How fake images spread racist stereotypes about migrants across the globe

Several images that were misappropriated and used to manipulate public opinion on the migration crisis.
Several images that were misappropriated and used to manipulate public opinion on the migration crisis.

On social media, blogs and in the mouths of certain politicians, migrants are regularly associated with criminality, taking handouts or, even worse, terrorism. Manipulated or fake images are often used to illustrate these racist stereotypes, which are then massively circulated online. The FRANCE 24 Observers team has collaborated on a project aiming to sort and analyse various fake news stories about migrants. Here are our initial results.

Turkish journalist Gülin Çavuş, from the factchecking website, launched a project with the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), a global collective of fact-checking media, about misinformation and fake news about migrants. The idea was to map out both the fake information itself as well as articles debunking that false information.


To prepare for the project, Çavuş spent two weeks in Paris working with the FRANCE 24 Observers team and visiting journalists specialised in fact-checking at the French newspapers Le Monde and Libération.

The study aims to examine the similarities and the differences between the way that false information about migrants is spread in several different European countries (with a focus on France and Turkey). The situations in these two countries are very different. In 2016, France opened its doors to 304,507 migrants. In that same year, there were 2,869,379 migrants in Turkey.

This isn’t an exhaustive study and research is ongoing.

"The goal is to create a database about fake news about migrants,” says Gülin Çavuş. “We want all of the members of the IFCN to be able to contribute to this database. We want the public to be able to access it through a website built like a search engine.”

During the course of this study, we identified 162 cases of fake news (including tweets, Facebook posts, statements made by politicians and articles filled with false information) on 81 different topics relating to migrants. We divided the subjects into nine categories. The most common were about criminal acts supposedly committed by migrants (30%), social benefits claimed by migrants (20%) and the idea of a migrant invasion (19%).

All of the examples of fake news that were looked at were disproved by at least one reliable media. There are different versions of some of these fake news stories, because they were circulated in different forms in different countries.

Here are a few of the most striking examples of fake news.

Where it all began: a Russian video shared in France, Turkey and Spain

Fake news spreads between countries, often changed or adapted to fit a local context or to feed into the xenophobic rhetoric of various local political groups. The study actually began with one such example.

Video posted on YouTube on February 23, 2017.

This video, posted on February 23, 2017, shows a man hitting several nurses in a hospital in Russia, in the town of Novgorod. It was manipulated and shared by users in at least three other countries.

Starting on March 18, 2017, several French Facebook pages associated with the far-right claimed this video showed a migrant assaulting nurses in a hospital in France.

In Turkey, a secular page claimed that this video showed a Syrian man attacking a female doctor in a hospital (and implied that the incident took place in Turkey).

Social media users in Spain, however, claimed that it was a Muslim person attacking a nurse in a Spanish health centre.

It’s hard to know to what extent the pages influenced each other. It’s also hard to know where the administrators of these pages first saw these videos.

In each of these three countries, the messages were slightly different: in France, the incident was blamed on a migrant. In Turkey, the blame is usually put on Syrians who have special refugee status in the country. In Spain, the emphasis was on the religion of the migrants (Muslim).

For the propagators of this false information, the idea is to associate these groups with violent behaviour and some kind of ingratitude for the "social benefits" they may enjoy.

The "terrorist" migrant

This photo was used as “proof” that there are terrorists hidden among the migrants who come to Europe ["migrants of Islamic State", according to some social media users]. It purports to show them attacking the German police and waving flags of the Islamic State jihadist organisation openly in the street.

It was widely shared on social media in at least six countries: France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Macedonia, between September and October 2015, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her intention to allocate six million euros to welcome 800,000 asylum seekers.

The photo was taken in Germany but it was taken out of context. In reality, it shows Islamist protesters in 2012, way before the start of the migration crisis. They were protesting at a far-right parade near Düsseldorf, in Germany, according to the team at Libération Désintox.

Those sharing this false information wanted to denounce Germany’s open-door policy and to highlight the “risks” associated with welcoming migrants. Essentially, the goal was to both create a link between asylum seekers and members of the Islamic State group and to paint Germany as a lax country where people associated with the IS group would be allowed to protest openly.

The migrant "rapists"


This montage shows 16 people who were supposedly raped and assaulted by migrants in Europe. It was widely shared in six different countries (Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and France).

Most of the false information about migrants connects them in some way with crime. About 30% of the 162 cases of false information examined were about migrants and crime, including rape and murder. In most cases, the migrants’ victims were European women (and sometimes girls).

Of the 16 women pictured, none are actually German and nor were they assaulted in Germany, according to the Austrian fact-checking website Mimikama, which tracked down the original sources of the photos.

Most of these photos actually came from the United Kingdom or the United States. The women shown were victims of domestic violence, police violence or random attacks. A couple of the photos do not show victims of attacks at all, but women who are wearing stage or costume make-up. The photo on the far-right of the third line actually shows a British man who was attacked in his home in 2014.


The Muslim migrant who refuses non-Halal food

Of the 162 examples studied, the migrants are identified as Muslim in about 20% of cases. However the simple words "migrant" or "refugee" are the most used (59% of the fake information studied).

Xenophobia goes hand in hand with Islamophobia, especially amongst those who claim that migrant populations are “incompatible” with “European culture".

There were several fake news stories about supposedly Muslim migrants damaging churches in Sweden. Another story claimed they had attacked a Christmas tree in a mall in the United States. Another claimed that Muslim migrants had held a protest in London to demand the application of sharia law. All of these stories are fake and the images used to illustrate them were old photos taken out of context.


Video posted on YouTube on August 22, 2015. Link here.

