The advent of the digital era has arguably brought about one of the most disruptive technology yet to mankind. Up until then the populace was for a long time exposed to little information, beyond what went on during their day and within their close vicinity… The print helped trigger the first wider dissemination of information, but even then, it took a few centuries for the printed word to become widely affordable and available… This was a first major improvement for the population who was then able to form more or less educated opinions from various, mostly journalistic sources. Yet, a new bottleneck had been reached. The reader, and later, listen or viewer of newest media, were forced to pick from a definite set of opinions and analysis, on topics that didn’t account for the entirety of the world we live in, if only because severely restricted and/or filtered when it came to foreign events. Neither was access to the raw material, either official reports and statistics or video footage easy to come by. The Internet sent all these locks flying.
As with a lot of things, too much good stuff often turns out not so well. Legacy media regularly pen impassioned articles on the amount of fake news being smuggled online, and how some allow themselves to be influenced by it. This is sadly too true. Case in point, a recent rumour according to which the EU unleashed squadrons of armoured vehicles in France to quell the yellow vests protest (1). This conclusion was fueled by the EU flag spotted on some of them, and held no water for the mere fact these vehicles have always been France’s property. Not only do these rumours demonstrate intellectual laziness, waste everyone’s time, but they even do a disservice to those spreading them as they distract from legitimate issues that would bring grist to their mill.
“Misinformation is a real threat” – Snopes.com
In response, social media have amped up “fact checking”. Facebook has some staff dedicated to the Sisyphean task on its payroll. Others are journalists or concerned citizens. It goes without saying perusers of material produced by these news investigators are entitled to expect falsehood to be weeded out and picked apart down to its root, so that they may not only understand why they are objectively fake, but also at which levels tampering occurred so they may look out for similar schemes in the future. This is all implicit part of the mission statement.
It’s then unsettling that the website that dubs itself “The definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumours, and misinformation.”, ie snopes.com, published a piece whose disinformation can be debunked within seconds with an authoritative source. The article in question (2) published by Brooke Binkowski in 2016 rates the question “Are Refugees Overwhelmingly Young and Male?” as “Mostly False”. For training purposes, feel free to jump to it and see if you can spot the issue with it for yourself before reading further.
We’ll start with the quick rebuttal and continue on by pulling the threads the author offers up to her reader and add missing context as we go.
The introduction to Brooke Binkowski’s post states that: waves of immigrants, migrants, and refugees have swept into the European and American continents, crashing against increasing obstacles to safe landings: anti-immigrant sentiment, stronger border controls, and racially-motivated politics. Rumours and misinformation have been an integral part of anti-refugee campaigns across the world, among them the claim that migrants and refugees are suspiciously young, able-bodied, and male.
One clearly sees that her focus is on so-called Western countries, where part of the population seems to notice a pattern regarding would-be asylum seekers. She mentions the photo of migrants arriving by train in Munich on a particular day of September 2015, adding later on These images appear to support the “overwhelmingly young and male” claim that circulates in memes such as these (and is often uncritically repeated by politicians), and straight away: However, the statistics on refugees contradict this claim., citing the only figures readers will be provided with: those of Syrians currently hosted by neighbouring Middle Eastern countries. These find that the gender ratio in these countries is pretty much 1 to 1.
She however then acknowledges that most migrants crossing the Mediterranean sea on their way to Europe are males, before concluding that the aforementioned train photo wasn’t a fair representation of what was going on. According to her, the wives of the men in the first pictures arrived by another train the next day.
Let’s get things straight.
Firstly, it takes a few seconds and a query for “refugees mostly male” on google to return, hot from the first result page, comprehensive statistics from non-partisan NGO Pew Global’s website (3):
Since 2013, the demographic profile of asylum seekers in the EU-28, Norway and Switzerland has become slightly more male (67% in 2013, 71% in 2014 and 73% in 2015), with a steady share of asylum seekers arriving under 35 years of age (80% in 2013 and in 2014, 83% in 2015). – www.pewglobal.org
Crunching up the global figures, we get that young males (<35 y/o) make up 61% of asylum seekers, while young females stand as low as 21%, namely a 3 to 1 ratio. And the number of older males are 1/5th of younger ones.
The claim this subset of immigrants arriving in Europe are “Overwhelmingly Young and Male” is therefore 100% correct.
