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