this highly sensitive situation, where human rights, security concerns, border control and the essential trust needed to sustain third country cooperation are all in play.

How the COVID-19 ‘Infodemic’ targets migrants

Anti-disinformation action

Cooperation between authorities and media is not without hurdles and dialogue is often contentious. The Ethical Journalism Network has published specific guidelines on how to report accurately on COVID-19 in response to discriminatory rhetoric and sensationalist media coverage propelling discrimination, very much in line with ICMPD’s own Observations on media and migration (released as part of the EUROMED Migration IV project).

In Europe, the EU institutions are trying to dispel myths about the pandemic and have condemned statements portraying migrants or specific ethnic groups as responsible for the disease. The Croatian Ministry of Interior has responded to rumours about asylum seekers allegedly spreading COVID-19 by clarifying that asylum seekers residing in Croatian shelters were not infected. Similarly, the Spanish government condemned outright any attempt to use the pandemic to spread xenophobia.

Tech companies have a critical role. According to a special report from the European External Action Service, most online platforms have worked to increase the visibility of the World Health Organisation and other authoritative, reliable sources of health-related content. Facebook announced it would take down “claims that are designed to discourage treatment or taking appropriate precautions”. The company asks third-party fact-checkers and health authorities to flag problematic content and removes posts that fail the tests. Facebook is also offering free ad space to national health ministries and reliable organisations to advertise accurate information on COVID-19. Twitter broadened its definition of ‘harm’ to address content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information and announced it would make greater use of machine-learning and automation to track abusive and manipulative content. Such efforts are key but research also suggests that there is still a way to go before an effective model is found.

One way to counter such disinformation is to highlight how migrant workers keep societies functional during lockdown restrictions and spread greater awareness of how countries, regions and cities are in fact making huge efforts to retain migrants due to their contribution to the COVID-19 response. The Overseas Development Institute collates hard information and statistics on this phenomenon, which shows that there is wealth of solid examples and good news stories to draw from.

Stronger efforts needed

Debates over immigration and asylum have always been highly susceptible to misrepresentation, which in turn has often produced sub-optimal policy and hampered integration efforts. In the age of disinformation, it is even harder to achieve a balanced public discussion that is functional rather than antagonistic to effective governance, reconciles evidence with the need for emotional resonance, and achieves a greater understanding about the costs and benefits of immigration. A vital step towards winning space for this in the public sphere will be for governments, institutions, news sources, civil society and the big digital platforms to work together to promote authoritative sources. Otherwise crude, misleading narratives take root and develop a life of their own. That was true before the COVID-19 pandemic. It is even more true, now.

The original version of this article was published on ICMPD

Cities need a stronger role in migration governance

Following an intervention at the latest ARLEM Plenary in Barcelona, I would like to spend a few words on a fantastic project I am now working on at the International Centre for Migration and Policy Development (ICMPD)

While the issue of migration management in the Euro-Mediterranean region seemed to have seen a time of reduced salience over the past months, recent events have brought the topic back up on the policy making agenda.

As one of the greatest political challenges of our times, migration is too complex and nuanced to be addressed solely by one nation, one ministry or one city alone. All levels of governance must work together by understanding and accepting the functional part each of them plays. National governments cannot act alone on such a multi-faceted and evolving issue and cities must acknowledge and embrace their own role as necessary active agents in migration governance.

11th ARLEM Plenary, Barcelona, 23/01/2020

Why is this important? It is at the local level that the reality of migration affect peoples’ lives, whether they are newly arrived immigrants or long-term residents of a city. Migration has a direct impact on cities, its administrators and its people. However, cities currently hardly influence the conceptualization and application of migration policies, which are mostly drafted on a national or supranational level. This creates a governance discrepancy between policy-making and policy-implementation.

If this continues, there are serious risks that migration policies will impair the level of social cohesion of the territories and disrupt the quality of life of its inhabitants. Better synergies between cities and governments are necessary across all policy areas such as employment, education and urban planning that have a direct impact on mobility and migration.

This is where the benefit of the MC2CM project is shown at best.

This ICMPD-led project (in partnership with UCLG and UN-Habitat and supported by the EU and Swiss government) helps policy makers bridge this gap and raise awareness, to the most relevant stakeholders, about the challenges, opportunities and needs to address. Migration is a territorial challenge with numerous different traits. It cannot be tackled with a one-size-fit-all type of approach.

