During the lockdown in Italy, in spring 2020, the HOMInG team worked with some trainee students from Trento’s Department of Sociology to explore the evolving representations of home on social media. The post below, by Maria Rebecca Rossi, reports some findings from her exploratory study of home, homelessness and migrants in Facebook groups dedicated to domestic activities under these unprecedented circumstances.
Not every person has a home to be safe in
Exploring the perceptions of migrant and homeless people in home-related Facebook groups during the lockdown in Italy
By Maria Rebecca Rossi
“Outbreaks create fear, and fear is a key ingredient for racism and xenophobia to thrive”
(Devakumar, D. et al., (2020). Racism and discrimination in COVID-19 responses.).
60 million people had to stay at home in Italy, between March and May 2020, for lockdown after the explosion of Covid-19 pandemic. From that moment on, online platforms have been pervaded by discourses regarding the disease. On social media, our digital agorà, users expressed their opinions about the restrictions they were subject to, the fear of losing their jobs, the need to protect their loved ones from this new, invisible enemy, the realization that the world would have never been the same. Copious Facebook groups saw daylight in these circumstances, sometimes with precise purposes (for exercising together, sharing receipts, finding a creative way to spend time, sharing their worries, etc.), sometimes only for keeping company. Nonetheless, while most people commenting online were sheltered in the comfort of their houses, some were not so lucky. A number of immigrant and homeless people remained abandoned on the sidewalks or in crowded shelters while the virus was circulating. HOMInG has always been interested in capturing different conceptions of home, or anyway of a personal space to feel safe in, particularly for those “at the margins”. For this reason, during the lockdown the team has systematically explored the attitudes and concerns of the Italian virtual public opinion towards immigrants and homeless people.
This post builds on exploratory analysis out of a total of 233 Facebook groups dedicated to activities to do at home during quarantine. In each group we searched for relevant keywords such as “migrants”, “immigration” and “homeless” across the communication flows between group members. Out of the material thus collected, we selected randomly an overall number of 278 between posts, pictures and comments.
While we were in search of connections between users’ views of home and those about homeless and migrant people, we primarily encountered a perception of migrants as potential vehicles of the virus and thus as a danger. Only a small number of users referred to migrants and homeless people in a compassionate way, for example by discussing with other participants how they were struggling with the pandemic, or by circulating solidarity initiatives to help them. In fact, it was the other side of the moon that most attracted our interest. Several users posted hostile contents, with particular regard to asylum seekers. We encountered several links of online journal articles referring to migrants as certain carriers of the virus, as they arrived on Italian coasts, wondered across empty cities, or lived in crowded shelters with no possibility to respect social distancing. Moreover, we found critics directed to the Italian government and Prime minister, depicted as muppets of the European Union, unable to to keep citizens safe from corona or from outer virus carriers.
Following this, the main result of our exploration can be articulated in two propositions. While users have some perception of homeless people’s difficulties and are purportedly available to help them, the same does not occur with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Much of the virtual discourse around them is marked by unfriendly and inhospitable tones, resulting in a more negative disposition towards asylum seekers. This may be because, under the current social and political context, certain themes are barely discussed at all in the public sphere. This has to do with the risk of generating a never ending (often violent) debate between different parts, but also because speaking publicly about race could be perceived as impolite (Smith, 2003). Indeed, “the overt expressions of racism in public setting are less frequent than in the past” (Chaudhry & Gruzd, 2020). However, the same discourse can be more easily developed online, where all positions are welcome and “the perception of anonymity provided by many social media platforms offers an appealing opportunity for users to convey differing viewpoints” (ibid.). This could be explained, to some extent, under the theory of the spiral of silence effect against minor opinions: in a real social context, people are more likely to conceal their stances on a certain topic if they find themselves in a framework in which their points of view are unpopular. This means that the public sphere plays a crucial role in how individuals express their attitudes towards certain themes and on the understanding of the mainstream, socially acceptable position (Noelle-Neumann, 1991).
It is clear that the assumptions of this theory do not necessarily hold true in a social network like Facebook, in which users are more likely to show their preferences even if their ideas are not the prevailing ones, shrouded as they are behind the displays of their devices. Therefore, the abundant number of racist contents shared online during the quarantine period in Italy could come from an online population who was not afraid of demonstrating their hostile positions towards migrants.
In short, our exploratory analysis on Facebook groups during lockdown points to the online reproduction of a division between the “deserving” and the “undeserving”. Migrants are seen as outer enemies who do not need the comprehension, humanity and benevolence that homeless people, on the contrary, deserve. Group users seemed to be more concerned about the lack of a home for homeless people than for migrants, although both categories were over-exposed to housing marginality. A sympathetic disposition toward homeless people was going hand in hand with an unsympathetic disposition towards immigrants. The former are seen to be worth having a home, probably because their ways of living are seen as harmless and innocuous, precisely out of their poverty. Migrants, instead, are frequently perceived as a potential threat. In a similar vein, newspapers and TV channels tend to portray them as menacing for the jobs and the safety of the natives. As a result, people are getting used to adopting this attitude and to reflecting it online: “they” do not merit a house in “our” country.
Part of this attitude, which is shared by a significant portion of the Italian online population, could be also connected to the influence of the right-wing major party, Lega Nord, on the formation of the public opinion. The leader of the party has often referred to migrants as the foundation of all problems Italy has to face, in particular by engaging with his voters online. Such a strategy has certainly not stopped during the lockdown:
Political leaders have misappropriated the COVID-19 crisis to reinforce racial discrimination, doubling down, for example, on border policies and conflating public health restrictions with anti-migrant rhetoric. Matteo Salvini, former Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, wrongly linked COVID-19 to African asylum seekers, calling for border closures. Similarly, President Donald Trump has referred to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus as the Chinese virus, linking the health threat to foreign policy and trade negotiations. (Devakumar, D. et al., (2020).
To conclude, as Devakumar and other scholars have shown, certain hostile responses are directly connected to the fear of the virus itself and to the necessity of finding someone to blame for the pandemic. This has been done, worldwide, by scapegoating marginalized groups for the spreading of a virus that may kill anybody, regardless of their citizenship. Importantly, though, “health protection relies not only on a well-functioning health system with universal coverage, but also on social inclusion, justice and solidarity […]. Division and fear of others will lead to worse outcomes for all” (ibid.).
Chaudhry, I., & Gruzd, A. (2020). Expressing and challenging racist discourse on Facebook: How social media weaken the “spiral of silence” theory. Policy & Internet, 12(1), 88-108.
Devakumar, D., Shannon, G., Bhopal, S. S., & Abubakar, I. (2020). Racism and discrimination in COVID-19 responses. The Lancet, 395(10231), 1194.
Noelle-Neumann, E. (1991). “The Theory of Public Opinion: The Concept of the Spiral of Silence.” In Communication Yearbook, Vol. 14, ed. J.A. Anderson. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 256–87.
Smith, M. (2003). “Race Matters and Race Manners.” In Reinventing Canada: Politics of the 21st Century, eds. J. Brodie and L. Trimble. Toronto: Prentice Hall, 108–30