Anti-Refugee Rhetoric on Twitter

This week’s RDM guest blogger, Ramona Kreis, shares her research about a topic that could not be any more timely: anti-refugee discourse.  Ramona writes

Twitter has become part of our daily lives. Twitter occupies an unprecedented position in contemporary U.S. politics, as current President Trump continues to use his personal Twitter account  to connect to his followers, to react to his opponents, and to reaffirm his political and ideological viewpoints.  On January 27, the Trump administration issued an executive order, which suspended entry of refugees to the United States, and suddenly brought the topic of refugees into the spotlight in the U.S.  However, the “refugee issue” has been a central one for some time now in Europe, where the discourse around refugees and refugee asylum policies has dominated news and social media over the last year and a half.

In mid-2015, increasing numbers of refugees and migrants crossed the borders to Europe, trying to reach countries in Western, Central, and Northern Europe. According to the Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers should apply for asylum in the state where they first enter the European Union. Public awareness of the development of a humanitarian crisis – 71 migrants heading to Germany were found dead in a truck in Austria – led German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to admit Syrian refugees to Germany, and to accept applications for asylum despite the Dublin Regulation. With her statement “We can do this” (Wir schaffen das), she encouraged the work of many volunteers and made an appeal to Germans as well as her European partners.

After an initial period of welcoming refugees however, some Europeans grew more critical of accepting large numbers of migrants, fearing financial and societal repercussions. News stories began to appear about refugees and refugee homes being attacked by right-wing extremists. On Twitter, I came across a hashtag that seemed to resonate with this changing attitude toward refugees: #refugeesnotwelcome. Many tweets that included #refugeesnotwelcome were disturbing, irritating, and, frankly, disgusting, but given the large number of tweets that used this hashtag and the increasing rejection of Merkel’s “We can do this” stance, I wanted to learn more about the types of discursive strategies being used by the authors of those tweets.

I collected over 100 tweets that were posted in the middle of September 2015, when the number of arrivals started to peak and, at the same time, when violent crimes against refugees increased drastically. Dealing with a topic so tied to inequality and relations of dominance, I chose a critical discourse analytical (CDA) perspective to guide my analysis.  My study explored how Twitter users employed this hashtag to express their discontent both with refugees and immigrants as well as with pro-refugee policies and practices (such as the initial welcoming of Syrian refugees by Chancellor Merkel). Tweets that included #refugeesnotwelcome ranged from “I have nothing against immigrants, but …”, a well-attested and commonly-used preface to all kinds of racist discourses, to “they are not ‘refugees’ but invaders”, whereby the authors reframed European nations as being under threat from an “invasion” of Muslims. Often refugees were depicted as social parasites and criminals. Overall, the authors of these tweets presented themselves positively, while presenting refugees negatively.

The following tweet illustrates how some Twitter users employ strategies to negatively depict migrants and refugees.

This author retweets a previous tweet about unrest that arose between refugees and the police in mid-September 2015 in Röszke, a Hungarian village close to the Serbian border. The original tweet also included images of rioting men, thus establishing a connection between the migrants referred to in the text, and the men depicted in the images. The author not only retweets this particular account of violent (im)migrants, but also adds the comment: These poor “refugees”. And all these women and children…. #IronyOff #RefugeesNotWelcome #Invasion. By putting the term refugees in quotation marks and adding the adjective poor, the author constructs an ironic tone, both questioning the legitimacy of the term “refugee” and the notion of refugees requiring assistance. He further adds all these women and children, a group that is often considered as in need of special protection, further questioning the need to protect refugees. Indeed, many refugees arriving in Europe were young males and this argument was often used in anti-refugee discourse. Seeing only rioting men in the images further implies that these refugees are not in need, but rather causing trouble. By including #IronyOff, the author confirms he was being ironic, however after “switching off” the irony, the following hashtags, #RefugeesNotWelcome and #Invasion, instead reveal the author’s true perspective. Although he does not refer to refugees as “illegals” or “criminals” as many other Twitter users did, he delegitimizes the term “refugee” and questions the need to help refugees. Instead he views the migration movement as an invasion, and as a threat to his identity and territory.

When I started the project, it didn’t seem like right-wing populism had fully permeated Europe or the US. We were still pre-Brexit and pre-“alternative-facts.” The discourse strategies I identified in my project are certainly not new, but as we see such nationalist and anti-the-others discourses gaining ground in many Western societies, it is necessary to be aware of these strategies in order to dismantle them.

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