MC2CM is building experience and knowledge about migration at the local level and informing stakeholders through our dialogues and practices in the regions. Over the the past five years, the project:

  • Involved 20 cities as active members of its networks in the Euro-Mediterranean.
  • Welcomed over 400 representatives from 100 different local administrations.
  • Published 9 City Migration Profiles in its first phase (Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Lisbon, Lyon, Madrid, Tangier, Tunis, Turin). The second phase of the project already counts 7 profiles under work (Casablanca, Rabat, Oujda, Sousse, Sfax, Seville and Cadiz costal area), and 4 more will follow mid 2020 (Grenoble, Naples, Irbid and Ramallah).
  • Supported cities dialogues and mutual learning across 12 thematic events (on social cohesion; access to education; communication; culture; civil society involvement) and high-level panels.
  • The project allocates 800.000€ grants for local actions in SPCs countries to support migrants’ inclusion and local authorities’ role in migration governance.

Concretely the project advocates for:

  • Supporting the set-up of inter-administrative cooperation and multilevel governance.
  • Developing the knowledge and data sets amassed on local migration contexts to provide a solid evidence-base to future local actions.
  • Promote a diverse economy and support new labour opportunities involving local entrepreneurship, innovative economic sectors and vocational training as efficient tools to foster access to employment.
  • Facilitate dialogue with trade unions and social entities, thus contributing to a proper monitoring of the labour market and avoiding exploitative measures towards migrants.
  • Facilitate qualifications and skills recognition to enable the incorporation of newcomers in the labour market, along with the introduction of new skills and opportunities in local economies.

Further acceptance for immigration and migrants’ rights can only be achieved through policies that ensure that no member of a community feels left behind. We need to address the pressing issue of host communities expressing dissatisfaction with the way migration is playing out in their territories.

Through our project we saw some example of how cities such as Amman, who has seen their population double in less than a decade due to migration and forced displacement, or Vienna, with a third of its population of foreign origin – do not see migration as a problem but as a task of governance they can deal with very successfully.

Partnerships for development 

There is a huge potential for such initiatives that bring together the national level, the city level, the private sector and the people, be they migrants or non-migrants. If any of these are left out, we are likely to failWe need to stop paying lip service to cooperation and start enacting it in practice.

We should keep building strong coalitions among donors, international organizations and government representatives. This includes establishing standing communication lines between the various existing initiatives to avoid duplication and fragmentation, as it is often the case.

ICMPD is fully committed to broadening our support for local and regional authorities in building their capacity to address migration challenges and benefit from migration as a tool for local development. We aspire to accompany national governments, as we do in several Mediterranean countries, in their efforts to embrace comprehensive migration policies.

ARLEM has the mandate to voice the needs of local and regional authorities in the Euro-Mediterranean and influence decentralization frameworks both at EU level and in Southern Partnership Countries (SPCs). This meets the aim of the work we are carrying out in the MC2CM project and the spirit of our promotion of city-to-city cooperation.

A New Balanced Narrative on Migration – Attaining rights-based migration policy through a balanced public debate on migration

On 24 February 2020, ICMPD’s Director General was a panelist at the High-Level Panel Discussion “A New Balanced Narrative on Migration – Attaining rights-based migration policy through a balanced public debate on migration” in Geneva.

The panelists were Hon. Evarist Bartolo, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of Malta, H.E. Ambassador Ehab Fawzy, Assistant Foreign Minister for Multilateral Affairs and International Security of Egypt and Carl Hallegard, Deputy Head of the EU Delegation to the UN Office in Geneva.

The event took place within the 43rd Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council and was co-organised with Malta, the Permanent Mission of the Arab Republic of Egypt, with the support of the European Union in framework of Euromed Migration Programme, which is implemented by ICMPD.

Panelists discussed ways to enable policy makers and international actors to better respect human rights as enshrined in international law in the development of migration policies by fostering a less polarized and evidence-based public debate on migration.

Director General Spindelegger highlighted the importance of good communication and proper information sharing: “We have seen that people do not feel well-informed about migration issues. From research, we know that people feel a strong need to discuss about migration and to exchange on their beliefs and concerns. Our political communication has to ensure an open and frank discussion with the people and the media as main messengers towards the public.”

