Digital Refugees. How important is social and digital media in the migrants’ journey?

Narratives of the EU are important in influencing migrants’ perceptions.  However, current research examining their specific role in aiding or hindering the migration journey is still limited.  The systematic literature review conducted for the PERCEPTIONS migration project identified a wide range of platforms and channels that are used by migrants and host societies for the transmission of narratives about the EU. These are a combination of traditional media, digital and social media and personal communication. In some cases, the types of media used to convey narratives were wide-ranging, including textual, visual, audio channels and particularly mixed media. In particular, the literature review highlights the multifaceted role social media plays in the transmission of information and facilitation of migration journeys to Europe.

The Horizon 2020 project PERCEPTIONS examines imaginations and (mis)perceptions about the EU held outside Europe and the way they influence migration decisions. It further aims to understand how such perceptions are distributed via various channels, how the flow of information could be distorted and whether inaccurate information could lead to a threat to the security of migrants (e.g. through dangerous border crossings) or other threats to the society. A first step to this understanding was to undertake an analysis of the current state of literature published in this area.

This article is based on a Systematic Literature Review conducted by 25 partners from twelve different EU Member states and three non- European counties in the area of migration and security from 2014 to 2019. The standard guideline of PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) was used and data collection resulted in a final sample of 221 documents including journals, book chapters, conference papers, working papers and project reports. Literature was surveyed in English, French, Italian, German and Dutch languages, and texts were analysed using a qualitative thematic synthesis (QTS).  A full review of all findings can be found in the following public report  systematic literature review.

Mass media

The systematic literature review evidenced that narratives in the traditional media are often politically motivated by the bias in the press itself. Subsequently they affect migrants’ perceptions of the EU, as they frame migration in a specific way. These narratives often become part of dissemination campaigns against irregular migration via information offensives on traditional media channels, including TV ads and newspaper campaigns. Four main narratives framing the discourse around migrants and migration were found in the literature reviewed. These oscillated between both positive and negative perceptions. The narratives found were part of the following categories: xenophobic (23%) solidarity (16%), crisis (35%), and victimisation narratives (4%). The literature sourced showed clearly that narratives of migration as a crisis dominated.

Personal communication

For migrants ‘word of mouth’ can be important in transmitting information about their journey and conditions in the host society. This information can concern many aspects of the migration journey, including the choice of destination. Interpersonal connections are also important in the pre-migration phase as migrants use extended kinship networks to help organise the journey and locate smugglers.  Due to the increase in technology, however, most interpersonal connections are managed digitally via social media, even within the country of residence.


The literature sourced evidenced that the main technologies used by migrants to transmit information include smart and mobile phones. There is often a difference between the use of mobile phones before and after arrival, with mobile phone usage ‘before’ and back home restricted to gaining information ‘en-route’, and maintaining personal contacts with friends and family and ‘on arrival’, as a way to access information regarding services such as housing, social services, health, legal and language support.

The primary digital media platforms discussed in the literature were Facebook and Messenger followed by Twitter and WhatsApp and Skype. Other platforms less represented in the literature included Instagram, Google apps, such as YouTube, Viber and dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr. 

Social and digital media

The literature review evidenced that social and digital media is used as a channel for a variety of motives including: gaining information about destinations by enabling migrants to give personal testimonies about the conditions of life in the host country; helping migrants gain information about routes and the dangers of the journey; allowing migrants to maintain strong ties with family and friends in the country of origin and other host countries; sending remittances; aiding integration by enabling migrants to find information regarding services and empowering refugees via digital activism.

However, while social media and technologies such as smart phones have become essential tools during the migrants’ journeys, they have also been found to be potential sources of misinformation and disinformation. Often, misinformation regarding life in Europe and the dangerous nature of the journey is transmitted. This means that migrants can be exposed to exploitation, since digital media may be used by human traffickers to spread false information and lure victims.

Sometimes migrants themselves transmit success stories and hide the real nature of their suffering in the countries of origin or transit, where they currently reside, so as not to worry their relatives or not to be deemed a failure. This can often create “alternative perceptions” of migration that are not true to the real lived experiences.

Another risk associated with social media for the migrants is that of digital surveillance. Sometimes migrants fear using social and digital media in case they are tracked by immigration authorities or government authorities persecuting them in the country of origin. This highlights the need for researchers to review the use of social and digital media as information channels with a critical eye.

Future research

Whilst the literature review has elicited the negative effects of social media, and the perpetuation of “alternative perceptions” circulated by migrants, that differ from their actual lived reality, there was little consensus on the role and impact that these ‘false narratives’ have on other migrants. Sometimes migrants are perceived to be hindered and put at risk by false information, whereas at other times migrants are depicted as being well aware of the dangers due to social media. Future research could examine this aspect, by integrating an analysis of which platforms are more influential i.e. Instagram or Facebook, and probe in more detail as to why certain platforms appeal to certain categories of migrants. It could also assess, more importantly, in which migration phase these platforms are used and for what purpose, namely pre-migration, transit, arrival in first EU country, integration and return.

The Systematic Literature Review has highlighted that there is a dearth of research on how “trust” is instilled in social media usage, thus, whilst WhatsApp and Facebook are important, the intrinsic value of other people and interpersonal connections are equally relevant. Just how central each is, could be something that future research can investigate.

Another area for future study could be to examine the effects of the digital divide, since not all migrants have access to technology and data or have the necessary digital literacy skills. The effects of gender, age, level of education, and other contextual elements on this digital divide are still relatively unknown and require further investigation.

Lastly, the majority of empirical work reported in the literature used a qualitative approach. This suggests the need for more quantitative and mixed methods studies to examine the intersection of big and small data, in order to triangulate quantified patterns with in-depth narrative accounts and situated experiences. This will enable researchers to study in more depth the issue of causality and the role that social media has in influencing migration decisions, since it is important not to overstate the role of social media in influencing migration decisions. Motivations for migration are often complex and informed by a multitude of political, humanitarian, environmental and economic factors, thus it seems more appropriate to view the internet as a facilitator.


Author: Karen Latricia Hough, CENTRIC (Sheffield Hallam University), UK


This article is based on Deliverable 2.2


Digital migration; digital divide; social media; mass media; migration journey; narratives of the EU; systematic literature review

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