Determinants of Attitudes toward Immigrants and Refugees – The Role of Media Depictions


Stefan Stürmer (Fern Universität in Hagen), & Anette Rohmann (Fern Universität in Hagen)

Media representations, threat perceptions and the seeds of majority radicalization

Building on psychological radicalization theory (e.g., Kruglanski, Gelfand, Bélanger, Sheveland, Hetiarachchi & Gunaratna, 2014; Kruglanski & Webber, 2014) and research on the political functions of social representations (e.g., Jost, Liviatan, van der Toorn, Ledgerwood, Mandisodza, & Nosek) the main aim of this paper is to examine the role of media representations in the radicalization of immigration-related attitudes (e.g., majority members’ support for exclusionary policies, acceptance of right-wing violence). Study 1 was conducted during the 2014 Ebola crisis and examined the relationships between Ebola’s sociocultural representation and Western citizens’ reactions towards newly arriving immigrants from African countries. In 2014, the world witnessed the largest outbreak of Ebola – a virus infection with fatality rates up to 90 percent – in history. Although most of the over 10.000 deaths have occurred in West African countries, single infections have been reported in the US, Spain, and the United Kingdom. As a consequence, at the end of 2014 the epidemic also spurred discussions in Western countries about restrictive health policies to prevent a spread of the disease to Europe or North America (e.g., mandatory quarantining of incoming African immigrants). Analyses of media portrayals of Ebola in the US, the UK and Germany on popular news websites revealed a clear-cut picture in which Ebola was represented as “African” with primary origins located among primitive cultural practices (e.g., eating bushmeat). Building on these findings, we conducted a questionnaire study with time-lagged measurement of predictor and criterion variables employing a heterogeneous sample of German citizens (N = 218, M = 36.42 yrs). Moderated mediation analyses provided clear support for the predicted relationships. Although variables related to fear-of-infection (perceived vulnerability to disease, perceived Ebola threat) were significant predictors, ΔR2 = .03, ΔF(2, 213) = 4.11, p = .018, prejudice-related variables (RWA, perceived symbolic threat posed by African immigrants) explained several times more variance in participants’ support for restrictive policies, ΔR2 = .13, ΔF(2, 213) = 16.24, p < .001. Moreover, the degree to which participants adopted prevalent beliefs regarding the sociocultural origins of Ebola (e.g., African cultural otherness) further intensified the impact of symbolic threat. Through this process, shared beliefs in the sociocultural origins of Ebola also played a critical role in amplifying the influence of RWA on support for restrictive and exclusionary policies.

Study 2 examined the role of media representations in the radicalization of immigration-related during the peak of the media coverage on the Cologne New Year’s Eve assaults. During the 2015 New Year’s Eve celebrations, hundreds of women became victims of robbery and sexual assault in the German city of Cologne despite the presence of police. According to authorities, the perpetrators were part of a crowd of about 1,000 people, mostly young men of Arab or North African appearance, congregating at a plaza near Cologne’s central train station before breaking off into small groups to rob and sexually assault female passersby. Although many questions concerning the events still remain unanswered (e.g., How many men were involved in crimes – how many were bystanders? Were the assaults sexually motivated or was sexual harassment used to distract victims while robbing them? Were the offenses planned or did they occur spontaneously in the context of crowd dynamics?) qualitative analyses of media portrayals revealed that both liberal and conservative German news publications represented the perpetrators as a mob of up to 1000 immigrants and refugees (in some outlets labelled as a “Muslim sex-mob”), with their motives linked to stereotypic perceptions of Islamic culture. Building on these findings we conducted a questionnaire among a heterogeneous sample of 444 German citizens (M age = 37.48 yrs) to examine the relationships between media representations, prejudice and radical attitudes in this context. Results conceptually replicate the findings of Study 1. Although variables related to increased fear of crime (general fear of crime, fear of street crime) were significant predictors of support for radical positions, ΔR2 = .19, ΔF(3, 436) = 112.07, p < .001, prejudice-related variables (RWA, perceived symbolic threat posed by Muslim immigrants) explained substantially more variance, ΔR2 = .014, ΔF(3, 436) = 8.06, p < .001. Participants’ acceptance of media statements fostering a radicalism justifying interpretation (“clash-of-cultures”) intensified the relation between symbolic threat and radical attitudes thereby amplifying the hypothesized indirect effect of RWA. Notably, these relationships were particularly pronounced among liberals who often hold more ambivalent attitudes toward Muslims. Implications of the studies for understanding the role of media representations in majority radicalization are discussed.


