Policy Study


Fighting disinformation on migration with alternative narratives

Rather than trying to counter disinformation stories about migrants directly, communication professionals and policymakers must instead promote alternative narratives that undermine the appeal of messages that incite fear and rage, and reframe the debate on migration entirely.

This is the conclusion of a collaborative research project between FEPS, European Policy Centre (EPC), Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and Fundación Pablo Iglesias. Its aim was to identify and analyse misleading and hostile narratives on migration in Europe and formulate concrete recommendations on how to tackle them. The authors examined nearly 1,500 news articles from four EU member states (Germany, Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic), published between May 2019 and July 2020.

Based on their research, the authors argue that disinformation narratives about migration seek to exploit readers’ fears to polarise public opinion, manufacture discontent, sow divisions and set the political agenda. They tend to adapt and change alongside the public’s main concerns. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has led to a growing stream of articles linking migrants to infection risks and accusing them of receiving preferential treatment.

Disinformation narratives are so successful because disinformation actors link migration to existing insecurities, depicting it as a threat to three partly-overlapping areas: health (migrants as violent criminals, terrorists or carriers of disease), wealth (migrants as social benefits cheats or unfair competition for jobs) and identity (migrants as a hostile invasion force, threatening to replace white, Christian Europeans and their traditions).

Any communication strategy seeking to undermine disinformation on migration effectively should therefore be based on alternative narratives that take into account the following recommendations:

  • The message should aim to reframe the debate. It should resonate with the target audience’s lived experience, acknowledging their values and concerns, but avoid amplifying anxieties. Messages promoting alternative narratives must be timely and reflect the news cycle. Like a vaccine administered at regular intervals, communicators should repeat simple, specific messages that can prompt the best immune response against hostile frames spread by disinformation.
  • The medium should aim to restore trust among groups. Institutions, which are often subject to discrediting campaigns, should prioritise communication through trusted intermediaries who can get messages to the hard-to-reach. They should work in partnership with civil society and local actors to deliver coordinated messages in the right environments. They should seek to reach people ‘where they are’ using the most appropriate communication channel, taking into consideration where their audience consumes information.
  • The selection of the audience should aim to reclaim readers from the fringes. Audiences should be targeted based on their values and what they feel is important. Communicators must find an ‘entry point’ where the messenger and audience share common ground.

These narrative strategies must also be backed up by policy changes. Effective policies combined with alternative narratives will go a long way towards resolving the concerns that drive disinformation on migration. A more balanced debate will, in turn, facilitate the adoption of meaningful reforms in line with EU fundamental values and human rights, thus creating a mutually reinforcing cycle of alternative narratives and policymaking.

This Policy Study is part of the Disinformation on migration series conducted in cooperation with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and European Policy Centre (EPC) to help make sense of the disinformation trends relating to refugees. This series also includes:

European Policy Centre
Fundación Pablo Iglesias
Related publications

Disinformation on refugees from Ukraine

Disinformation on migration series

From debunking to prebunking

Disinformation on migration series
Find all related publications

Strengthening the global role of the Euro

European Strategic Autonomy series - Economy & Trade

The case of Ukraine’s candidacy to the EU

Progressive policy towards the eastern neighbourhood as a cornerstone of the EU's stability and security

A five-point agenda for how development cooperation can support EU’s strategic autonomy

European Strategic Autonomy series - Economy & Trade

Progressive pathways to European strategic autonomy 

European Strategic Autonomy series
Find all related events
08 - 09/06/2023
Barcelona, Spain

Progressive Migration Group

“Migration is not about numbers, it is about people. Behind the numbers, there are men, […]
FEPS HQ (Expert meeting - Hybrid)

The future of armaments, disarmaments and human security

Foresight series: The long-term implications of the war in Ukraine
Warsaw, Poland

The future of EU Strategic Autonomy

Global Progressive Forum
Find all related news

Grzegorz Pietruczuk is FEPS Progressive Person of the Year

FEPS Progressive Person of the Year 2023

New manifesto giving international impetus to Lula da Silva’s environmental policy

FEPS President, among the 50 scientists and former politicians from Brazil and Portugal who signed the manifesto

Multiannual research project: Disinformation about migration in the EU

How to counteract disinformation effectively?

FEPS President in the United Nations General Assembly

During the UNGA 77 week in New York, FEPS is expanding its global partnership. Among […]
Find all related in the media
In the media

Wie der Ukraine-Krieg die europäische Politik verändert

by Vorwärts 24/02/2023
'How the war in Ukraine changed European politics' Vorwärts article written by László Andor, FEPS Secretary General and Uwe Optenhoegel, FEPS Vice-President

Personalidades de Portugal e Brasil defendem parceria estratégica para o clima entre UE e Brasil

by Visão 12/01/2023
'Personalities from Portugal and Brazil defend EU-Brazil strategic partnership on climate' Visão's article about the manifesto signed by 50 personalities from Portugal and Brazil, including FEPS President Maria João Rodrigues, in support of Lula’s environmental policy

UE e Mercosul: manifesto quer tornar o “clima estável” um bem da humanidade com força legal

by Público 12/01/2023
Público's article about the manifesto signed by 50 personalities from Portugal and Brazil, including FEPS President Maria João Rodrigues, in support of Lula’s environmental policy

Luso-Brazilian manifesto wants to give international impetus to Lula’s environmental policy

by News Bulletin 09/01/2023
Manifesto signed by 50 personalities from Portugal and Brazil, including FEPS President Maria João Rodrigues, in support of Lula’s environmental policy