Fear-mongering or friendly: how social media shapes attitudes towards refugees
Montreal, September 14, 2016 — As of August 28, 2016, some 30,275 Syrian refugees have come to Canada. The federal government has spent $319 million in response to the crisis, and is doing much to help resettlement and integration efforts.
Meanwhile, everyday citizens are being asked to do their part to help the newcomers feel at home. Following terrorist attacks in the west, however, anti-refugee sentiment is rampant on social media. The message can easily turn from one of welcome to one of fear.
Concordia PhD candidate Nadia Naffi — along with her supervisor Ann-Louise Davidson, an associate professor in education — recently published an article in the journal Personal Construct Theory & Practice. It shows how social scientists can investigate the inclusion and integration of Syrian refugees in host societies.
“If the citizens of the host country are not ready to welcome refugees, the effort invested and the budgets spent will be in vain. Newcomers will never feel that they belong and they will never become the productive citizens we all are hoping for,” says Naffi.
Currently, Naffi is investigating the powerful role played by social media in the process.
Her ongoing research seeks to explain how teenagers and young adults — the demographic that uses social media the most — interpret online interactions, then decide whether to approach refugees or to exclude them based on those interpretations.
“Once we identify the nature of the impact that social media has on the inclusiveness of youth, we can design methods to address negative effects and reinforce positive ones,” she says — something she believes is crucial to the success of the integration and the inclusion of refugees.
‘Tragic stories were shared … fears were intensified.’
She recruited 20 Canadians between 16 and 24 years old from different regions and 22 youth from the UK, France, Belgium, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Greece, Lebanon and several other countries.
She interviewed them to understand how they interpreted online interactions about the Syrian refugee crisis after the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, and the sexual assaults in Cologne, which were largely blamed on foreign nationals.
“During these extreme events, youth had access to online environments where tragic stories were shared, feelings of despair were broadcasted and fears were intensified,” Naffi says.
“This led to a wide variety of responses. In Canada a division occurred between those who supported the arrival of refugees — mostly because they felt that ‘this was what it meant to be Canadian’ — and those who opposed it, and dreaded the ramifications. The internet in general and social media in particular facilitated the dissemination of racism and of intolerance.”
Study participants noticed that people who were against Syrian refugee resettlement were more vocal than people who supported it, and that the negative posts were what remained front of mind. Most of those interviewed also noted that Syrian refugees were dehumanized in social media, and portrayed as problems to deal with rather than as individuals.
“After reading online posts, many participants felt the need to compensate offline for the negative posts that were shared online. They also predicted that youth from the host society who have read negative online posts but have never encountered Syrian refugees before would keep their distance when they first met ‘the other.’ They would be scared to approach them,” says Naffi.
A considerable impact
“On the other side of the equation, study participants predicted that young Syrian refugees who have read online posts and have never encountered host society youth before would also keep their distance, since they would not be sure who would welcome them, and who would want them to stay in a war zone.
Most of the participants confirmed that, if not properly addressed, social media interactions would have a considerable impact on the level of integration and inclusion of Syrian refugees in the host countries.”
For Naffi, the study is a first step towards developing recommendations for educators, social workers and government representatives that would help them to better intervene to include and integrate Syrian refugees.
“It is my hope that the results that spring from this study will inform policy makers about the issues surrounding how a host society construes the potential presence of newcomers based on shared online content,” says Naffi.
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