Furthermore, the Director General conveyed the potential of positive stories and reporting in shaping the narrative on migration. “In 2018, more than 330,000 people received a positive decision on their asylum application in the EU. This is a strong confirmation of the rights-based approach of the EU and the will to help people in need of the protection. In the same year, there were almost 200,000 returns of people who did not fulfil the requirements for staying in the EU. This is a confirmation of the fact that the system is willing and able to enforce its decisions.”

The dangers of an uncontrolled online veracity market

I was very pleased to speak at the Club of Venice Plenary to discuss a topic that especially in the modern times of post-truth, false news and high polarization of the institutional and political debate in Europe, is of the utmost importance for communicators, analysts and all those involved in making laws that regulate and protect the information market and the veracity of what billions of people see every day by scrolling their thumb on their phones.
It was important to address this in Venice, a historic crossroads of cultural, religious, trading and intellectual exchange that has been recently unfortunately in the news also for some of disastrous effects of global warming and a city mentioned in Ursula Von Der Leyen’s speech before the European Parliament as a real symbol of European unity and as a symbol of the challenges that we need to face all together as Europeans.
Disinformation is not a new issue but it is certainly an issue that has assumed a new amplitude with the advent of social networks that share information at an unprecedented pace. The issue of disinformation is not merely confined to analyzing the way social networks work. It relates to a discussion that affects how we perceive society and the future of democracy.
Disinformation is a cause of public harm, a threat to democratic policy making and a danger for citizens’ health, security and their environment. It erodes trust in institutions, and it hampers the ability of citizens to take informed decisions. It has polarized most political debates, deepened tensions in society, undermined electoral systems, and has a wider impact on European security that we may tend to think. It impairs freedom of opinion and expression, which is a key principle enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
Unfortunately, these are indeed times where conspiracy theories ones confined to the fringe, are going mainstream. It is an era where evidential argument seems to be ending and scientific consensus is dismissed. It is an era where nothing generates more engagement than lies, fear and outrage,
A recent Oxford University study found at least 70 countries have launched disinformation campaigns and despite increased efforts by internet platforms to combat disinformation, the use of false news dissemination by governments around the world is growing, We must firstly acknowledge that globally the biggest multipliers of disinformation are mostly governments, mostly not democratic or not accountable legally nor politically for pursuing such society-controlling actions. They either spread disinformation to discredit political opponents or to interfere in foreign affairs and this is concerning for all European elections.
Such online disinformation campaigns can no longer be understood to be the work of “lone hackers, or individual activists, or teenagers in the basement doing things for clickbait.” There is a new professionalism to the activity, with formal organizations that use very powerful and well organized networks to carry out these activities. This cannot be underestimated anymore.
On the other hand, we must keep in mind that access to social media is an actual support for modern day democracy. Any move by authorities to restrict access to, censor or block social media sites should be recognized as an infringement on freedom of speech and our right to information.
The protests in Maidan Square, all the protest movements in Iran’s recent history the current manifestations in Hong Kong have used technology to stay ahead of the authorities and circumvent state-controlled media. Freedom of speech and the right to protest are key elements of democracy and must be protected in order to foster an equal and fair society.
Let us look at this sentence: “In a democracy, I believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians who they may or may not vote for are saying so they can judge your character for themselves,” Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is doubling down on his company’s decision to not take down political ads that contain false information. This statement summarizes the core of the whole debate. We cannot have a debate about disinformation without look into this. It is a matter of deontological development of the profession of all political and institutional communicators.
Where do we draw the line? Do we control the media to prevent possible disinformation, ergo somehow allowing government decides what’s true or false or do we let anybody make their decision according to what they see, risking conspiracy theories to take over society? Apart from this existential philosophical debate, what can do done by governments and institutions?

