Chapter 4: Channels and Messengers

The chart below shows what 2,000 people from places like Afghanistan, The Gambia, Turkey and Niger say are their trusted and influential sources of information on migration. The combined results exclude some differences between countries and ethnicities (discussed further below), but the pattern is clear: People considering migration go to friends and family and other people with experience of migration for information. These people are who they trust the most to give them information about migration. People need information delivered personally from others they trust. This is a critical consideration when designing a migration communications campaign.

Another source which has emerged from our research as commonly used and highly trusted is social media. The popularity of social media as a source for migration information has risen in the last few years. But it’s important to remember that when people say they trust social media for information, what they’re most likely saying is that they trust the people they follow on social media for information – which takes us back to family, friends and other migrants or returnees. International organisations, NGOs and government sources, on the other hand, come in significantly further down the list in terms of use and trust. So if you want to include a social media component in your campaign, you’ll still have to take into consideration the question of building trust in the messenger you use online; be that a brand, or actual individuals with names and faces. 

Channels and Messengers: Role of the Diaspora

In this book we look at communications activities that recruit members of the diaspora as a communication channel to inform potential migrants about irregular migration. 

At first it seems logical to work through the diaspora to communicate to those in countries of origin about irregular migration. People in the diaspora speak the language, understand their compatriots back home and can talk credibly about life in the new country or the journey to get there. Closer inspection and experience suggest, however, that it is only a good idea to invest in communications through the diaspora if there is a clear path to increased knowledge, a shift in attitudes and/or behaviour change. Effective and efficient behaviour change campaigns will expend their effort on the audience whose behaviour is the focus, rather than on interlocutors.

An initial problem is figuring out who in the diaspora actually agrees with your perspective that irregular migration is a bad idea. It is not obvious – and research shows it is not accurate – to presume there is a strong willingness among the diaspora to help provide information that may discourage irregular migration. You will usually need to spend time and money identifying and motivating people to be part of the effort. That is time and money you could spend on the potential migrants themselves.

You will also need to identify members of the diaspora with the cultural awareness and connections to help with the campaign. The Iranian diaspora in Australia, for example, is mostly Bahai, a minority group somewhat culturally distinct from many other Iranians. Sectarian divides need navigating in countries like Syria and Iraq. Similarly, the more educated and eloquent Nigerian and Afghan migrants who are attractive interlocutor candidates to government communications departments may not have the relevant networks and capacity to influence poorer people back home. 

Our experience studying and evaluating campaigns has found that campaigns find it difficult to recruit diaspora that arrived through irregular methods, though their experiences are most relevant. As such, campaigns end up gravitating toward hiring diaspora members who are more educated, successful or may have arrived using legal methods. This frequently means they are hiring from a different socioeconomic class of migrants than the target audience. One interviewee mentioned that the campaign exposed her to people that she never would have interacted with at home.

Members of the diaspora lack credibility on most relevant topics. For example, when Australia became less welcoming to those arriving in boats in 2012 and 2013, some in the diaspora began warning those back home not to attempt the journey. But their message was received as selfishness by some back home who thought that the diaspora were trying to keep Australia to themselves. The same was found with diaspora in Europe. Migrants trust diaspora when they give them information on how to successfully migrate and if they provide “positive pictures of Europe”. They were distrustful of any messages from these groups that would deter them from migrating. 

More of a problem is that members of the diaspora are by definition an example of success. They have made it, and they are settled. Listening to a member of the diaspora tell you not to migrate is like hearing a recently minted millionaire tell you that, sure, he got rich by playing the lottery, but when you really think about the odds it makes no sense to waste money on a lottery ticket.

The complexity of working through the diaspora was underlined by a bizarre pattern in our research. If you ask someone who travelled irregularly whether their life is as good as they expected, a majority will say yes. But if you take a description of their life and show it to someone who hasn’t travelled yet, they say it is worse than they had thought.

The reason for this is rationalisation. Members of the diaspora have often invested a lot of time and effort to get where they are. Humans tend to be more positive about things they have invested in.

We are not saying that all diaspora engagement is ineffective. But it tends to be more costly and complicated than going straight to the primary audience. Diaspora engagement adds links in the chain of communication, and it is better to talk directly to the people you want to reach. If you are looking for influencers, find people within the target communities themselves. This lets you replicate the advantages of the diaspora without the downsides and the risks.

Channels and Messengers: Role of Returnees

When looking for influencers, it might also appear attractive to recruit those who have previously migrated from within the target communities. Audiences at events we run often appreciate testimonials from returnees that share the problems they experienced on the journey and reflections on their lives in the destination countries. Returnees speak the language, understand their compatriots back home and can talk credibly about the journey, life in the new country and even their experiences of return. They can also highlight the risks of deportation and directly compare life abroad with life at home. 

Having experienced quite a tough journey, arrival and return, many returnees feel motivated to support potential irregular migrants to spare them the same experience. For some it might even be a way of dealing with their experience. Returnees we interviewed said that they have a sense of familiarity in interacting with audiences and their experiences and that they feel an “emotional connection” to their audiences. Many returnees spoke positively about their ability to contribute to improving access to information about irregular migration.

