More media myths about immigration

Misinformation provides cover for the coalition. Why isn’t Labour doing more to fight it?

Journalistic sleight of hand was at work today once more on the issue of immigration. Following a National Audit Office report that calls for increased checking and management information, a figure mentioned fleetingly in the report – that over 180,000 migrants "could be in Britain illegally", as the Telegraph put it – has hit the headlines.

To quote the report (PDF) at length, something that the media are failing to do, we see that:

The Agency estimates there may be up to 181,000 migrants in total (not just entering through the system) in the UK whose permission to remain has expired since December 2008. It expects to revise this estimate downwards, however, following matching with new data being provided by its e-Borders project.

A sober look at the actual words of the National Audit Office gives a very different understanding from the hysteria of the press. At no point is the figure 181,000 presented as either realistic, or even probable. To say that a figure, preceded by the two provisos "may be" and "up to" – and followed by an expectation of a downwards revision – is circumspect would be an understatement.

But that hasn't prevented headlines like the Telegraph's appearing across the media: "181,000 migrants 'in UK illegally'," said the Daily Star, Express and Evening Standard. Even the Independent, which really should know better, went for "Report claims 181,000 migrants 'in UK illegally'".

As the Home Secretary and her immigration minister Damian Green will benefit from poor information that will make their attacks on immigration more palatable to the populace, it's worth taking a closer look at the figures. Even if "181,000" was a reliable statistic and not an inflated figure, it accounts for just 0.0029 of the population. To get a sense of scale, 181,000 is about a third of the total number of people working in the care industry in the UK.

Still, it's more fuel for the anti-immigration lobby, and there remains little opposition from the Labour benches, seemingly cowed by the issue. Far from confronting the lies, myths and misinformation, the Labour front bench are operating a policy of see-no-evil-speak-no-evil on immigration. They are most likely hoping the matter will abate as a result of the Tory crackdown.

That's no way for Labour to win respect, nor does it work in the interests of the country. The opposition needs to be presenting a policy that would lead to a flexible, demand-based immigration system that would bolster the economy and fill vacancies.

Guy Taylor is campaigns and communications officer at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.