The following is an excerpt of one of the 126 interviews I conducted with youth between 16 and 24 years old about the influence of social media on the integration and inclusion of Syrian refugees in host societies. My guest is a 19 years old Ontarian, active on social media and student at one of Toronto’s prestigious universities. Through our discussion, she brought up many thought-provoking constructs such as honest inclusion/dishonest inclusion, and including/welcoming, and issues such as the fact that Facebook’s algorithm not only led to an inaccurate representation of the variety of discourses shared online about the Syrian refugee crisis but it also reinforced the opposing positions on the arrival of Syrian refugees in Canada.
To respect my guest’s anonymous participation, I omitted any reference that could identify her.
How do you define inclusion?
Inclusion is giving everyone the same opportunities regardless of any differences. It is making a continuous effort to challenge yourself as to who you are includingin your class, work, etc. To include in an honest way is not doing so only for the purpose of feeling better about yourself and then bragging: “Ah! I include everyone”. It is when you do it because it is the right thing to do and because it is the smartest thing to do in many situations.
Why is it challenging to include others?
It is challenging because we are not used to it and we are not comfortable with it. You are comfortable with who you know and if you look at friend groups they are so often very similar, their background, their education, their money, right? So this is why it is challenging, because of the uncertainties I guess.
You mentioned “honest inclusion”, are you implying that other kinds of inclusion exist?
Yes, definitely. For me, there is a fine line between honest and dishonest inclusion. It is the way others talk about including someone. I feel that you can sense if it is honest or not. Certain people are pretty proud of having certain friends and they brag about it. They say: “Oh my friends are different; they are refugees”. There is that pride factor behind it that I find weird.
What would an example of a “dishonest inclusion” be?
I went to the screen of the documentary called The Crossing. It basically follows a group of Syrian refugees crossing to Italy and then moving to different areas in Europe. After the screening, we had the chance to meet a Syrian family who lived a similar experience. We were with other volunteers and people from the immigration services. I was observing how people interacted with the refugees, how people talked about them, and almost as an instinctual response I found myself thinking whether the interactions were honest or not.
There was this one woman who seemed so proud of herself for all the work she had done. Yes, I agree that you should feel some pride because what you are doing is awesome but it is not about you really, you should let the family speak more than you. I don’t want to sound negative. These people are doing great work but I would ask the refugee family if they really feel fully welcomed or no. Not welcomed, if they feel included, because of course they are welcomed, people are very vocal about that, but included, I am sure they would have a very complicated answer. The family could definitely sense when people were being dishonest.
I think inclusion has to come from a personal place, from a place where you are challenging yourself as to: Am I just going to talk to this person so I feel good about myself or am I going to make a connection with them?
There is also a clear distinction between people who preach a lot about their beliefs in how we should all include the refugees and people who transfer their convictions into real actions on an everyday basis, coming from a genuine place.
You know it is not just posting stuff on Facebook about the refugees to get a lot of likes and to impress people with your knowledge about the crisis. It is about asking yourself if you are doing anything to really include refugees.
I think you can do volunteer work and not post about it, unless you think that your post would help other people, but most of the posts are “look AT what I did”. If you are taking real actions, that is for me so much more fulfilling in so many ways. You won’t even feel the need to get other people’s online validation.
You mentioned a difference between “welcoming” and “including“. What is this difference?
Welcoming is much easier than including because inclusion is a pretty complex process. It is based on how the refugees are feeling about it. It is easier for young people, they do their education here and adapt easier, even if inclusion would always probably be difficult to them and they might always feel more connected to Syria but when I think about the dads and moms, I don’t even know how to approach what inclusion means to them because they might feel like outsiders for a really really long time, especially in a city where there are so few Muslim people or Syrian people. It is going to be such a difficult process I guess.
Inclusion rather than welcome is a commitment to keeping the level of effort at the same place it is NOW, with all the media attention and everything, and it is like expanding the resources available and changing things systematically to allow room for more diversity in all places of life and society. It is so complicated. In the documentary I mentioned earlier people were feeling bad for having any complaints because they were in a safe country and a lot of their families were still in Syria, but so many of them were not happy at all. They felt so isolated, they couldn’t find jobs, but they didn’t want to talk about it. They said: “Ok, well we are safe, we have food, we shouldn’t be complaining”. I hope things would get easier for them but I can’t be positive about it because it is very difficult. I don’t know how but I know that something needs to change because coming here is only half of the solution.
