Narrative polarisation is stalling migration debate 

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António Vitorino finds a gap between public perception and reality regarding migrant populations: “in most of the European countries, citizens consider that there are two to three times, sometimes five times more migrants than they really are” 


On May 23rd, the Narratives Observatory combatting Disinformation in Europe Systemically (NODES), convened the third session of the workshop series, “The Narratives that Shape our World – Migration,” dedicated to analysing the discourse surrounding migration in Europe. This session served as a platform to explore the multifaceted and dynamic nature of the migration debate, marked by clear polarisation and driven by emotions such as fear, anger, empathy, and hope.  

Researchers and scientists presented the preliminary findings of their extensive study, revealing the diverse narratives that frame discussions on migration across Europe. Anthony Gooch, Senior Strategic Advisor at Re-Imagine Europa, opened the discussion by introducing narratives as “user manuals” that help individuals navigate their reality. However, Mr Gooch cautioned about the potential impact of narratives in shaping our understanding of the world, and the vital importance of analysing them critically and fostering a constructive dialogue by identifying potential bridges across polarised viewpoints. 

Keynote speaker António Vitorino, former Director General of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), drew attention to the substantial gap between public perception and reality regarding migrant populations in Europe, as findings from Pew Research Center surveys reveal “in most of the European countries, citizens consider that there are two to three times, sometimes five times more migrants than they really are”. Professor Vitorino exposed that public attitudes towards migration are “less focused on economic issues and much more on cultural and identitarian issues.” Additionally, he criticised the underrepresentation of migrant voices in the debate and advocated for strategies to amplify them, starting with integration efforts with the main focus on language acquisition and children adaptation, as they play a pivotal role in the integration of migrant families. Due to the unpredictable nature and outcomes of migration, effective planning is crucial for addressing these challenges. António Vitorino highlighted the importance of forward-thinking and adaptable planning as essential elements for preparing for the future. 

Following Vitorino’s speech, European Commission Policy Analyst Yannic Blaschke expressed his support for NODES ‘ efforts in combating misinformation and ensuring the integrity of the information ecosystem, as this represents “an integral part of the Commission’s current mandate”.  

NODES researchers presented their findings, which were based on both quantitative and qualitative methods and encompassed four languages and five European countries: Spain, France, the UK, Ireland, and Poland. Through their rigorous analysis, they identified seven main narratives shaping the discourse on migration in Europe, each associated with underlying values. These narratives can echo each other or lead to drastically different interpretations of the same image. 

Professor Marcin Napiórkowski, a Contemporary Mythologies Scholar at RIE, inspected the narrative construction in the migration discourse and reinforced the importance of proactively using narrative bridges to reach common ground: “If two opposing narratives about migrants agree only on the importance of locality and a long-term approach, then there is already some starting point for discussion.” Professor Napiórkowski advocates for alternative approaches based on creative thinking to transcend conventional boundaries and foster constructive dialogue.   

Social networks, with their diverse algorithms’ moderation, contribute significantly to this issue. Research by Professor David Chavalarias, CNRS Research Director, found that discussions on social media platform Mastodon on topics like climate change lack diversity, often excluding sceptics, while discussions on immigration tend to be more contentious. Professor Chavalarias also identified Twitter as a fragmented digital space that fosters misinformation and division, confirming the existence of significant opinion bubbles, or “echo chambers,” which attract new members and spread misinformation through bots. As a response, the Lead Researcher of NODES, Professor Andrzej Nowak, put in the spotlight the need for value-based bridges in the migration discourse.  

In general, the NODES researchers highlighted that divisions and the absence of open dialogue built on mutual understanding are detrimental to all those involved in the migration debate. As a means of addressing this, NODES is committed to facilitating dialogue and mediation among individuals with diverse viewpoints on migration, with the aim of fostering mutual understanding, mitigating polarisation, and ensuring discussions are grounded in common values and principles. 

NODES (Narratives Observatory combatting Disinformation in Europe Systemically) is a research pilot-project co-funded by the European Commission, in response to the pressing challenge of understanding the powerful narratives that shape citizens’ minds and impact individual and social behaviours.

The NODES project is led by the European think tank Re-Imagine Europa and includes top level institutions and organisations such as  Agence France-Presse (AFP), the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), PlusValue, Sotrender, Science Feedback, and Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia.

Access to the recording of the session.