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New report details surge in activity from far-right Twitter accounts during Mediterranean crisis

Dublin City University analysed almost 7.5 million tweets during the period October 2015- May 2016.

Picture supplied by Irish Defence Forces from naval operation.
Picture supplied by Irish Defence Forces from naval operation.
Image: Irish Defence Forces/Flickr

FAR-RIGHT GROUPS and political actors dominated Twitter and flooded the social media platform with anti-refugee sentiment at key moments during the refugee crisis, new research from Dublin City University (DCU) has found.

As part of its ‘big data projects’, the university analysed almost 7.5 million tweets during the period October 2015- May 2016 which showed that major Twitter refugee sentiment trended under hashtags about safety and security.

According to Dr Eugenia Siapera, lead author of “Refugees and Network Publics on Twitter: Networked Framing, Affect and Capture, hashtags such as “#terrorists” or #rapefugees featured prominently during this period, too.

“We kept on collecting,” says Siapera who, along with colleagues gathered tweets with the word refugee or #refugee in various languages over six months. 

Siapera then began identifying spikes in the use of words and phrases and linked them with three major events. 

Firstly, there was the”Paris story”.

Siapera found that the issue of refugees became entangled with that of the Paris attacks in November 2015 and that these attacks and the growing refugee crisis at the time on US politics.

As a result, the refugee issue was politicised in a purposeful way by specific tags popular with certain political groups. “It also showed a strong link between far-right groups and Donald Trump,” Siapera’s report notes. 

The findings show that Twitter was dominated by political and event related hashtags and humanitarian tags immediately after the attacks also. 

‘Suspended accounts’

Incidents of alleged mass sexual assault  on New Year’s Eve 2015-16 in Cologne, Germany were examined in the “Cologne story” and found that US politics and far right groups were an integral part of this story.

Dominant Twitter “frames” during and following this events were negative and racist and used for political purposes by far-right political groups and organisations, the report notes. 

There was also a high presence of suspended accounts and far-right, anti-immigration accounts. 

The report also found that, while social media has been thought to be the place which participates a wider participation by the public, Siapera founds this was not always the case.

The final case study examined was “Idomeni and EU-Turkey Deal” when Macedonia closed its borders to those without an Iraqi or Syrian passport. 

It was decided to completely close Macedonia’s borders to all refugees which left over 50,000 refugees stranded in the Greek/Macedonian border close to a village known as Idomeni.

Social media activity for this event was divided into two frames by Siapera and co-authors – a story about the humanitarian crisis and of one linked to the far-right. “The dominant frames are negative and occasionally explicitly racist.”

The report notes that rather than contributing to openness and democratisation, social media platforms have been used to attack the most vulnerable people in society like refugees fleeing war while stories of those impacted by the crisis on the other hand failed to gather attention. 

As social media platforms take more control of their date Siapera says that “it’s becoming more and more difficult to do this kind of research.”

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