As for the train photos, the first one has 3 visible women for over 30 men, whereas that snapped the next day, and said by Brooke Binkowski to compensate the gender imbalance of the former, features 6 women for about 15 men. The women to men ratio over the two days is then 1/5, rather than close to 1, as she led the reader to think.
On a broader level, one also has to look into how the author handles the underlying issue of gender imbalance in asylum seekers. Brooke Binkowski chalks it up as fears that would stem from racism, using the former twice in two successive sentences, implicitly riveting her point that there actually is no negative consequences in reality.
Valerie Hudson, a political science professor at Texas A&M, came to a different conclusion: The literature I’ve contributed to shows a pattern: the higher the sex ratio, the higher the crime rate and crimes against women… (4). Factoring in the cultural element, it turns out that European women are more at risk of being sexually abused by this demographic group, as journalist Jessica McCallin explains in the Telegraph: For example, when we were in Turkey, dark-haired Western women suffered significantly less harassment and we concluded that this was happening because we were pale and blonde. Male Muslim friends later confirmed that many of their peers consider all Western women “whores”, but associate this most strongly with blonde women. Why? We are rarer, more distinct from “their” women. (5). Her article was to intended to put into perspective the mass sexual attacks against German women during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne a couple of weeks prior. Other prominent cases that made national headlines in the UK, Sweden, and Finland will be treated in more detail in a future article. In a surprising twist, even Brooke Binowski acknowledges the likelihood that asylum seekers may turn into sexual predators as she cites it as one of the reasons for the lower number of women in boats crossing the Mediterranean sea.
“I’m specifically saying disinfo because this isn’t misinformation. This isn’t just screw-ups. This is deliberate. This is propagandistic. This has been weaponized, as you said.” – Brooke Binowski
In conclusion, in addition to spreading disinformation, while citing irrelevant statistics, Brooke Binowski smeared those who raised valid concerns regarding the high proportion of males among asylum seekers. The mishap is all the harder to wrap one’s head around as Brooke Binkowski states in an interview with Miles O’Brien (6) that immigration is one of her area of expertise. Having chosen to investigate the situation in Europe, how is that conceivable that she omitted the numbers concerning the continent? As seen earlier, they can’t be easier to come by, and it stands to reason they should be the backbone of the argumentation.
At a time when discussion can quickly become acrimonious, we should all strive to keep things civil and hold out an olive branch to those who have rushed to judgment. So, let’s take up Brooke Binowski on her own words when she says misinformation is not always deliberate and it can sometimes just be an honest mistake. So, we’ll correct those as well but I don’t see them as a problem per se. (6). While she’s no longer with Snopes, it’s for certain she was speaking for the whole website, so I’m going to contact them and request the necessary corrections so we can all grow from the experience, and rejoice at the notion we’ve made the world a better place, one less piece of fake news at a time.
It’s impossible not to close without musing over the implications of individuals presented to us as fact-checkers inadvertently or not deceiving their viewers, and given their status, being met with little, if any, scrutiny. That’s problematic enough when it affects a site like Snopes. When it comes to social media, this has potential to both distort the worldview of a large swath of their user base, as well as get some individuals or organizations unfairly deplatformed, with more or less arcane appeal processes at their disposal as a last resort. Consider the claim we looked into. Brooke Binkowski implied it stems from racism, that’s to say prejudice disconnected from reality, and would have been dumped straight into the “Hate Speech” bin, while it in actuality provides accurate information for better fine-tuning our perception of reality.
If we approach it from the angle of the power imbalance between big tech media and the layperson using their services, one can’t help wondering how much unsavoury, yet undeniable, facts get yanked by social media fact checkers amidst genuine fake news. Given the lack of transparency of the filtering process and its repercussion on basic democratic principles, especially as we often hear the medium can be used to influence elections, one can assume it’s only a matter of time before regulative bodies make it mandatory for the likes of Facebook and Twitter to allow everyone to know what particular shared article had been (shadow-)banned and on which objective, unquestionable grounds.
(1): “Many worry that the EU military is moving against its own people.” @ https://needtoknow.news/2018/12/france-yellow-vest-protesters-concerned-eu-armored-vehicles-paris-signal-formation-new-eu-army/