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Opinion: Life in a ‘post-truth’ world

12 December 20160 comments

Pundits and prognosticators across the globe are now talking about the notion that we’re living in a “post truth” world; a time in which objective facts are less important than emotive narratives and fake news when it comes to shaping public opinion.

We’ve seen this phenomena play out during Brexit and through the US election campaign that delivered Donald Trump as President-elect.

In many cases the media is complicit in these snow jobs.

Nowhere have emotive arguments and false assertions had more currency than in the discourse around immigration.

One of the most blatant but influential post truths is the claim by right wing media and politicians that migrants are a drain on the economy and the public purse.

The Brexit campaigners and Donald Trump manipulated this with breathtaking efficiency.

In the UK, the right-wing tabloid press and conservative politicians spun the narrative that migrants were entering the country primarily to take advantage of its social services. But a detailed study by University College London found this had little basis in reality and that migrants in the UK contributed significantly more in taxes than they received in social benefits.

Labour markets are affected by immigration in complex ways but in developed countries, especially during periods of economic growth, migrant workers often hold low-skilled, low-paid jobs that locals don’t want.

And even though competition for these jobs may become fiercer during economic downturns, immigration can also create jobs by stimulating economic growth, and because migrant-run businesses often employ locals.

There is a well-established and strong correlation between immigration rates and economic growth rates. When growth and job opportunities slow, so does immigration.

An OECD study found that early investments in helping refugees integrate are likely to have long-term pay offs as refugees eventually enter the labour market and start making positive contributions to the economy.

Another potent falsehood being peddled by populist politicians and the media is that terrorists are posing as refugees to gain entry to western countries.

Politicians and some media outlets have successfully painted picture of links between a string of terror attacks over the past year and the unprecedented and unregulated arrival of more than a million asylum seekers to Europe in 2015.

Most of those asylum seekers came from countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan that are associated in the public’s mind with extremist groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

There has been little talk or coverage of the fact that many were themselves fleeing those groups.

A recent study by the Pew Research Centre found that in eight out of ten European nations surveyed, half or more people believed that incoming refugees increased the likelihood of terrorism in their country.

But the vast majority of acts of terror both in Europe and the US have been carried out by “homegrown” extremists, radicalised over the internet or during trips abroad.

Many experts also say that using terrorism as the justification for increased migration controls has the effect of increasing feelings of alienation within immigrant communities and stroking xenophobia towards them; a vicious cycle likely to create more extremists of the homegrown variety than to have any impact on the few proven instances of violent extremists infiltrating countries posing as refugees.

Donald Trump’s ‘bowl of skittles’ argument that among Syrian refugees entering the US are terrorists holds even less water.

Contrary to Trump’s suggestion that vetting of such refugees is inadequate, it is extremely rigorous and involves security checks by various agencies that can take up to two years.

The European refugee crisis was a crisis that the media created.

Boats loaded with migrants and asylum seekers had been crossing the central Mediterranean or over a year when, around mid-2015, the eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and the Greek islands picked up and soon eclipsed the Central Mediterranean route in terms of numbers.

It was around then that media started reporting on a refugee or migration crisis.

The media loves a crisis but this was crisis only relative to what Europe had experienced previously.

Countries such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon that had been accepting large numbers of refugees for years certainly didn’t see the situation in Europe as a crisis.

Neither did African countries like Uganda, Ethiopia, and Chad that have been hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees for decades.

The crisis narrative has helped populist, right-wing political parties push their anti-immigration agenda and it has also driven some of the EU’s responses.

Talking about the movement of people as a ‘crisis’ can and has resulted in short-term, short-sighted policies that don’t work.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist