Addressing Mis/Disinformation about Mediterranean Migration

Boat full of Migrants in Mediterranean

Addressing Mis/Disinformation about Mediterranean Migration

By Benjamin P. Nickels
College of International and Security Studies
George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies

The Marshall Center’s Alumni Programs, along with the European Security Seminar – South (ESS-S), convened 35 participants from 10 countries for a virtual discussion on "Addressing Mis/Disinformation about Mediterranean Migration" Feb. 9. The event served as a capstone for alumni programs focused on different features of irregular migration in the Mediterranean held virtually and face-to-face during the preceding 18 months with alumni in Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Malta and Nigeria. The webinar also served to launch a new Alumni Group Scholar project studying "Messaging and Security in Mediterranean Migration," which focuses on misinformation and disinformation (mis/disinformation) about migration in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean. For this project, Marshall Center faculty and staff are working with three alumni scholars from Cyprus, Italy and Tunisia.

The webinar featured remarks from Dr. Alberto-Horst Neidhardt, a senior policy analyst and interim head of the European Diversity and Migration program at the European Policy Centre, followed by a moderated discussion. The highlights below reflect non-attribution takeaways that emerged from group discussion and do not represent the views or positions of any particular panelist or participant. 

  • The stakes of mis/disinformation about Mediterranean migration are high, because discussions of migration touch on, and could be linked to, critical issues like national identity, borders, and sovereignty. Talk about migration can affect the state security posture taken toward migrant vessels and their passengers, permissions given for disembarkation, resources dedicated to search and rescue missions, and so on. In this way, mis/disinformation about migration can literally become a matter of life and death.
  • Mis/disinformation operates primarily through broad narratives resting on specific subnarratives. Stories are told about migrants as a health threat (narrative), carrying numerous infections and spreading COVID-19 (subnarratives). Migrants are also portrayed as an economic threat, as parasites unfairly draining precious public resources through preferential treatment and an abuse of social welfare that sees migrants living in luxury while citizens suffer economic hardship. Migrants are also described through a narrative of security, as a lawless, violent, hostile group that refuses to follow the rules of society or to integrate, thereby putting at risk national values and identity in addition to citizens’ physical security. Migrants may also be presented as a weapon in hybrid warfare, if immigration flows are seen as being manipulated by non-friendly states. Narratives resonate differently according to country and social sector. Mis/disinformation can switch between modes and registers quickly, and it can adjust rapidly to incorporate current events, like the fall of Kabul and the Ukraine War, into well-trodden narrative lanes.
  • It can be hard to put each particular piece of information supporting mis/disinformation narratives into an exact category. There is continuity between falsehoods unintentionally circulated (misinformation) and those intentionally circulated for profit or political leverage (disinformation), as well as selective truths circulated in order to promote a false narrative (malinformation). However, the collective effect of misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation can nonetheless be seen in the vitality of the mis/disinformation narratives they support.
  • Handling the people involved in mis/disinformation presents a number of challenges for defense and security professionals. Actors can be hard to identify, and their intentions in spreading falsehoods difficult to discern. Sources of disinformation can include not only external state and non-state actors, but also domestic players like anti-immigration extremists and militant racists as well as elected politicians and mainstream media figures – a reality that can quickly politicize responses. Targets of mis/disinformation, meanwhile, can range from groups at the regional (e.g., EU), national, and subnational level, including migrants themselves, who may be subjected to mis/disinformation for recruitment purposes by violent non-state actors, for example.
  • Mitigating the negative impacts of mis/disinformation about migration poses several challenges. Littoral countries, especially those along the Mediterranean’s Eastern and Southern shores, are at once origin, transit, and destination countries, making for a complex information environment on the topic of migration. Messages must be traced across many domains both physical and virtual, including messages on encrypted platforms. The exact effects of mis/disinformation, meanwhile, cannot be entirely determined. Impacts are often gauged through indicators such as increases in polarization and extremism or decreases in social cohesion, trust in institutions, and regional solidarity – indicators affected by many factors beyond the information environment. Not all mis/disinformation is of equal weight and importance, moreover, and governments must seek to act within an overwhelming informational field through precise interventions at the most critical pressure points.
  • There are several approaches to mitigating the damage of mis/disinformation. The truth claim of individual pieces of information or entire narratives can be challenged through factchecking. Laws can curtail the profits and power that accrue from the circulation of mis/disinformation. Actors promoting misinformation and conducting disinformation campaigns can be treated as a security threat, pursued, and interdicted or arrested. But these approaches are not without risks or problems. Debunking can paradoxically give more visibility to discredited information and narratives. Regulation can face limits at the hands of private companies owning the platforms on which mis/disinformation is circulated. Freedom of speech, moreover, often protects "awful but lawful" speech. Treating mis/disinformation as a threat can also lead defense and security forces to overemphasize the role of foreign actors, because it is more controversial and politically sensitive to treat domestic actors as a threat – to risk securitizing those political actors within the country who knowingly engage in disinformation, for example, or those ordinary citizens who unwittingly share misinformation.
  • Governments can work to address short-term vulnerabilities to mis/disinformation. They can monitor key sites of information and narrative production, nipping in the bud any beginnings of mis/disinformation. They can track the ebb and flow of mis/disinformation and prepare for likely spikes in its production and circulation, such as during election cycles or the summer/fall months with larger numbers of ship crossings in the Mediterranean.
  • Governments can build long-term resilience to mis/disinformation. They can invest in media literacy, so that citizens are equipped to question sources of information, misleading images, and suspicious stories. They can work to bring the voice of migrants into the conversation. Migration discourse often proceeds without input from migrants themselves. Governments can pursue policies for a delicate balance in the public discourse on migration, one that empowers the voiceless and gets true engagement from migrants even as it avoids the risks of tokenism and of provoking new resentments that could fuel a backlash. 
  • Governments can foster a positive information environment. They can work to identify, articulate, and address the real concerns and grievances in society, so that healthy narratives can take shape before mis/disinformation narratives crowd them out. Governments can clearly distinguish asylum seekers and refugees from irregular migrants, in order to highlight these particular subcategories protected by international law and guaranteed special rights. They can also recalibrate their approach to NGOs working on migration. NGOs can have a large positive or negative impact on the information landscape, so managing relations with them should be a priority.
  • Governments can become active players in the information space. They can develop strategic communication campaigns that explain, for example, the realities of the support provided to migrants and the logic behind their treatment. Governments can also broadcast messages in a variety of languages to areas of potential refugees and, without expecting to prevent departures, furnish a realistic vision a migrant’s life upon arrival, to counteract myths and false hopes that beguile some migrants setting off for Europe.