FOSTER COOPERATION BETWEEN TECH COMPANIES AND GOVERNMENTS

As an objective analyst of social platforms and trends around Europe, and as one of the people that almost ten years ago shaped and initiated the way the European Commission monitors social networks, I would like to say that we need to rebalance the narrative on disinformation and tech companies. Contrarily to what is often said, tech companies do not have the interest in spreading misinformation and they do have an interest in cooperating with international organizations and governments.
Fighting disinformation has to be a coordinated effort involving all relevant actors, from institutions to social platforms, from news media to consumers’ associations.
From the side of the institutions, two things can be done:
  1. Increase the technological knowledge of policy makers. There is still an important gap between the institutions’ knowledge of how social media work and the knowledge needed to effectively legislate to regulate the spectrum of action of tech and media companies.
  2. We must not fall into the tempting arms of “fashionable hating” just because it may benefit our image. Many celebrities, including prominent European and American politicians are using Facebook as a scapegoat for their own inability to address the public, labeling it as some sort “disinformation-for-profit machine.” Simply resorting to accusations, that paradoxically are often intended to get likes, views or engagement on the very platforms that are criticized, solves no issues.
What can internet companies do?
If they really want to make a difference, they should hire more monitor and work with anti-disinformation organizations, purge lies and conspiracies from their platforms.
Secondly, they should abide by standards of practice like tv, radio and newspapers do. But this needs to be enforced by institutions and still today more legislative work is needed.
In every industry, a company is liable when their product is defective. In every industry you can be sued for the harm they cause. Government can push to have social networks accountable when this happens, the power is in their hand.

INVEST IN REBUTTAL AND FACT-CHECKING

I feel that today the information vs disinformation battle is not about being smarter but being bigger. The European Commission has done a lot over the past few years and colleagues in the communication departments must continue their work to ensure that communication and monitoring are tier-one priorities rather than something that happens just after policy.

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS

If we want social networks that grow in line with European values, we need European champions in technology.
There needs to be a European Silicon valley, not necessarily one geographic location, it can be even a digital space, where companies can grow and express their full potential with European brains, instead of let them go to Southern California or China. We are losing innovation attractiveness (the current state of artificial intelligence draws a gloomy picture in this regard) and not nurturing the possibilities we may have in technology altogether to have a real European Facebook, Google, Weibo, Whatsapp or Twitter. The only great exception is Swedish-made Spotify.
As long as we don’t have solid competitors to these information holding giants, built in a European environment, we will always be at the mercy of companies that are not built upon European values and will not be carrier and standard bearers for these values.

INFORMATION LITERACY

Beneath the spread of all “fake news,” misinformation, disinformation, digital falsehoods and foreign influence lies society’s failure to teach its citizens information literacy: how to think critically about the deluge of information that confronts them in our modern digital age. Instead, society has prioritized speed over accuracy, sharing over reading, commenting over understanding.
Children are taught to regurgitate what others tell them and to rely on digital assistants to curate the world rather than learn to navigate the informational landscape on their own. Schools no longer teach source triangulation, conflict arbitration, separating fact from opinion or even the basic concept of verification and validation. We have stopped teaching society how to think about information, leaving citizens adrift in the digital wilderness.
While technical literacy is a powerful and important skill, it is not the same as information literacy and will not help in the war against “fake news.” To truly solve the issue of disinformation we must blend technological assistance with teaching our citizens to be literate consumers of the world around them.
In conclusion, let me quote from Sacha Baron Cohen’s speech at the Antidefamation League. I don’t agree with everything he said, but I do agree with this:
The next 12 months the role of social media could be determinant: British people will go to the polls soon, while online conspiracists promote the theory of great replacements. Americans will vote for president, while trolls and bots perpetuate the lies of a Hispanic invasion. After years of YouTube videos calling climate change a hoax, the US is on track to withdraw from the Paris accords. Disinformation already highly affects policy-making, and let me add, it affects it in the worst possible way. A sewer of bigotry and conspiracy theories that threaten our democracy and our planet can’t possibly be what the creators of the internet had in mind.
Today’s grand challenge of combating “fake news” requires a very human solution. It requires teaching society the basics of information literacy and how to think about the information they consume. It requires navigating the existential contradictions of today’s social media platforms obsessed with velocity and virality against verification and validation.
The only way to truly begin to combat the spread of digital falsehoods is to understand that they represent a societal rather than a technological issue and to return to the early days of the web when institutions, governments and schools taught and encouraged to question what they read online instead of taking it for granted.
This is a serious danger and something that we communicators, government officials, representatives of global organizations have the chance today to reverse. Let us not miss that chance.

The dangers of ineffective statistics sommunication

I was very pleased to be invited at the DIGICOM Final Event – Sharing Landmark Achievements in Communication and Dissemination to discuss a topic that especially in the modern times of post-truth, false news and high polarization of the institutional and political debate in Europe, is of the utmost importance for communicators and all those involved in producing and putting together statistics and official data from public and private organizations.

