Brexit and bias? The framing of immigrants in the media

From the ‘I am an immigrant’ poster campaign, a Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and Movement Against Xenophobia effort to “challenge the negative rhetoric against immigrants, celebrate them and provide their story.” (Broad sharing policy)

Update: As of 4 April 2018, 87 million users had their information harvested by Cambridge Analytica. 

Recently, Facebook's confirmed sharing of at least 87 million profiles with Cambridge Analytica has made big headlines, especially in connection to the US. But reports of this collusion have been in the news for some time in the UK, particularly in relation to the 2016 national referendum to leave the European Union otherwise known as “Brexit.” In journalist Carole Cadwalladr's words last year, democracy itself was “hijacked” through Cambridge Analytica operations; her report called it the “Great British Brexit Robbery” (a report that is still the subject of legal complaints).

To what extent technological platforms have been used to shape public response is a matter of strong concern, as with the case of Brexit. Anyone who has been paying attention to Britain's departure from the European Union next year knows that it is a topic that provokes intense emotion. So, is there something in the topic of Brexit that disinformation efforts can take advantage of? What perspectives might a high-level, data-driven analysis of Brexit news provide?

According to a Media Cloud collection of US and UK media mainstream sources, and a web crawl of outlets connected to them, the topic of Brexit has appeared in approximately 70,000 stories between 1 March 2017 and 28 February 2018.

What is Media Cloud?
Media Cloud is an open source platform developed by the MIT Center for Civic Media and the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Media Cloud is designed to aggregate, analyze, deliver and visualize information while answering complex quantitative and qualitative questions about the content of online media.

Major themes that emerged in Media Cloud included a number of expected key terms such as references to the US election and the UK referendum and prominent politicians such as Teresa May or Boris Johnson.

However, when focusing on topics related to potential motivations behind Brexit among the terms, the issue of the economy appears to be more frequent. In addition, a prominent topic of discussion in the media was immigration.

This is an ordered word cloud of a sample of stories that contained “Brexit” in Media Cloud. The words that show up more often appear bigger and show up first in the list. (View larger image)

Exactly how were these topics discussed in US and UK media in relationship to Brexit?

The Negative Tenor of Immigration

To get a sense of the tenor of the conversation around immigration, our Bias Prism tool processed key terms related to the discussions around immigration. Bias Prism is a Natural Language Processing tool that analyzes language for expressions of personal perspective and potential bias.

What is Bias Prism?
Bias Prism is an experimental feature being developed by the Georgia Tech's Behavioral Modeling and Computational Social Systems Group in partnership with NewsFrames. Results from Natural Language Processing algorithms signal a number of possible ways that texts may be using perspectival or biased language. Learn More >>

The Bias Prism tool aims to offer more precise ways of thinking about the presence of perspective or bias in statements. Rather than producing a “biased/not biased” result, researchers are able to analyze texts through a number of considerations such as sentiment or expressions of doubt.

Comparing the samples of key terms flagged for further inspection, stories talking about immigration used more terms — like “damaging,” “anxieties,” “crisis” — that signaled perspectives and emotions than were used when discussing the economy, even though there were many more sentences about the economy.

Exploring the stories in context further, the key terms of immigrant or immigrants also came to the fore. They followed the same pattern, with Bias Prism results around immigrant appearing slightly still more perspectival or biased than those around immigration.

Our examination of several Media Cloud samples examined 4,500 words. Based upon a statistical analysis of Bias Prism results, keywords related to “immigration” and “immigrant” showed significant tendencies towards more perspectival or biased language. The averages for each sampling — Brexit keywords overall, focused around the economy, around immigration, and around immigrant — were progressively higher. Higher numbers indicate the potential for more perspective or bias. This progression was slight, but the overall bulk or density of the results more clearly tipped higher as this graph shows:

This boxplot shows where the majority of the 4,500 results lay on the Bias Prism spectrum on the themes of economy, immigrant, and immigration. Higher numbers indicating the potential for more perspective or bias. Source: NewsFrames

It is important to remember that not all perspective or bias is negative. Some can be partisan and reflect a specifically held opinion or they can even be positive. Just take some of the words that appeared in our search such as “high-skilled,” “innovative,” or “optimism” — all of which are on the sunnier side of the spectrum.