However, returnees are also stigmatised in many communities and returnees interviewed by Seefar have mentioned this as a challenge in their work. For example, those who had returned from abroad prematurely or without accumulating expansive wealth were perceived as having ‘failed’. There was also the unmet expectation that the gains from migration would be shared among many dependents back home. Some returnees interviewed by Seefar therefore were negatively impacted by their work, the stigma they experienced and having to recount their traumatic experiences.

Further, while returnees are a trusted source of information, our studies show that they are very rarely listed among the most trusted sources. Therefore, if a returnee’s account is contradicted by a more trusted source, the returnee’s account will often be disregarded. 

Campaigns should not take for granted that the influence of returnees will contribute to their success. Much more important is that the influencers you are hiring: 

1) are motivated to have an impact and support their communities;

2) are known and trusted individuals within their community; and 

3) have good communication skills and are empathetic individuals.

Rather than a returnee, in many cases a person who is very well connected within the local community and has considerable community work experience is better equipped to be an effective influencer.

Channels and Messengers: Use of Mass Media

Even when you have a simple message like Australia’s No Way campaign, it can easily be distorted. It is tempting to see mass media as a simple megaphone, but it is more effective to think of broadcast channels as long threads in a tapestry you weave with the audience.

If your government makes a major policy change, advertising can be helpful to get the basic facts out to a wide audience. But you will need to use some of the other tools described in this book to sustain engagement and make sure that the facts are interpreted correctly. Simply announcing the policy will not change behaviour unless people understand how it impacts on their ambitions.

You will also need to commit to carrying out research on the ground in order to know what impact you’ve had. Beyond disseminating a major policy change, cost–benefit analyses usually show that advertising is much more expensive than alternative methods. A better way to use mass media is to plan for the long term. You want to shift norms through stories people tell each other. You want local media to report on the issues in a way that supports your objectives. And you want to build up brands that embody the norm without people needing to think about it. The key point here is that this is a deliberate process over time; you are not splashing paint on the wall, you are weaving a tapestry.

Channels and Messengers: Use of Social Media

It was late 2015 and the European Union (EU) needed an information campaign that could respond to the surge of people arriving on its shores. At a seminar on the topic, a government official responsible for enforcement against migrant smugglers said, “I can go on my phone right now and find you some smugglers advertising on Facebook.” He went on to explain that we must focus on social media as an “efficient” antidote to the smugglers’ “propaganda”.

In the 21st century, no self-respecting communicator from London to Lesotho can pitch a campaign without including social media. The ubiquity of services like Facebook makes its potential seem obvious: Even migrant smugglers are on there. Users can monitor the campaign in real time; see how people are responding; and the Facebook interface is comfortingly familiar. Advertising on social media is as simple as picking up a hammer. Of course, once you are holding a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. But it is rare you will find a pattern of migrant behaviour that responds to your hammer as straight and true as a nail. 

A common approach to social media campaigning in migration communications is to use social media channels, usually Facebook, to broadcast messaging. The messenger is often branded as or publicly associated with a government or international organisation. And the monitoring framework often doesn’t square with the objectives. (Be suspicious of anyone who tells you they drive awareness change via Facebook, then only reports on reach.) 

As our research into the most trusted sources suggests, social media has great potential as a channel for influencing potential migrants; but to have an impact, your social media channels need to feel more like a space for discussion and your messengers need to win the audience’s trust. For example, if we are running a page associated with the Zemblan government, we would expect its influence to be limited by users’ views about the Zemblan government’s objectives. Most of the target audience – people considering irregular migration to Zembla – while keen for factual information, distrust spin from this source and will be coy about exposing their own intentions in any online conversations. 

Most of the social media components of migration communications campaigns are built on these broadcast properties. They are like safe, secure islands in the ocean of social media. We set up a lighthouse and some sailors will visit, but it is not where they get their sustenance. To be more influential, dive into the waters and swim more freely. But doing so is difficult for the top-down communications campaigns usually designed by governments and international organisations, because it means we need to create or co-opt a personalised, respected presence among communities of interest. It means we need to allow free-flowing discussions that may run tangential or counter to our ultimate goal for a while. And it means we must be nimble.

A major advantage of nimble social media engagement is that it tends to provide better evidence of impact. If you coordinate a donor-branded, broadcast-oriented page, you will find yourself reporting views, likes and engagements to your funders. Encouraging stuff, but inevitably someone will ask whether it has any effect. You do not know – your metrics on “impact” are like a drunk person searching for their keys under a streetlight, because that is where they can see. The best way to demonstrate impact is to go offline and do expensive surveys.

By contrast, if you are running effective, fluid conversations via social media, you will be able to collect case studies and build up data on what has happened to potential migrants you are talking to. You will even be able to ask questions about what is affecting their decisions, which provides direct evidence far more cheaply than an offline survey – but only if you have built credibility and trust first.

In a café in Afghanistan a talk show breaks for an advertisement. Hussain looks up when he sees Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, an officer in the Australian army, appear on the screen. Campbell explains that the Australian government intercepts and escorts boats out of Australian waters and says people arriving by boat without a visa will not be settled in Australia. Hussain eats some rice and says, “When I get to Australia, I’d like to join the army.”

“The journey is risky.”

Okay, but you made it.

“Beware of smugglers, they’ll rip you off.”

 Okay, but you made it.

“Life over here’s not as good as you think it is.”

Yeah, well, life back here’s not as good as you think it is either.

Chapter 3: Selecting Audience Segments

Chapter 5: Messaging

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