I myself am not a statistician and certainly I don’t have the level of competence and knowledge most of the people in the room had in this field. I am a communicator and I have helped and coached institutions, politicians and public officials in doing something different than what they did: getting messages across to others.

When I was contacted to give this intervention, the drafted title for this keynote was “Communicating official statistics effectively” and so I started read the relative literature on the topic including for instance the report “Communication of statistics in post-truth society: the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Thus looking at the work of Eurostat and other organizations in the field, I realized that a lot is already available in relation to communicating statistics. What is missing though; apart from some very interesting analyses, mostly from journalists, public speakers and sometimes some very dedicated politicians with a passion for truth and democracy, is a set a serious warnings about the dangers of ineffective communication of statistics, which then became the title of the intervention.

Why the reverse language? Why is it different to address good communication vs the dangers of bad communication? It’s the feeling that this triggers. Sentiments related to fear, concern and worry trump positive emotions and get more attention from any kind of audience. As a political communicator, and an open believer in a “United Europe”, I looked at the challenges that democratic institutions have had to face over the past few years. This is why, at the very last moment I have decided that my intervention should focus on this danger.

Even though, communicators and statisticians, at least in my humble experience, don’t often interact, the collaboration between these two types of professionals is today more important than ever. Some say it is a character difference – statisticians are more interested in things while communicators are more interested in people – but there be more behind that.

With the non-stop proliferation of social networks and digital features that spread information and content at a pace that was just unthinkable a few years ago, there is a strong need for the statistics community to modernize by accepting the importance of effective communication strategies and embody them as an integrated part of the statistical production process. The power of statistics is directly proportionate to the way they are communicated.

The ability of statistics to accurately represent the world is unfortunately in decline. A new age of big data controlled by private companies is taking over and is challenging democracy as well as the value of statistics. In theory, statistics should help settle arguments. They should provide stable reference points that everyone – no matter their politics – can agree on. Yet in recent years, divergent levels of trust in statistics has become one of the key schisms that have opened up in western democracies.

Shortly before the latest American presidential election, a study in the US discovered that 68% of Trump supporters distrusted the economic data published by the federal government. In the UK, a research project by Cambridge University and YouGov looking at conspiracy theories discovered that 55% of the population believes that the government “is hiding the truth about the number of immigrants living there”.

According to the Eurobarometer an absolute majority of European citizens do not trust statistics. These results are critical and follow a continuous declining trend, which, if not reverted, will have significant social consequences, as the gap between citizens and citizens’ trust in public administration and international institutions widens.

This trend is amplified by the deficiency of citizens’ knowledge of basic statistics literacy.

  • 25% of respondents could give a correct answer to the unemployment rate
  • Only 6% of European citizens know the GDP growth rate of their own country
  • none of the respondents were able to give a correct answer to the annual inflation rate of their country.

More worryingly recent reports on the perception of migration in Europe shows a very deep divide between reality and sentiment of society.

It is as if the era of evidential argument is ending and now knowledge is increasingly delegitimized and scientific consensus is dismissed.

The declining authority of statistics – and the experts who analyse them – is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as “post-truth” politics. And in this new situation, attitudes towards quantitative expertise have become increasingly polarized.

On one hand, grounding politics in statistics is elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to people’s emotional investments in their community. It is just one more way that privileged people in Brussels, Washington DC or London seek to impose their worldview on everybody else.

On the other hand, statistics are quite the opposite of elitist. They enable journalists, citizens and politicians to discuss society as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated. The alternative to quantitative expertise is less likely to be democracy than an unleashing of tabloid editors and demagogues to provide their own “truth” of what is going on across society.

Is there a way out of this polarisation? Must we simply choose between a politics of facts and one of emotions, or is there another way of looking at this situation?

Over the past few years, especially when it comes to understanding some pretty exceptional events, communication experts have often discussed and raised the issue of the power of emotions and the facts vs feelings dichotomy. Sentiment, perceptions, attitudes, unorthodox claims not based on actual numbers, play a bigger role than statistics in both politics and policy making.

While I accept it for politics, accommodating or appeasing electoral tendencies via the implementation of sentiment-based, rather than evidence-based policy making, is destructive, and as a pro-European, I don’t find myself particularly proud or at ease with recent policy actions undertook by a number of European governments in managing the economy, climate change or migration.