How do you define “exclusion“?
Exclusion is not making any effort to letting the refugees in and actively preaching against them. I guess it comes from the fear of the unknown, that is why some people are against refugees because they are just scared that refugees will take over. It is all just fear and a lack of education, both.
Let us pretend that we want to socially exclude Syrian refugees, what should we do?
Not making any effort in any way to include them, making them feel as outsiders, sharing mean comments, lack of resources, lack of opportunities, the problem is that they probably already get this. They already experience this. It is funny that I can’t really think of things that are not already happening to some degree.
Are you saying that we are already excluding them?
Yes, we already are. Definitely, well I do not know the facts but I can assume pretty confidently, just because I know the reality of it. Look at what just happened with Trump’s election. I don’t think that we are more liberal. Well, we voted Justin Trudeau but there are still so many ignorant people in Canada. Living in part of Ontario that is not Toronto, I am often reminded how white Canada is. People in small towns have a different outlook at things. If you are not in a big city it is very hard to build a community with other people of your same religion and background. You will encounter a lot of racist people, or people who are not necessarily explicitly racist but who will not talk to you at school for example, or would just treat you differently at work. They may not really try to exclude you, but you will be separated because of the ignorance and the fear.
Looking at how many people voted for Donald Trump, it’s like a wakeup call. The world is not an immediate community. Everyone on my Facebook is expressing their outrage towards what happened but then that’s just your friends, not an accurate representation at all. Facebook’s algorithm sends in your activity and news feed only what it guesses you would want to see and read, and they are often wrong.
How do you think the shared online content influences your position or behaviour towards Syrian refugees?
I almost never see negative comments on my timeline or very rarely. If I do, they are bashed by many people who are responding to them. So If anything, I possibly have a lack of understanding of the other side. I never really hear a well formulated argument from the other side, why we shouldn’t let refugees in, but this also strengthens my beliefs because all my beliefs are all being validated by everyone who I know and care about, and also because I am reading things that support my arguments.
I do not know much about immigration policies. I think all my family feels the same way and so most of my friends. I only receive affirmation of what I am feeling. I was not really challenged that much or had to defend why I am on this side. I never had these conversations. So social media is practically a pretty big factor in that affirmation. This applies not only to my position on the Syrian refugee crisis but also to many other political issues. I am never exposed to any opposition.
How would your position change if you had access to the comments or content shared by the opposite group?
Facebook’s algorithm selects what we receive in our feed, and mainly what we see is what would go along with our position. I think there is a core belief system that I have and that is pretty engrained. I would doubt it would change, but then, in terms of developing arguments for immigration, for inclusion especially, I think that if I were to see people who I respect in some ways having other points of views or at least bringing forward some of the arguments that are well developed, I don’t know if this would change my beliefs, but it would make my arguments more legitimate. Again, I am missing quite a lot of facts. I guess most arguments against refugees would probably upset me but I think this would challenge my beliefs, or strengthen them or make them more complicated. All could be possible then.
How do you think negative posts about the Syrian refugee crisis influence the position or the behavior of Canadian youth towards these refugees?
Social media is the main source of information that most of us use. Most youth don’t read newspaper; they do not look at news at all. I think anyone can agree that a lot of our beliefs are affirmed or denied by people who we think are really smart or we care about. It also depends on the age of the youth, but definitely negative posts have some sort of an influence. Social media couldn’t not have an influence because of how much you are exposed to it, right? even if you are supporting refugees.
Constant negative comments still have some sort of impact on you even subconsciously, the way you respond to interactions with refugees and little things that you won’t notice. In terms of belief systems, I think it really depends on the age of the youth. The younger you are, the more vulnerable you are to change. At my age, for instance, I am still considered a youth but it would surprise me if you could drastically change my political beliefs and what I find on social media is not even good information, it is people’s opinions.