However, in the graph below, we can see the top flagged words for review in association with the “economy,” “immigration” or “immigrants.” As we can see, there is an overall negative connotation in the words listed:

Terms flagged by Bias Prism for further examination related to the economy, immigration, and immigrant in Brexit-related stories during March 2017 – February 2018. Including all the terms above the means of the dataset would have result in more words for examination. Source: NewsFrames (View larger image)

In the sample cited above, there were overall 44,401 sentences associated with the term economy in the Media Cloud Brexit-related search. Flagged results from our sample resulted in 38 words (left column). The immigration sample, derived from 22,068 sentences, produced 57 flags (middle column). But immigrant, which had the fewest number of sentences at 4,862, topped out with 69 words on the biased end of the spectrum (right column).

Since it's immigrants that seems to generate the most tension, let's look at some of those conversations in context.

The small text and the larger frame

Exploring articles one by one, the issues at stake can be hard to understand.

Take for example recent reporting on migration. At the end of February, the UK's Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its regular Migration Statistics Quarterly Report.

A number of news updates followed. Looking at the texts of various news articles alone, it is hard to see much cause for concern. Take the beginnings of these three examples, whose numbers can make for confusing reading on their own:

Article One: Introductory Sentences

Net immigration has risen to 244,000 a year in a reminder of the scale of the task facing the government to curb numbers.
The net flow to the UK in the year to September was up from 230,000 in the 12 months to June.
The increase was driven mainly by a rise in arrivals from outside the EU, with immigration from the bloc slipping sharply, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Article Two: Introductory Sentences

The number of EU citizens leaving the UK is at its highest level for a decade with 130,000 emigrating in the year to September, figures show.
But 220,000 EU nationals still moved to Britain over the same period, the Office for National Statistics found.
That is 47,000 fewer than the previous year.

Article Three: Introductory Sentences

Net migration from Europe has fallen below 100,000 for the first time in six years, ONS figures show.
Some 90,000 more EU migrants arrived in Britain than left in the year to September 2017, a significant dip which statisticians suggest is the result of Brexit.
It is the first time net migration from the bloc has dipped below six figures since the year to March 2013, when it was 95,000.
The last time the measure was lower was in 2012, when it was 82,000.

Perhaps they are hard to make sense of, but nothing in these sentences seem particularly slanted. To confirm this evaluation, Bias Prism was used on these articles to see if there were marked differences, just as we did with the words “economy,” “immigration,” and “immigrant.” The results appeared to be similar across the three.*

But taking a step back, the entire framing of the problem in the first article is clearly different compared to the last two. All you need to do is look at the titles in this case: is the issue that people were immigrating to or migrating away from the UK?

Article One: Title

Net immigration RISES to 244,000 a year and is still more than DOUBLE the PM's target but numbers from the EU drop below 100,000 for first time since 2013
– from The Daily Mail

Article Two: Title

Migration figures: Highest number of EU nationals leaving UK in a decade
– from the BBC

Article Three: Title

Net migration from Europe falls below 100,000 for first time since 2012
– from The Telegraph

The larger meaning of the stories is defined by the titles themselves. In the case of the right-leaning Daily Mail, the title addresses whether the government is doing enough to achieve its goals about UK immigration, and the Brexit-related promise to restrict the movement of peoples. Or, in the case of the BBC and the more centrist Telegraph, the question is whether or not the fears of EU residents about Brexit are already having an impact.

For perspective on these two interpretations, we looked to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, an academic research project that provides “impartial, independent, authoritative, evidence-based analysis of data on migration and migrants in the UK.”

Their position is that the figures are not conclusive. The Observatory writes, “these headline figures tell us essentially nothing about whether changing EU migration since the referendum is a good or bad thing for the UK.” They point to the lack of information these figures provide: no information on the skills, incomes, and activities of the immigrants in addition to integration factors such as learning English.

At the heart of the immigration framing are two larger questions. The first is whether migration is economically beneficial for a country. This is a question that has produced a number of studies that conclude that positive net migration is generally positive (including more recent ones from Breugel or Harvard Business Review).

This picture of the overall positive economic impact of immigration may be a surprise to some participants in the Brexit discussions. But even if there is an agreement over the general economic effects, there can still be room for disagreement on the value of migration.  And this is the core of the second question: what is it about immigrants that provokes so much negativity if it's not economics?

The ‘Sort of Place We Want To Live In’

In the words of another Migration Observatory analysis,

Economic estimates are important, but limited in that they cannot resolve important judgements about the type of society people want. These preferences over the ‘sort of place we want to live in’ can drive people’s views and choices on migration just as much as the ‘pure’ economic factors.

Perhaps another way to put it is that discussion about immigrants is also around values. And indeed, values have also been among the dominant themes when it comes to reporting on immigrants and Brexit.