But now let’s talk communication. What seems to be clear from some of the most recent challenges for the European Union, the economic crisis, Brexit, migration, the current state of “evidence-based only” public communication is not working.

This doesn’t mean suggesting the dissemination of lies or half-truths, but it means to consider 4 macro factors:

  1. The power of emotions
  2. The need for statisticians to be empowered
  3. Understand your audience
  4. Invest in rebuttal and fact-checking

THE POWER OF EMOTIONS

Facts don’t speak for themselves. Framing, metaphors and narratives need to be used responsibly if evidence is to be heard and understood.

We can’t separate emotion from reason. Better information about citizens’ emotions and greater emotional literacy could improve policymaking. Values and Identities drive political behaviour but are not properly understood, debated or considered. Before a set of statistics can be used, it must be made understandable to people who are not familiar with statistics.

The key to the persuasive use of statistics is extracting meaning and patterns from raw data in a way that is logical and easy to demonstrate to an audience.

Let me give you a couple of examples of people that took the visualization of relations and meaning to the next level.

Hans Rosling, was a Swedish physician, academic, and public speaker. He was the Professor of International Health and co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation, which developed the Trendalyzer software system. He held presentations around the world, including several TED Talks in which he promoted the use of data to explore development issues. He is the author of international best-seller Factfulness.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_QrIapiNOw

Geoff Ainscow, one of the leaders of the Beyond War movement in the 1980s, gave talks trying to raise awareness of the dangers of nuclear weapons. He wanted to show that the US and the USSR possessed weapons capable of destroying the earth several times over.

But simply quoting figures of nuclear weapons stockpiles was not a way to make the message stick. So, after setting the scene, Ainscow would take a BB pellet and drop it into a steel bucket where it would make a loud noise. The pellet represented the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Ainscow would then describe the devastation at Hiroshima.

Next, he would take 10 pellets and drop them in the bucket where they made 10 times as much noise. They represented the nuclear firepower on a single nuclear submarine. Finally, he poured 5,000 pellets into the bucket, one for each nuclear warhead in the world. When the noise finally subsided, his audience sat in dead silence.

That is how you put statistics into context and trigger emotions.

FEEL EMPOWERED

Statisticians deserve a lot of credit, but before convincing other people to acknowledge that, they have to do it themselves first.

In my experience in coaching scientists on performing effective communication, I often felt there was a lack of self-acknowledgement. As a statistician you’re not simply putting data together, you are shaping society, and you are making people realize things.

Safeguarding the facts and figures and facilitate the use of good quality statistics for evidence-based policy making contributes to sound and sustainable policies for the collective benefits of citizens.

Self-reward and empowerment must start from you. Acknowledge your role and be proud of what you bring to society.

UNDERSTAND YOUR AUDIENCE

One of the biggest challenges faced by any collaborative statistician is communicating statistical information to those with less knowledge of statistics. As statistics is a core ingredient of transparency and accountability of institutions, it needs to be proactively rendered to citizens with quality and understandability.

When it comes to communication to different audiences, sometimes we are too fast at agreeing and patting each other on the back in a closed room full of experts but we tend to focus on communicating to the very few rather than the vast majority. I have certainly been a culprit of that.

We are so used to resorting to statistics that we tend to bombard our audiences with too many mind-numbing numbers. Statistics are rarely meaningful in and of themselves. Statistics will, and should, almost always be used to illustrate a relationship. It’s more important for people to remember the relationship than the number.

Audiences are not a monolith but mostly a conglomerate of infinite sub-audiences. Look at how they behave, where they are and consume content.

INVEST IN REBUTTAL AND FACT-CHECKING

Your work doesn’t end with the publication of your data-sets. Keep monitoring what people say about the data you publish, make sure, if you can, that no misinformation is spread and if not, rebut.

Many ask me in my intervention to provide solution against disinformation. It doesn’t get any easier than that and it’s up to institutions to decide how much budget and resources to dedicate to that.

I feel that today the information vs disinformation battle is not about being smarter but being bigger. We (Europeans and euro bubblers) often self-flagellate for our alleged inability to communicate. I think it’s time to stop this narrative.

THINK ON THE LONG TERM

Contrarily to the current perception of things, the construction of visibility, relations, brand is a long-term game and the underestimation of this (thinking that is a short-term game) is in 99% of cases the reason for public communication failure.

