Post-‘refugee crisis’ social media: the unbearable lightness of sharing racist posts

Post-‘refugee crisis’ social media: the unbearable lightness of sharing racist posts

Ozge Ozduzen and Umut Korkut

There is rampant racism on social media platforms in the so-called post-refugee crisis period (Ozduzen et al. 2020; Ozduzen 2020). Early approaches to social media have widely cherished the participatory social media practices and celebrated the opportunities that social media affords, especially for ordinary users to create and circulate a variety of DIY media content. However, more recent research (inter alia Benjamin 2019 and Noble 2018) questions the algorithmic systems underlying new technologies in terms of how they bolster already existing social inequalities that some users voice with hatred and racism.

As an extension of the overall racist public sphere social media provides an amenable platform where some users can disseminate anti-immigrant and anti-refugee messages. To this extent, social media can also facilitate the formation and consolidation of anti-immigrant movements and networks as some users turn it into a space where they can disseminate their extremist ideas to other likeminded users. Therefore, it is not necessarily algorithms and social bots, but the mainstreaming of racist, misogynist or transphobic texts and images online that makes radical right-wing ideas pervasive and rampant.

Following the so-called refugee crisis, radical right-wing ideas gained everyday acceptance and legitimisation particularly because of the electoral gains of populist and authoritarian parties on a global scale. While the increase in the number of irregular migrants to the West was an indirect cause of the Arab Spring, there has always been migration to the West from these geographies. Yet, the humanitarian emergency that has emerged contributed to the increase of populist and illiberal modes of governance across the West, as the fear and paranoia of the ‘Other’ set the course of some political and societal reactions to migration. This emergency also boosted and exposed racialised expression online, especially across Twitter and YouTube, mainstreaming far-right ideologies concomitantly with but undermining the humanitarian emergency following the Arab Spring.

Using this framework, we propose three main reasons why social media acts as an easy facilitator of far-right ideas and ideologies. First and foremost, social media platforms remain largely unregulated. Even if this faces major backlash today, forcing social networking sites to develop new strategies and to regulate their platforms, some proponents of freedom of speech oppose any regulation whatsoever. Precisely how social media incited hate speech leads to violence is obscure therefore defining the parameters of any such regulation is challenging.

Secondly, while it is empowering that users can start anonymous profiles, especially in authoritarian contexts where users’ social media posts are overseen and penalised by states, anonymous accounts also facilitate the spread of various forms of hate, conspiracy theories as well as fake news. Remaining anonymous also removes accountability for what one says online in relation to both the law and social conventions.

Third, messages become ubiquitous online unbound by geographical limitations. Since users can post and react to an issue from wherever they are based, radical far right ideas receive global visibility, grasping the attention of amenable publics. This facilitates the dissemination of anti-immigrant and racist messages beyond the geographies where humanitarian emergencies take place, while online communities gather around and polarise over social and political instances beyond their particular localities. This is how online communities coalesce around identity or racial issues that subsequently lead to narrative communities. Yet, these communities are cut off from those of communities with more humanitarian concerns and unable to tell each other their own stories amidst the polarisation which certain events lead to. In a nutshell, the World Wide Web falls short in linking people and enhancing a global joint belongingness. It fosters broken narrative communities that do not talk to each other.

In order to understand how social media interferes with the formation of narratives of joint belongingness across online communities, we have turned to trending topics on Twitter (Ozduzen et al. 2020) and popular YouTube videos relating to Syrians in Turkey (Ozduzen 2020) in 2018 and 2019, with the aim of capturing the categories, trends, and common narratives of racism produced in reaction to having refugees as part of the everyday and in mundane situations. Turkey hosts approximately four million refugees. Although our research studied racism towards refugees in Turkey through following trending hashtags such as #SuriyelilerDefolsun (#SyriansGetOut) in Turkish, our findings still represent a global narrative of, and fear of, the refugee as the other.

Essentially, the way the social media depicts the Syrian refugee led us to pursue the formation of “digital racism” pervasive throughout Twitter and YouTube publics. In Particular, the everyday presence of Syrian refugees, engaged in mundane acts such as at the beach or at cafes, stimulated this reactive narrative. In our analysis of online data collected from Twitter between 2018 and 2019, we saw that reactions to refugees were framed by their mundane activities, as we note above, but presented as cues to their ‘backwardness’, in lifestyle and culture, an lack of fit with the existing norms and conventions of the host society. Thereby, polarised social media communities did not provide an amenable environment for the newcomers and their hosts to tell each other their narratives but silenced the newcomers and enabled the pervasive and unaccommodating voice of the host.

These posts also exemplify the mainstreaming of the far right in Europe and Europe’s periphery, that is Turkey, criticising the Turkish government’s policies, especially the so-called open-door policy for Syrian refugees regardless. The online narrative community, therefore, went beyond political affiliation and became a single-issue movement targeting the newcomer Syrian as the other. In the same period, although a lot of political organisations have built solidarity and aid networks with/for refugees in Europe and Turkey alike, social media platforms have consistently facilitated the visibility of the hate messages through trending topics or largely shared videos. Online solidarity for refugees, such as the hash tag #mültecilerhoşgeldiniz (#refugeeswelcome), remained feeble and less visible in this period.

Writing in 2017, McGarry (2017) identified racism against Roma populations across Europe as “the last acceptable form of racism”, saying that it is perfectly acceptable to denigrate Roma by invoking so-called traits and characteristics that all Roma supposedly possess. Following the so-called refugee crisis era, we see that racism against refugees and especially the Syrians ensues what McGarry conceived as the last acceptable racism insomuch as their pervasive online categorisation demeans them while existing integration policies to mitigate their troubles with housing, access to health care, education and alike fail to build socially more inclusive societies.

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Ozge Ozduzen is a lecturer in sociology and communications at Brunel University London. Her research is in the broad area of media and politics. Ozge’s research interests lie in media activism, media and political agency, visual politics, digital hate, racism and polarisation, using both qualitative methods such as audience ethnography and quantitative methods such as sentiment and content analyses. Umut Korkut is a Professor in International Politics at Glasgow Caledonian University. He is interested in how political discourse, aesthetics and visual imagery create audiences, following this theoretical interest across various empirical fields central to European politics such as gender and politics, populism and migration. From December 2020 he will lead a new Horizon 2020 project entitled D.Rad: De-Radicalisation in Europe and Beyond: Detect, Resolve, Re-integrate (2020-2023).