Audiences are arguably the most important element of the disinformation process because disinformation only gains impact if people are willing to believe, endorse, and share it. Crucially, repeated exposure to anti-immigrant disinformation can have an impact quite apart from any bias on the part of the individual (Fazio et al. 2015). Thus, reducing overall exposure to antiimmigrant disinformation is a crucial countermeasure. However, as noted earlier, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish anti-immigrant disinformation from criticism or opposition to immigration more generally. This is further complicated by the fact that certain segments of the public are concerned, rightly or wrongly, about immigration and its implications.
Although it is difficult to make any causal connection between anti-immigrant disinformation and public attitudes towards immigrants, evidence suggests that digital media/digital platforms are key points of exposure to extremist ideas (Hamm and Spaaij 2017; McCauley and Moskalenko 2011). In a study of social media conversations across 28 European countries over a one-year period, Bakamo Social (2018) identified five major immigration narratives. A resounding anti-immigrant stance was evident across the online conversations with varying levels of intensity in individual countries. The humanitarianism narrative (49.9 percent) concerned moral obligations to support refugees, but included arguments for and against humanitarianism. The security narrative (25.9 percent) focused on the threat of immigration in terms of immigrant crime and terror attacks while the identity narrative (15.3 percent) concerned perceived threats to social cohesion and the traditional identity of European countries. Finally, the economic narrative (8 percent) and the demographics narrative (1 percent) focused on issues of sustainability.
At the country level, identity narratives were most prevalent in Germany, The Netherlands, and Slovakia while security narratives dominated in Hungary, Poland, Estonia, and Austria. Identity and security narratives also subverted discussions of humanitarianism. For example, in France, the humanitarian narrative was undermined by those questioning whether refugees were genuinely in need of assistance while in Spain, the humanitarian narrative was subverted by concerns that left-wing politicians would prioritise the needs of migrants over Spaniards. Consequently, those advocating humanitarianism were characterised as a threat to the welfare of European countries (Bakamo Social 2018). Within the national security narrative, anti-immigrant attitudes and disinformation are entangled in broader arguments about multiculturalism and the supposed decline of national identity (Juhasz and Szicherle 2017).
In this regard, anti-immigrant attitudes and the appeal of anti-immigrant disinformation have been contextualised in relation to patterns of economic and social change and the decline of traditional party systems (Horgan and Haltinner 2015; Schain 2018). For example, across Europe and North America, the decline of working-class communities is linked to alienation and opposition to immigration (Gusterson 2017; Hobolt 2016; Goodwin and Heath 2016; Inglehart and Norris 2016). In this context, bad actors frame immigration as an economic threat by arguing that immigrants depress wages and increase the tax burden for ‘native’ citizens (Horgan and Haltinner 2015). In other words, while disinformation and manipulation tactics play a key role in the communication strategies of anti-immigrant actors, it is important to recognise the real or perceived grievances that make these views appealing to segments of the public.
Another key backdrop to these developments is the crisis of legitimacy within democracy (Bennett and Livingston 2018), whereby trust in democratic institutions has declined in tandem with the rise of digital media and the flourishing of alternative information sources. Moreover, the anti-immigration actors identified earlier actively promote distrust in the mainstream media, particularly regarding immigration reporting (Andersson 2017 cited in Ekman 2019). This declining trust reflects growing political polarisation (Suiter and Fletcher 2020) as well as growing use of social media for news (Kalogeropoulos et al. 2019). Consequently, it is important to recognise that a wide range of factors and circumstances overlap to provide fertile ground for actors seeking to exploit public tensions and concerns about immigration. Moreover, addressing these issues extends far beyond the problem of disinformation and how to counter it.