Online social media and the construction of sexual moral panic around migrants in Europe

Keywords: online social media, intersectional representations, “migrant and refugee crisis”, sexual crimes, Germany and Italy


The period 2015/2016 was marked by several hotspots of turmoil in the European Union. Events such as the euro crisis, the massive arrival of refugees, the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne – to name just a few – were perceived as signs of a political crisis challenging the very ideal of Europe as a welcoming and inclusive “imagined community” (Anderson 1982). Several individual member states, often pushed by major advances in their anti-immigration parties, have been key actors in leading the reintroduction of European national border control, the monitoring of non-Europeans, the Othering of bodies according to gender, race, sexuality and religion, the construction of walls and fences, the development of systems of detention and securitization and the promotion of anti-immigration policies. Digital media has played a major role in creating subjectivities around the crisis and promoting processes of Othering. Within this new media ecosystem, online social media perform a key role. By opening the floor to new gatekeepers and blurring the traditional lines dividing audiences and media production, social media allow the generation and dissemination of narratives and frames in a ubiquitous, echo-chamber – that is, an environment or a sphere where people only listen and speak to like-minded peers, so that their own views reverberate and are, thus, reinforced (Sunstein 2007) – and “Facebook disclosure” logic (Wills and Reeves 2009), which stages social media participants as the “true voice of the people”, particularly in a time of increasing distrust in traditional media. As such, the moral panic around refugees and Muslims, the gendering and racialization of threat and fear, intertwined with phobias framed by the dichotomy of “us versus them”, cannot be understood without critically examining digital media.

This essay is part of an on-going transdisciplinary project at the Center of Social Studies, University of Coimbra: (De)Othering: Deconstructing Risk and Otherness: hegemonic scripts and counter-narratives on migrants/refugees and “internal Others” in Portuguese and European mediascapes. This project sets out to critically examine media representations of migrants, refugees and “internal Others” in Portugal and across Europe, while mapping out their interconnections with particular narratives in the field of security and within the War on Terror. This essay examines the role of digital media in amplifying the “sexual moral panic” around migration. We argue that digital media strongly contributes to the dissemination and escalation of phobias of invasion and dangerous sexuality framed by constructions of race and gender, proceeding from widely shared orientalist and colonial archives of racializing rape. This archive sustains the representation of male Muslim and Black migrants and refugees as subverting the sexual order of the European “imagined community”. Two European nations, Italy and Germany, will be at the core of our analysis. We will examine digital media circulation of images and videos regarding sexual crimes committed by migrants (namely the rape and murder of young woman in Macerata by a Nigerian migrant in January 2018, the the rape and murder of young woman in Rome by a Nigerian migrant in October the same year, the 2015 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne and the rape-murder of a student in Freiburg in 2016 by an asylum seeker). The article argues that gender, sexuality, race and other categories of difference were crucial in the social media construction of these events as political crisis and threats to European identity.

Author Biographies

Gaia Giuliani, Center for Social Studies - University of Coimbra

Gaia Giuliani is permanent researcher at the Centro de Estudos Sociais, University of Coimbra, where she is also the PI of the FCT project “(De)Othering - Deconstructing Risk and Otherness in Portuguese and European mediascapes” (POCI-01-0145-FEDER-029997).

She has a PhD in History of political ideas (Torino, 2005) and in Italy, holds the title of Associate professor in Political philosophy (ASN 2017). In 2014 she co-founded the Interdisciplinary Research Group on Race and Racisms.

She is an Italian critical whiteness studies pioneer, an anti-racist feminist activist and scholar. She authored Race, Nation, and Gender in Modern Italy. Intersectional Representations in Visual Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) finalist of the Gadda Prize 2019, Zombie, alieni e mutanti. Le paure dall’11 settembre ai giorni nostri (Le Monnier 2016), the co-authored Bianco e nero. Storia dell'identità razziale degli italiani with dr. Cristina Lombardi-Diop (Le Monnier 2013), First prize 2014 in the 20th-21st century category by the American Association for Italian Studies. In 2020 she will publish Monsters, Catastrophes and the Anthropocene. A Postcolonial Critique (Routledge).

Sofia José Santos, Centre for Social Studies - University of Coimbra

Sofia José Santos is Assistant Professor in International Relations at the Faculty of Economics, University of Coimbra, and a Researcher at the Center for Social Studies, where she coordinates the DeCodeM project as a Principal Investigator. Within CES, she is also part of the research team of the projects (De)Othering, PARENT and EquiX, and is the coordinator for Promundo-Portugal's Media and Masculinities programming area, co-editor of Alice News and co-coordinator of NHUMEP. She holds a PhD and an MA in International Politics and Conflict Resolution by the Faculty of Economics of the University of Coimbra, a degree in International Relations from the same university, and a Diploma in Advanced Studies in Communication Sciences from ISCTE-IUL. Previously, she was postdoctoral researcher at OBSERVARE / UAL (2015/2016) and CES (2015), and researcher and coordinator of media and communication in Promundo-Europa (2014-2015). She was a visiting scholar at the Flemish Peace Institute and a Marie Curie fellow at the Universiteit Utrecht. In addition to publications, conferences and national and international research projects, it is also worth mentioning her work in co-coordinating and co-editing the P@x Bulletin of the NHUMEP Peace Studies Group, her involvement in international networks, social movements, and the several work she has undertaken research for international think tanks and development agencies such as NOREF, UKAID, Palladium, and Promundo-US. Her current research interests focus on media representations and securitization; media and foreign policy; media, masculinities and violence prevention; digital rights and contentious politics; and critical Internet studies.

Júlia Garraio, Centre for Social Studies - University of Coimbra

Júlia Garraio is researcher at the Center for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, Portugal. She is currently a researcher of the project DeCodeM: (De)Coding Masculinities. Her research interests include sexual violence, masculinities, feminisms, nationalism, populism, comparative literature and media. Among her latest publications: "The unimaginable rapist and the backlash against #MeToo in Portugal", Europe Now: A Journal of Research and Arts" (2020) (With Sofia José Santos, Inês Amaral and Alexandre Sousa Carvalho); “Framing Sexual Violence in Portuguese Colonialism: On Some Practices of Contemporary Cultural Representation and Remembrance", Violence Against Women, 25:13 (2019); “Scripts, Metaphors and the Evasiveness of Sexual Violence as an Individualized Gendered Experience”, in Gaby Zipfel, Regina Mühlhäuser and Kirsten Campbell (org.), In Plain Sight. Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict. New Delhi: Zubaan (2019); “Challenges and Backlashes of #MeToo: the case of Germany, in Marcella Corsi, Laeticia Thissen and Giulia Zacchia (org.), The #MeToo Social Media Effect and its Potentials for Social Change Iin Europe. Brussels: FEPS - Foundation for European Progressive St (2019).