Key findings from our project

  1. The mainstream media only covers some of the conflicts in the world.
    Several conflicts and regions (such as Eritrea or Colombia) receive almost no coverage, or only in relation to people seeking asylum. When there is coverage, there is no context given for the conflicts – news tend to be about day by day military operations, “terrorist” incidents or individual examples of suffering, but little about the history or geopolitics of the region, or the causes of the conflicts. This may lead audiences to feel confused and disempowered.2. Mainstream media coverage of conflicts is generally filtered through
    an idea of ‘Western interests’. The notion of “Western interests” may vary
    according to the situation, including the involvement of “our troops” on the ground, the kidnapping or killing of fellow citizens, the impact on “our national security”, “our economy”, “our access to natural/energy resources”, etc. In recent years conflicts, and in particular in Syria, have been represented as of interest to Western audiences because they result in “mass migrations” towards Europe, producing the so-called “refugee crisis”.

    3. Where direct Western intervention has been a central factor
    (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya), mainstream media have often presented
    conflicts as resulting from the failures of ‘great men’. In the UK much
    coverage of the Iraq war returns to the allegedly flawed character of Tony Blair and his personal responsibility for the military intervention. A similar interpretation occurs also in the coverage of Libya, in relation to his rapidly changing relations with the country and its former leader Gaddafi In Italy. This focus on the flawed personalities of “great men” overshadows any other deeper explanation of ongoing wars.

    4. Mainstream media coverage offers almost no route to understanding
    histories of Empire, i.e. colonialism and neo-colonialism, as a factor in
    contemporary conflicts and the management of human displacement.
    In addition, asylum seekers and refugees feel that UK and Italian populations know little about their countries, in general, and about the histories of Empire in particular. They also argue that this absence of knowledge hampers their understanding of the causes of contemporary migration and also reinforces the sense of Western entitlement.

    5. While mainstream media sources were consulted by many of the
    respondents of our survey, people are increasingly looking to
    alternative news sources in order to understand global conflicts,
    including social media and news comedy programmes. Both in the UK
    and in Italy young people expressed suspicion of the media and its “hidden agendas”, due to media ownership, and/or political interference. In Italy, the suspicion extends to online content, because of the perceived widespread of “fake news” and the fear of manipulative practices such as clickbait. In general, people chose to consult a range of news in order to piece together accounts that could be verified by multiple sources. In the UK, people use alternative media to ‘check’ international news, especially from countries that they know or to which they are connected.

    6. Global and national institutions are increasingly seen to be ineffective
    in the resolution of conflicts and the management of human
    displacement, which produces radical distrust. In the UK, Eurosceptic
    mainstream media coverage framed European and British foreign aid as supporting corrupt regimes and as conning the British taxpayer. In the Italian mainstream media, the main targets of criticism are EU institutions, who are accused of “leaving Italy alone” in face of unprecedented number of arrivals by sea.

    This radical distrust was also present in the initiatives studied in our online ethnography. In the UK, local populations who want to help refugees engage in mutual aid practices (such as donating necessities or raising money for charities) in the absence of lack of state support but also to counter perceptions of the British government as uncaring and
    intolerant. In Italy, critical attitudes to the EU are also present in comments on some Italian Facebook groups of NGOs providing reception to asylum seekers or supporting the establishment of “humanitarian corridors” from Lebanon open to Syrian refugees. In the UK and in Italy, for those with strong anti-immigration views, this radical distrust can be filtered through a conspiratorial frame in which immigrants, particularly from Muslim countries, are seen to threaten social cohesion and governments who let them in as either deliberately or unwittingly facilitating social breakdown. In Italy, popular distrust has extended to NGOs engaged in search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean, as a result of a large media and political campaign (a viral video, posted on YouTube and Facebook by a blogger attacking the “big business” of rescuing and welcoming migrants, has been taken as a case study for this trend).

    7. Migrants are stereotyped as tellers of sad stories by the media, the

    government and the voluntary sector. Both media and the immigration
    process demand that people present themselves as ‘deserving victims’ and that they share stories of personal pain. Migrants recognise this but also question the benefits to them of repeatedly retelling their stories to every audience – and migrants are concerned about what will be done with their stories (including by researchers).

    At the same time, respondents especially in the UK were unwilling to identify times they have had fun, due to a fear that this could be used to undermine their claim to be ‘deserving’. In effect, this expectation forces those seeking status to constantly retell their ‘story’ in order to ‘prove’ their case to every person they meet. In Italy in particular, asylum seekers expressed the feeling of being under suspicion of lying in order to receive protection. This was also reflected in media coverage which stressed the need to distinguish between “refugees” and “economic migrants” (or “illegal aliens”). Moreover, the Italian media contributed to popular
    misunderstandings of asylum as legally due only to “people coming from countries at war”, thus contesting the legitimacy of those people coming from countries depicted as “safe” or “not at war”, but who were experiencing persecution.

    8. People are “made into migrants” by the government, the media, and
    members of society. By this we mean that the category of ‘migrant’ is constructed actively as a means of erasing other identities and as a process of creating a new social identity that is demeaned and constrained by official processes. A sense of being “other”, illegitimate and undeserving lie at the core of this identity. In the UK and in Italy, this is consistent with the general “hostile environment” surrounding asylum seekers and the outsourcing of immigration controls and the reception of asylum seekers from the public sector to the voluntary sector, businesses and private
    individuals. In Italy, within much public criticism of the excessively high costs of reception has led to the passing of a new law (March 2017) introducing “voluntary social activities” for asylum seekers as a way to “compensate” local communities for receiving them.

    9. There is a blur between being “made a migrant” and racialisation –
    and even being a “model immigrant” is no protection against this.
    However, although many respondents spoke of facing racism on the grounds of how they looked, they also described additional or distinct experiences as a result of their immigration status. In our initial view, the processes of migrantification and racialisation reinforce each other at key moments, but remain distinct.

    10. Faith, music, comedy, self-organisation and knowledge of history
    (including legacies of colonialism and anti-colonial struggles) can be
    important resources in challenging injustice and dehumanisation.
    These resources both undo migrantification, by forwarding different ways of being, and provide a politicised critique of Eurocentrism and the limited knowledge within Western society of other parts of the world.

Author: Kirsten Forkert

Kirsten Forkert is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Media at Birmingham City University.

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