Too little, too late

An Interview with Jakob Guhl on lessons learned from the disinformation campaign against the UN Global Compact for Migration.

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Image: Stand 08.12.2018 of ISD

Jakob Guhl studied Terrorism, Security and Society at King’s College London and is Project Associate at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), where he mainly works with the Online Civil Courage Initiative, a project that aims to improve and promote civil society reactions to hate speech and extremism on the Internet.


FES: The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) has monitored the online discussion surrounding the United Nations Global Compact for Save Orderly and Regular Migration in Europe 2018. One result of this research is that right-wing extremist actors played a disproportionate role in influencing the discussion in social networks like Facebook and Youtube. Could you elaborate a bit more on these findings? What kind of data did you take into account? And how exactly did right-wing actors “influence” the broader discussion beyond their own networks?

Jakob Guhl: Using social media analysis software Crimson Hexagon, we collected all public Twitter data from 2018 that contained some of the recurring terms that we had seen used in connection with the UN Global Compact for Migration, specifically relating to German networks we have been analysing as part of ISD’s wider work on extremist networks and disinformation. As a result, we built a dataset of 267,865 tweets from Germany on the subject of the migration pact during the second half of 2018.

While the agreement was barely talked about on social media until mid-September, far-right and right-wing populist influencers “discovered” the issue in mid-September and began spreading large-scale distorted interpretations and disinformation about the UN migration pact. Publications such as "Philosophia Perennis", "Journalistenwatch" and "Epoch Times" hosted some of this material, and far-right representives such Martin Sellner played a big role in shaping the discussion about the migration pact online. His "Stop Migration Pact" petition was the most shared URL link in our dataset until the end of October.

Until November, there were no visible counter-voices or factual corrections to the misinformation disseminated by these actors and outlets in the online discussion about the Compact, which seems like a serious gap in response. 

As a result of Austria's announcement on October 31 to withdraw from the migration pact, the volume of tweets on the subject increased eightfold. Thus, it can be said that the amount of interest in the subject was to a considerable extent dependent on real world developments. This suggests that despite the organized attempts by far-right and right-wing populists online to influence political discourse, it is political decisions that shape the discourse online, not vice versa.

To find out who has dominated the discussion about the UN migration pact on the YouTube video platform, we analyzed the 100 most watched videos on YouTube about the migration pact. Our analysis showed that out of the 100 most popular YouTube videos on the UN migration pact, a majority come from right-wing extremist, right-wing populist and conspiracy theory channels (75%). Only 9% come from reputable German-speaking media, many of whom are indeed trying to clarify the factual contents of the UN migration pact and to refute the misrepresentations put into circulation by the actors and networks we had been following. Of the 100 most popular migration pact videos 8 were published by Russian state media such as RT Deutsch. Conservative or libertarian voices played only a very small role on YouTube.

Interestingly, various players in the right-wing populist and far-right spectrum interpreted the UN migration pact through their own ideological worldview: Identitarians argue that the agreement is the perfect embodiment of the "Great Exchange"; conspiracy theorists depict it as a conspiracy of global elites or freemasons; and for Reich citizens, the UN Migration Pact is supposedly the best evidence that Germany is not a sovereign country.

In an interview with Politico you said that within Europe the mainstreaming of anti-migration narratives is more organic than we think. What do you mean by that?

There were clearly actors who invested a lot of time and resources into the campaign against the migration pact. For example: Martin Sellner, the most influential German-speaking Identitarian representive, created (in addition to his regular telegram channel) a specific Telegram channel devoted to the anti-Migration Pact campaign, a new Twitter account, a Discord "Informationskanal", a "Stops the Pact" Facebook page and an online petition against the agreement. The petition which was shared on Facebook 23,792 times and signed a total of 83,000 times.

We would nevertheless be careful to not make such actors seem more powerful than they really are or wish to be. While it may be comforting to think that the problems we are facing online and offline are merely caused by a small number of dedicated, coordinated groups, the migration pact campaign would not have gained as much prominence as it did without regular social media users with sympathies for anti-migration narratives sharing anti-compact contents over an extended period of time. By way of comparison, the #NichtOhneMeinKopftuch campaign by the Islamist group “Generation Islam” in the spring of 2018 disappeared after a short, inorganic spike, because the group failed to attract organic support for the campaign from regular social media users that did not belong to the group itself.

In the case of the UN Migration Pact, the lack of response from groups or media that can present a more accurate and balanced perspective on the agreement left a vacuum for curious or interested audiences, which was only filled by disinformation and hateful narratives provided by far-right and right-wing populist networks.

The campaign strategies and methods used by far-right activists took many actors by surprise. Civil society organizations engaged in the compact process didn’t know how to react to it. As a result, the public discourse was dominated by anti-migration narrative. Taking into account your findings, what recommendations would you give to civil society organization interested in framing migration in a more nuanced way?

In order to identify such campaigns and challenge their potential for polarisation and the promotion of disinformation to broad audiences, we need to enable civic actors to get ahead of the curve and to respond in an agile way to these kind of campaigns. This will require continuous analysis of right-wing extremist and right-wing populist networks, not just on major social media platforms, but in those smaller, fringe platforms that they use to coordinate these kind of activities. ISD does a lot of this kind of research to try to inform civil society networks in Germany, France and the UK to respond to these kind of campaigns more quickly and effectively. ISD stumbled onto this anti-Compact campaign while it conducted some unrelated analysis of far-right communications in the run-up to the Bavarian State Election. Unless we are able to provide a broad range of civil society groups with the kind of tools and data insights that ISD has been able to develop, we will be shooting in the dark!

Apart from monitoring and identifying such campaigns, it is important not to leave these types of discussion online to right-wing populists, conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremists. If no one actively contradicts the claims of these groups, extremist content and conspiracy theories can spread unchallenged. When fact-checking organizations and quality newspapers only start to establish a fact-based discussion after disinformation has been repeated for months, distorted interpretations and misinformation can hardly be corrected. Working with technology companies, as ISD does, and providing them with early warnings for any deceptive or malign campaigns on their platforms can help to prevent widespread engagement with these kind of disinformation campaigns.

Finally, in order to combat the spread of content from low-credibility or malign sources, civil society organisations, foundations and governments need to increase their investment in digital critical thinking skills and digital literacy. There are an increasing range of deceptive tactics used to target online users with malicious content, which require a new set of skills to interpret. It’s critical that European governments start to build real resilience in their populations through up-to-date digital education programming. While efforts are currently often focused on young people, older generations need to be provided with similar training, enabling them to better identify sensationalised or outright false information and conspiracy theories online.

On the 19. December 2018, the vast majority of states voted in favor of the resolution adopting the Global Compact for Migration. Only five countries voted against it: Hungary, Poland, the U.S., the Czech Republic and Israel. Twelve countries abstained: Algeria, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Chile, Italy, Latvia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Romania, Singapore and Switzerland. Would you say that in the end, the anti-compact campaign was not that successful?

We have to avoid viewing such campaigns as isolated instances. What the campaign against the migration pact demonstrated is how widely anti-migration sentiments are shared, how much potential social media platforms can offer to groups trying to spread such narratives, and how little pushback there can be among civil society and media voices until it is too late.

The “new far right” is taking the long view on these issue areas: their aim is not merely to influence individual policies, but to cause major cultural shift away from the accomplishments of open, liberal societies towards authoritarian, illiberal ones. Specific campaigns such the one against the UN Migration Pact are viewed as a practice ground for bigger things to come.


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