Teresa Albano, Former Economic Affairs Officer at the Office of the Coordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities and Senior Project Manager of the E-MINDFUL project
It is primarily through the media that people access information and are provided with the grounds to reflect critically and shape their opinions about the capacity of states to make the most suitable decisions. Yet, the way the media landscape has rapidly evolved since the advent of the World Wide Web has created increased tensions regarding the credibility of government actions. At a time when people have more information at their fingertips than ever, the possibility to identify reliable and fact-based information has become progressively difficult.
Already in 2004, by coining the term “post-truth”, the North-American author Ralph Keyes conceptualized the emerging, and today consolidated, phenomenon of intentional manipulation of information and facts, presented as true in spirit and truer than truth itself. Although, in 1992, Steve Tesich already referred to “post-truth” when writing about the Watergate scandal and the Iraq war, today social media provides an environment particularly prone to the misrepresentation of facts and even entirely fabricated content.
In such an open and dynamic virtual environment, the distinction between producers and consumers of information is becoming increasingly blurry. As everyone is in the position to elaborate on and share information, news is increasingly treated as a product to be sold according to the taste of audiences. The inevitable consequence is that professional reporters and editors tend to shape news in order to attract visitors to their platforms with the purpose of maintaining a business that increasingly sells what the public wants.
Post-truth and migration
Due to its special emotional appeal, migration governance is a field of public policymaking that is particularly reactive to the impact of media narratives. Salient events such as the surge of migrant arrivals to Europe in 2015, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in 2021, or the displacement of people driven by the war in Ukraine, act as formidable catalysts of misinformation and disinformation about migrants. The need to attract audiences stirs the flourishing of provocative and compelling migration stories. Regardless of how fact-based or not these stories are, the more people that access certain piece of content, the more credible that content appears. This dynamic is apparent in the debate around migration.
Medialization and politicization have contributed to “crisis-mode” communication, that adds an alarmist connotation to the migration debate. The few voices that attempt to restore depth and complexity to the discussion are often drowned out by the rest of the chorus.
Migration governance and public trust
The immediate consequence of post-truth, alarmist communication about migration is the erosion of public trust in the action of governments. It is not surprising that a biased perception of migration as a phenomenon that cannot be governed is increasingly pervasive, impeding a more level-headed discussion on suitable policy approaches. This may lead to voters finding appeal in politicians with partial, if not extreme, views on migration governance, creating a vicious cycle of ever-increasing political panic and ad hoc actions.
Yet, despite the immediate political appeal of “post-truth” policies, allowing sensationalism to prevail over fact-based migration policymaking could be a slippery path. Regardless of the political affiliation, public trust includes invisible factor whereby people, citizens and voters believe in the capacity of governments to act suitably for the common good. A high level of public trust ensures resilience and social cohesion, which are particularly important for good governance, especially in times of increasingly challenging geopolitical scenarios. Improving the perception of the reliability of public powers in addressing emerging crises – especially the complexities of migration governance – are important drivers of public trust in national governments.
The E-MINDFUL project: communicating migration beyond polarization
In providing a knowledge base towards shaping migration messages that can resonate with target audiences beyond polarization, the stocktaking report of the E-MINDFUL project – to be released soon – discusses the challenges of communicating about migration in the post-truth era. By offering an overview of multiple factors – contextual and individual – that contribute to shaping attitudes towards migrants, the intention is to suggest ways to improve communication interventions dealing with migration.
While migration policymaking is a treacherous terrain, the politicians bear a clear responsibility in keeping the migration narrative honest and sufficiently nuanced, so that the public understands the drivers and consequences of policy decisions. Setting realistic migration management goals while pursuing reforms that benefit society-at-large, are essential to building credibility and a political space where policies are inclusively discussed and tradeoffs explained.
There is no simple way to address the Gordian knot of how to communicate about migration in the post-truth era. Yet, as part of the overall environment that produces and uses information, we all have the ethical duty to reduce the ‘background noise’ that is generated in the current media landscape about this topic, aware that each one of us is part of this noise. Because language is not only a vehicle for facts, figures, demonstrations and refutations, but also a bearer of values.