We need a global database on false news about migrants and refugees

The video shows a man hitting several nurses and doctors in a hospital.

Widely shared in Turkey in September, the video allegedly took place in Turkey, with a Syrian man the perpetrator of the violence. The video was actually from Russia. The same video spread in France, where it was debunked by CrossCheck. This fits a pattern of the same videos and photos about refugees spreading across different countries and being misused for different reasons.

In December 2017, I embedded with France 24’s The Observers as an IFCN fellow to explore the phenomenon more closely — and figure out what we might do to combat it.

Liselotte Mas of The Observers and I collected all distinct false or misleading claims about refugees and immigrants that were fact-checked by verified signatories of the IFCN code of principles in Turkey and France.

We then turned our attention to fact checks produced in English and, less systematically, at fact-checking and verification websites in Sweden, Germany, Italy and other countries. To do this, we leaned in part on a mailing list for fact-checkers.

Claims were categorized by type of medium (video, photo, text), topic, country of origin and countries mentioned. We also noted the identity of the population targeted, where relevant.

We primarily concentrated on photos, videos and general misconceptions. If there were any statements by politicians related to claims in the database, we added them. But we did not focus on politicians’ statements about refugees, which could be an interesting path for further research.

Our final spreadsheet contained 162 total claims. Most of the incidents we logged were claims about refugees made in Germany, France and Sweden. (The three countries were among the most affected by the influx in the past few years.)

The most common topics of misinformation in this database related to crime committed by, and state help assigned to, migrants. False information under the criminal action category mostly mention European or American women and children, especially young girls, harassed or beaten by refugees. Accusations about migrants taking advantage of their host country’s generosity target monthly stipends, rent support, free transportation and so on.

Allegations highlighting religious tension were also frequent. One of the videos, for instance, shows refugees quarreling with police officers on the Greek border while they are being handed food aid. This video was shared in many countries accompanied by the explanation that refugees were refusing the food because it was not halal. Refugees were demonstrating because they weren’t allowed to cross into Macedonia, however, not because of the food.

In the arc of two weeks we tried to collect as much suspicious content and its related fact checks as we could. Despite this, our work is clearly incomplete.

What emerges, however, is that misinformation spreads across borders in a way that fact-checking hasn’t quite imitated. Of the 162 claims, 87 show content that has been shared in at least two countries. And we found 20 individual photos, videos, and statements that were misused in two or more countries.

Creating and maintaining a permanent international database that can be publicly queried would serve as a reference point for users confronted with news they are not certain about. It would also save fact-checkers time, by giving them access to previously verified content.

Finally, a large database of this form could be used by researchers and fact-checkers to detect networks and similarities in the spread of misinformation that could help us determine how best to fight it.

A phenomenon that is by nature transnational should be treated as such by all actors involved, not just the misinformers.


Data collection

  • Links of false claims that are fact-checked by IFCN-verified websites were collected. In the cases the claim link used in the fact-checking article is deleted, we used Crowdtangle to determine where the content was viral.

  • In the category criminal action, false allegations mostly mention that refugees were harassing or raping women. Under the category terrorism, the claims about terrorist organizations appeared to center around refugees, and asserted that they supported or encouraged organizations such as ISIS in the countries to which they emigrated. Under the category state help, it is asserted that the state was helping refugees and immigrants more than it helped their own citizens. Under the category of religion, there were assertions that refugees were involved in acts of disrespect for Christmas or attacked churches. Under the category of invasion, there were photos, videos and explanations alleging that many refugees and immigrants fled to other countries.

  • We divided the claims into nine categories. The categorization is done with regard to the nature of the claim. Titles such as criminal action, state help, economic, invasion, terrorism and religion were used to show in what context the refugees were mentioned in false allegations.

You can consult the database at this link, read an article by Liselotte Mas on The Observers website here and read my article on teyit.org here.

I would like to thank Adrien Sénécat from Les Décodeurs of Le Monde and Pauline Moullot from Desintox of Libération for their help with the creation of the database.


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