That’s also the case for the video above. It was circulated in eight different countries and purported to show Muslim migrants on the border between Greece and Macedonia who refused food aid from the Red Cross because the food wasn’t halal (or because the packet was marked with a cross).

In reality, the migrants were refusing to take food, which was being distributed by police, to protest against the closure of the border and the poor conditions in which they were forced to wait, according to Italian journalists at Il Post, who interviewed humanitarian workers on site and the journalist who filmed this video.


The migrant who is “invading” Europe and will end up replacing the Europeans


This series of photos was used to illustrate the conspiracy theory that migrants from Africa will replace Europeans, not just in terms of population but also in terms of culture and religion. Some fear that this will be the end to Western civilisation. About 20% of the 162 instances studied mentioned the idea of an “invasion” of migrants in one way or another.

These photos were widely shared on extreme right websites like Riposte laïque in France. However, they were also shared by more mainstream political parties like the Reform Movement party in Belgium (Prime Minister Charles Michel is a member). In the United States, many claimed that the images showed crowds of migrants in Libya, bound for Italy. The vice president of the Italian Senate posted this photo, along with the same false information.

However, in reality, these images have nothing to do with the arrival of migrants from Africa in the past few years. These photos were taken in 1991 when thousands of Albanians were fleeing their country for Italy (because of frequent armed clashes and food shortages).


The “strong, muscled” migrant here to wage war

There was a global outcry after the photo showing Aylan, the little Syrian boy found dead on a Turkish beach. There was also another response: certain xenophobic social media users started a campaign to “debunk” sympathetic portrayals of migrants in distress and danger, suffering from lack of food and extreme cold and forced to flee his or her country. The aim of this fake news was to change people’s minds about migrants and to stop expressions of solidarity.

Some anti-immigrant sites claimed that the mainstream media had made up the story of Aylan, who died while crossing the Mediterranean, because they were “partisan” and, according to some conspiracy theorists, complicit in the “great replacement” (the idea that migrants will replace Europeans.)

Some of these adherents to conspiracy theories claimed that journalists had moved Aylan’s body to create a “more touching” photo. These theories were false, according to the journalists at Les Décodeurs, a fact-checking project at Le Monde.


Photos posted in 2013 on an Australian blog.

These photos are another example of manipulation meant to plant seeds of doubt on social media. In Italy, Poland, the United States and the United Kingdom, social media users posted these images, claiming that the migrants (or Syrians) shown were not “dying of hunger” but instead were soldiers who came to “fight their religious war”. The aim of this fake news is to show a menacing image of migrants supposedly ready to fight who could, at any moment, turn against their new country.

But these muscled men aren’t actually migrants who've recently arrived in Europe. These pictures were taken on Australia’s Christmas Island in 2013 and published on this blog. However, the identity of these people arrested by Australia police was never clearly established.


The migrant who lives on benefits

There is also a lot of fake news about migrants who live off benefits in their new countries. In both Turkey and France, anti-immigrant groups and politicians close to the far-right claimed that refugees were given a cash card loaded with several hundred euros each month. In France, members of the National Front shared this lie along with a photo to illustrate it.


Screengrab of Bernard Monot’s Facebook page. Monot is a European Deputy from the National Front. He writes, "Here is an example of a debit card sent by the Ministry of the Interior to "asylum-seekers". The card allows them to make withdrawals of, depending on the individual case, up to 40 euros a day!"

Asylum seekers do receive a daily allowance in France. However, they only get 6.80 euros per day, according to French media Les Obs. If they don’t have access to housing, they get an extra 4.20 euros. This member of the National Front claimed migrants were getting 40 euros a day. To get that sum, you’d need a family of 10, who’d get (in total) 37.40 euros per day to be shared amongst them.


“On the left, Syrians wait to get their salary in front of the Post Office… On the right, citizens of my country who sell fruits and vegetables for a few coins,” says this tweet posted on February 23, 2017.

In Turkey, it’s the same story. Several posts, which were widely shared, claimed that Syrians were getting a salary through the PTT, the Turkish public post office. This false information was often shared with images of Syrians waiting in the queue in front of a Turkish post office.

If people do qualify for benefits, they don’t get a salary but a debit card. Moreover, they get this just once a year: in winter, says Turkish fact-checking website Teyit (quoting UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees). Close to 50,000 of these cards were distributed. Each contained between 600 and 900 Turkish lira (equivalent to roughly 130 to 200 euros).


Preliminary findings of the study

  • Of the 162 instances of fake news that we examined, we noticed two spikes in the propagation of fake news about migrants: in the summer of 2015, and in October 2016. Both of these were periods of intense media coverage of migration issues. The year 2015 marked the beginning of the so-called migration crisis in Europe. In 2016, the migrant camp known as the Jungle in Calais was torn down. At the same time, there was a fierce US presidential election going on.
  • Fake news stories about migrants were most widely shared in the USA, in France, in Turkey and in Sweden. However, most of these stories were about Germany, France and Sweden.
  • In Turkey, most fake news stories are about Syrians. In the United States, most are about Muslims.
  • The most common topics are (in order): criminal acts carried out by migrants, migrants who take advantage of social benefits and the idea of a migrant invasion.



We identified different articles that debunked fake news, and went back to the original source of the false information. We then checked if this same false information had been shared in other countries or in other languages, and if any other debunking articles had been written. To do this, we used various online fact-checking tools such as InVid and Google Images.

We'd like to thank Adrien Sénécat, a journalist at Le Monde, and to Pauline Moullot, a journalist at French daily Libération, for their help in carrying out this study.