Shantal Marshall (Nevada State College), & Jenessa R. Shapiro (University of California)

When “scurry” vs. “hurry” makes the difference: Vermin metaphors, disgust, and anti-immigrant attitudes

Could using “scurrying” over “hurrying” when describing immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border shape immigration policy support? The use of metaphors is a particularly powerful way to affect public attitudes because they are social representations—images or narratives that provide “common sense” knowledge about how our society is or should be structured (Moscovici, 1988). Metaphors associating immigrants to animals, and in particular rats and parasites, are common. For example, immigrants are described as coming in “swarms,” calls are made to “round them up,” and their children are referred to as “offspring” (Santa Ana, 2002). Moreover, these animal metaphors are often combined with water metaphors, such as “floods” or “waves” that invoke images of immigrants coming in large, uncontrollable numbers. In addition, immigration itself is an “invasion” into the “house” or “body” that is the host country (Esses, Medianu, & Lawson, 2013; Santa Ana, 2002; El Raife, 2001; O’Brien, 2003).

An important attribute of vermin for the present research is that vermin tend to elicit disgust (Matchett & Davey, 1991; Oaten, Stevenson, & Case, 2009), an evolutionary adaptation that informs people when they should withdraw, remove, or avoid a particular stimulus to prevent contamination and possibly death (Rozin, 1999; Hodson & Costello, 2002). Recent work reveals disgust and contempt are linked with social groups that are seen as “parasitic,” or take up resources but do not add value to society (e.g., Cottrell & Neuberg, 2005). Consistent with these findings, immigrants are often seen as bringing in new diseases and therefore putting people at risk for diseases to which they have no immunity (Faulkner, Schaller, Park, & Duncan, 2004; Neuberg, Kenrick, & Schaller, 2011; Schaller & Park, 2011).

In the present research we argue that the link between immigrants and disgust may in part be due to common, but likely unintentionally used, media representations of immigrants in the U.S. that tend to employ a very subtle use of vermin metaphors. Although the metaphors are subtle, we anticipated they would activate thoughts of vermin, even with no actual mention of vermin. Furthermore, we predicted the presence of vermin metaphors in a news article covering immigration would lead to greater feelings of disgust and to more support for stringent immigration policies. In addition, metaphors that describe an invasion of America should have the greatest influence on individuals who consider being American as highly central to their identity, as self-relevant metaphors are especially influential (Landau, Meier, & Keefer, 2010). This research focuses on immigrants from Latin American countries migrating to the United States, who are currently the focus of intense immigration news coverage in the U.S. (Chavez, 2008).

In three studies, we present evidence that language used to describe immigrants in news media could play a role in the link between disgust and anti-immigrant attitudes. The first study demonstrates that current narratives that describe unauthorized immigrants use subtle metaphors that activate thoughts of vermin. The second study shows that when these vermin metaphors are present in a news article about immigrants, participants show more disgust the more they identify as American. The third study displays a similar pattern: when vermin metaphors are present in an article describing immigrants participants are more likely to support stringent immigration policies the more they identify as American. These effects are above and beyond effects of political ideology.

Recently, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump made headlines when announcing his presidency and describing immigrants from Mexico as “bringing drugs…crime” and being “rapists,” (Lee, 2015). Part of his plan for the presidency is to build wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep immigrants out of the U.S. (Diamond, 2016). Although his statements about Mexican immigrants have been fact-checked as false (Lee, 2015) we would argue that Trump, and many other Americans, may be in favour of a wall due to a dialogue in U.S. media that has long used subtle metaphors to liken Mexican immigrants to vermin that are meant to destroy the country. This development in potential American policy toward immigrants is the very outcome that we would predict given the way that immigrants are portrayed in media and the disgust and policy attitudes that follow.