Research by Dublin City University has found that far-right groups and political organisations dominated conversations on Twitter creating powerful anti-refugee sentiment during a key period of the refugee crisis.

The research analysed almost 7.5 million tweets which showed that the main frames emerging on Twitter about refugees, during the period October 2015- May 2016, trended under hashtags about safety and security and that hashtags such as “#terrorists” or “#rapefugees” featured prominently.

Furthermore, it found that the stories and experiences of those most severely impacted by the crisis failed to gather any attention and overall “ordinary” users were submerged under a hierarchy of powerful elites on the social media platform.

“Our research shows that social media platforms, rather than contributing to openness and democratisation are used to polarise, attacking some of the most vulnerable people in society, such as refugees fleeing war,” commented Dr Eugenia Siapera, lead author.

The research paper “Refugees and Network Publics on Twitter: Networked Framing, Affect and Capture,” by Dr Siapera and co-authors Dr Moses Boudourides, Sergios Lenis and Dr Jane Suiter examined whether social media allows for more voices and a more balanced discussion. It looked at the frames around refugees that emerged on Twitter; and the extent to which these frames represent alternative voices. The article also identified the emerging elites.

The paper highlights that in the main, many mainstream media organisations had an overly negative narrative about the refugee issue and that Twitter took its cue from mainstream media. It points out that while mainstream media in general “tells the story of the powerful”, it was thought that social media was the place for the opportunity of wider participation by the public, in particular through digital storytelling; however this research finds that this is not the case.

The paper focussed on three specific incidents; the Paris attacks in November 2015; New Year’s Eve 2015/2016 in Cologne and the developments in Idomeni-Turkey; all during the peak of the refugee crisis.

The research examined a concept called the “rhythms of the refugee stories”.

The “Paris Story” showed that the issue of refugees became entangled with the Paris attacks (Friday, Nov 13th 2015) immediately after the attacks. The findings showed that Twitter was dominated by political and event related hashtags and humanitarian tags. The Paris attacks also showed the impact, that the terrorist attacks in Paris and the refugee crisis had for US politics in the run-up to candidates declaring for election. The refugee issue was politicised in a purposeful way by specific tags popular with certain political groups. It also showed a strong link between far-right groups and Donald Trump.

The “Cologne Story” identified a spike in social activity in mid-to-late January 2016. The incidents of alleged mass sexual assault took place on New Year’s Eve 2015/16 but were not reported by mainstream media until later in January. The findings showed that US politics and the far right were an integral part of this story. The dominant frames are negative and racist and used for political purposes by far-right political groups and organisations. There is also a high presence of suspended accounts and far-right, anti-immigration accounts.

The “Idomeni and EU-Turkey Deal” concerns the period when Macedonia closed its borders to those without an Iraqi or Syrian passport. It then decided to completely close its borders to all refugees leaving over 50,000 refugees stranded in the Greek/Macedonian border close to a village known as Idomeni. The social activity is divided into two frames- a story about the humanitarian crisis and one which is linked to the far-right. The dominant frames are negative and occasionally explicitly racist.

Key finding
“Power law” in place on Twitter with a marginal role played by the vast majority of users.
Two main findings emerged- a frame politicised by the far-right perspective, in which refugees were framed as either terrorists or rapists followed by lines of representation that mobilise security and safety and a humanitarian frame alongside human rights.
The refugee issue on Twitter was found to be subsumed and instrumentalised by political interests.
Main element that appears to arise is that Twitter contains a significant far-right element that is not as prominent in mainstream media.
Mainstream media only part of a changing media landscape that has become much more complex and unpredictable. Social media, once a place of opportunity for all users and regarded as a “level- playing” field for all, seems to have drastically changed.

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