Do not overestimate what you can do in six months and don’t underestimate what you can do in three years.

A post-statistical society is a potentially frightening proposition, not because it would lack any forms of truth or expertise altogether, but because it would drastically privatise them. Statistics are one of many pillars of democracy.

I still believe that democracy needs evidence-based policy making. I still believe that independent statistics are at the heart of evidence-based policy making and I still believe that Europe is and will always be the cradle of democracy no matter that challenges that lie ahead. And the implementation of democracy requires independent statistics.

The experts who produce and use them have become painted as arrogant and oblivious to the emotional and local dimensions of government. No doubt there are ways in which data collection could be adapted to reflect lived experiences better. But the battle that will need to be waged in the long term is not between an elite-led politics of facts versus a populist politics of feeling. It is between those still committed to public knowledge and public argument and those who profit from the ongoing disintegration of those things.

This is a serious danger and something that you have the chance today to reverse. Don’t miss that chance.

Do you want to crash your political opponents on social media? Less curation and more volume

Until not so long ago, Facebook was still the overall place where everybody could communicate to multiple audiences through a very powerful targeting system. Over the past few months though, the power of pages dropped significantly for a few reasons: the Facebook algorithm is going back to its original model where profiles (actual people) have a higher priority in timelines versus pages. Secondly, people, especially younger people, are moving away from Facebook and moving to Instagram, even though controversially, Facebook’s user basis has just constantly grown somehow 🤔.

For a politician the challenge is then “Where do you talk about policy”?

On Instagram? No. Instagram is a place where users don’t expect policy-related content. Certainly, it is a place to increase your brand overall but not to discuss policy.

Snapchat? Don’t even go there.

Linkedin? Sure, but not many voters are there and political content doesn’t score high on timelines.

Twitter? Sure, but not in depth.

Blog? Sure, but people still hardly consume content directly on Medium or WordPress unless they are shared on other social networks.

Pretty much, the solution is “volume”. The maximization of volume you can reach on as many social networks as possible through one or a set of political events, debates or similar activities. Let me explain.

What do politicians do mostly? They give speeches, they attend debates, they go on TV or radio. Let’s say you are giving a 10 minutes speech.

Are there capacities to launch this speech live on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram? If so, you already have four active platforms and related pieces of content.

It’s not live? Get the video file. With that you can publish the full speech on Facebook, Twitter, IGTV, Linkedin and YouTube. Plus you can cut out 2 or 3 shorter video bits, between 20 and 60 seconds, that can reposted as Facebook posts, Facebook stories, tweets, Insta stories, Linkedin posts and snaps. These video bits can be turned into visual quotes (best quality possible of the background photo) which can be published in al the above-mentioned places and through different times (not necessarily all at once). The video file can uploaded directly as a podcast on whatever platform you like be it Soundcloud, Anchor, Streaker or whatever. The podcast can then be reshared later on Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.

Got photos from the event? Do everything you did with the video. Got the speech text? Publish it as a Facebook note, a blog on Medium, an article on Linkedin. Furthermore, how about a summary of the event? Maybe two or three paragraphs about what happened, who was there and the goal of the occasion.

Were other politicians or celebrities there? Ask for collabs. Take a photo with them, share them, tag them and ask to do the same. Like their posts and comment on them with a thank you message or do a snap video asking them a question and post it cross-platform.

Sounds like a lot of work, right? But in a few lines I have showed you how you can create basically over 50 pieces of content off just one event. Do that daily and see how much volume you can create. This is where an ambitious communicator needs to go. Less curation, more volume. Execute, execute and execute daily. This is the recipe for seriously growing a digital brand today in politics. There is no shortcut.

I believe in the power of good ideas but in the digital communication battle field today I would not sacrifice volume accuracy or daily massive execution over one potentially excellent idea.

Push FOMO back

FOMO can be your worst enemy when you manage different social media and you’re running around events and caring of somebody’s branding (and of course your own…). How do you decide what’s worth let go? Personally, one thing I can’t let go is to workout. Even on long days, long hours online with my neck bent on my iPhone or iPad, hitting the gym, or whatever kind of hotel gym you bump into, is the only thing that keeps me going and helps me refresh my mind.

And you? How do you let go on long travelling working days? 🙏