Shifting Immigration Perceptions in the Digital Age.

Animosity toward immigrants seems to have gone from bad to worse in recent years. The disturbing news surrounding family separation, aggressive deportations by ICE, discrimination against immigrants and resentful protesters leading chants of “build the wall” all come together to paint a desperate picture.

But according to a Pew Research Center survey from June 2018, 70 percent of Americans think that immigration should be kept at its present level or increased. Only 24 percent think that there should be a lighter influx of immigrants. The same survey found that the percentage of those who think legal immigration should increase in the United States has gone up by 22 percent since 2001. The proportion of those who believe fewer people should seek refuge in America has fallen 29 percent.

The rise of internet use correlates with this change in public opinion. In the U.S., 55 percent of people were using the internet in 2001, but nearly 90 percent have an online presence in today’s technological age. Perhaps this is more than simple correlation, and the ubiquity of the internet has in fact played a significant role in increased tolerance and acceptance of immigrants.

This theory makes sense when considered in the context of an idea largely popularized by Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist. Pinker believes that the invention of the printing press and the rise in literacy directly contributed to a decrease in world-wide violence. As he puts it, “Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person’s mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions.” Reading has the ability to enhance our feelings of empathy and Pinker isn’t alone in this theory. In fact, many studies and anecdotal evidence show that there’s at least a correlation between reading fiction and higher levels of empathy.

When asked if she had any suggestions for how Americans can expand their way of thinking when it comes to immigration, Paula Fitzgerald, executive director of Ayuda, a nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants in the Washington, D.C. area, said, “Travel. If you can’t travel, then read.”

Social media, like fiction, allows us to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes — gaining insight into their personal life, learning about what they are experiencing on a day-to-day basis. While research on the behavioral effects of the internet and social media is still relatively sparse, some studieshave found that use of social media correlates with elevated cognitive and affective empathy. Having a Facebook friend who is an immigrant or reading an article on a family that was separated at the border can be an eye-opening experience, allowing people to see immigrants as complex people and not with the two-dimensional lens of fear and resentment.

Now more than ever, the general public is reading news through social media — following Business Insider on Twitter, finding New York Times articles summarized in videos and shared on Facebook or even finding news in pictorial form through Snapchat stories. Despite “fake news” and “biased media,” America is dependent on the internet and, more specifically, social media to learn what is happening in the world around them. Thus, shaping the public perception through online news can ultimately help people tell their stories, build trust and connect communities to narratives that will shape their hearts and minds.

The irony, unfortunately, is that social media, which can be a source of growth and empowerment for many, still serves as a breeding ground for hate and fear. Some have used the internet as a means of rallying and recruiting nationalists, isolationists and xenophobes. If one social media or news feed consists of such language, the same phenomenon could work in reverse — causing an increase in tolerance and sympathy for isolationism and racism.

Of course, there are many different factors contributing to the shift in public opinion on immigration. Social media and the internet only play a partial role. But a conversation on how these innovations are affecting the way we not only interact with our peers, but feel about them, is demanded in an age where communication is king and we are increasingly connected to one another through online platforms.


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