Dominant terms around ‘immigrant’ from the Brexit topic results. Source: Media Cloud

One of the most linked-to articles in Media Cloud's results on the theme of values and immigrants was Theresa May's Plan For Britain speech on 17 January 2017, in which she laid out 12 priorities for the government regarding Brexit.

In her message to Europe, May mentioned values a number of times, including:

So to our friends across Europe, let me say this. Our vote to leave the European Union was no rejection of the values we share. … For all these reasons – and because of our shared values and the spirit of goodwill that exists on both sides – I am confident that we will follow a better path. I am confident that a positive agreement can be reached. [emphasis added]

At the same time, May addressed the issue of immigration:

Britain is an open and tolerant country. We will always want immigration, especially high-skilled immigration, we will always want immigration from Europe, and we will always welcome individual migrants as friends. But the message from the public before and during the referendum campaign was clear: Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe. And that is what we will deliver. [emphasis added]

However, to get a sense about how the idea of values and immigration interact (at least as much of a sense as you might get from the wider news), Media Cloud enabled us to explore what combination of words most often appeared both before and after “values” in media sources.

The word “values” in context of stories on immigrants in the Brexit search topic in Media Cloud. The words most often associated with “values” on the left and right from a sampling of 1,000 sentence fragments are presented. (View larger image)

There are a number of conversations appearing above, but some terms to highlight are “threat”, “destroying,” and “white western” on one side against “openness,” “tolerance,” and “respect.” This does not seem that the tensions are about EU immigration to the United Kingdom alone. It is important to note that some of the overall tone in stories about Brexit and immigration does come from US writers and the US perspective, who are taking into account similar issues that emerged around the election of Donald Trump as US President.

But in the UK, according to the most recent government report on nationalities, the influx is both EU and non-EU. The most common non-UK country of birth is Poland, a European Union country. India and Pakistan, which are part of a region previously under the rule of the British Empire, follow thereafter.

Statistics from the 2016 ONS report.

In any case, if there is a clash of values and expectations between old and new citizens, what exactly are the values that immigrants bring?

They were not readily available at least through the 1047 stories and story comments with sentences on immigrants and values presented for inspection by Media Cloud. Instead, we had to go beyond the news alone, finding deeper dimensions of immigrants being accomplished through efforts like the #IamAnImmigrant which began in 2015 (image above).

What “pictures” of immigrants exist now in the media is an important question, given that one in four 15-year-olds are immigrants or are related to them in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. According to this study, integration with their new societies can be a challenge for immigrant children because of their circumstances. However, one of the things that immigrant children brought was an overall greater motivation to achieve – a rather positive value.

Almost one in four 15-year-old students reported that they were either foreign-born or had at least one foreign-born parent. Source: OECD (View larger image)

But while the question of integration itself appears to be the news, a good understanding of those who are trying to integrate does not seem to be strong in media reporting. At least judging by the overall perspectives given by the data reviewed here.

Bias and Framing, Manipulation and Understanding

This issue is not so much bias in reporting as it is a question about frames. As UK and US reporters relayed tensions related to immigration and immigrants with regards to Brexit, they certainly brought their interpretations and perspective. But whether certain reports were more biased than others — this is not the question we are trying to answer.

Framing can be a natural human response to interpreting complex situations. The struggle for understanding around the issue of immigration is partly the result of the struggle for large scale integration, which includes major shifts in population around the world as a whole and particularly in the UK. In the UK, if the number of immigrants has doubled in the past 25 years, then increased encounters with new citizens and new ideas naturally generate conversations about what makes up British culture.

And it's also worth remembering that UK citizens migrate themselves and are part of integration conversations elsewhere. In fact, the United Kingdom numbered among the top 10 countries in 2015 that provide migrants to the rest of the world.

The question here is about the larger frame, in this case, the overall tenor around immigrants in the media, which appears rather negative. Frames are necessary but also tricky things. Even if it is accurate in relaying the fears of others, the weight of the media's overall framing on stories related to immigration may inadvertently be amplifying the perspectives they are reporting on.

Fears of manipulation generated by the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal do remind us that it is not just false information but human interpretations around facts or political beliefs that disinformation campaigns can be built upon.

What can trustworthy media outlets do to foster healthy discussions about the values around immigration, and share more facts about immigrants and their values? Perhaps answering this question, and thinking about the frame, can go towards building the sort of place we all want to live in.

Thanks to C.J. Hutto for his feedback to this article.
* Data related to this article can be found here.

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