If you are already against allowing that many refugees, all the negative that is said online will affirm your position and it might lessen your ability to change or strengthen your own position.
So, you are saying that if youth have already adopted a position, with or against, messages on social media would strengthen their position. How about Canadian youth who have not yet been exposed to any information about the Syrian refugee crisis, and suddenly they became exposed to all the controversial online content about the arrival of the refugees in Canada, would they lean towards the against or the supportive camp?
It is very difficult to answer, obviously. So if they are undecided and they are seeing both mixed messages… well you are basically asking me if I am positive about human nature. Do I think humans are good?
Part of me feels that mostly because of the media, all of us are a bit racists in some ways, even people who are of color and people who are Muslims. There are some racism in us. I feel that this racism intertwined with a lack of exposure and a lack of education and then seeing the mixed messages you are more likely to go towards the anti-refugee point of view, but I am not a complete pessimistic. I do think that humans are good in some way and that part of our instincts is to feel empathy and to react to disturbing images and disturbing stories.
I don’t think that racism would be explicit, I think it would come across more in their interactions with refugees or their lack of efforts towards inclusion. I don’t think they would bluntly say: “No, I do not want refugees, let’s just leave them”. The racism in us is going to show in more subtle ways, I feel.
I don’t think that most people are on one side or the other. I think there is some sort of a mix and you can hear that in certain comments or even see it in certain actions. It is difficult because humans are good and terrible, right? There are both sides to us. I think the good is still there. I couldn’t imagine someone seeing those images and being aware of the reality of Syrian life right now and completely rejecting the idea of allowing Syrians in. I mean it happens, obviously, but it we are talking about youth who are undecided, I think it is both. I think the negative is definitely there but subtler. I also think that some people have less empathy. There are some people who are comfortable saying “No I don’t want refugees here” even though they are aware of the situation. It is so complicated, there are so many factors, so many things that come to play when you start analyzing why people feel that way. I am kind of hopeful about youth. I think they have an inherent goodness in them.
How do you think shared online content influence Syrian refugee youth’s position towards Canadian youth?
If I put myself in their shoes, I would be really just nervous and scared because of the variety of responses. You really don’t know if you are going to be bullied or if everyone will be excited and wanting to talk to you. I think the lack of certainty is really stressful. The negative comments will be extremely upsetting because you are already going through the Unimaginable, really, and completely moving countries, experiencing culture shock and all that terrible stuff, especially if you are young. High schools are already terrible. You have to go through high school, learn a different language, try to make friends who are so different from you, add to this all the negative comments. These comments upset me and I don’t even experience any of what a young refugee experiences, especially not racism. It must be just terrible, it is so sad that they have to be exposed to that.
So, they will feel uncertain and scared. How about their behaviour?
I would expect them to be really shy, partially because most of them probably are not fluent in English, also to be very passive in a way, not even trying to make friends. I think it will take a long time for them to be comfortable. Another response could be a complete rejection of what is happening to them because it is really unfair. They had to leave all their friends and family, I assume, and then we send them all these mixed messages. They could completely reject it all and act out. I can see both of these scenarios happening. They could be really passive and shy or just angry and reject everything. I guess the third possibility is trying to make a really strong effort to learn English and to talk with other students who they feel approachable. I think these are the three responses. The one I think would occur the most is the first one, just being really shy and passive, because you do not want to make a big impression on any one if you fear how people will respond to you.
I met one girl from Syria and she was really fluent in English. I don’t know if she was very comfortable here, I never talked about her experiences here but she did not have that language barrier which made it a lot easier. And she did not wear a hijab, which is another factor. I think she is Muslim but she doesn’t wear a hijab, which definitely changes the way people look at you and interact with you. It is just the truth in the matter, she doesn’t look white but she doesn’t wear hijab and she could definitely pass as Canadian. Obviously there are Canadians who wear hijab but they get different responses than Muslim Canadians who don’t. This is the fact in the matter, which is really sad.
I also think where you are in Canada matters. If you were in Toronto, I am sure you would still get comments in the streets, but people are much more used to seeing people from different religions and colors and everything, unlike in more remote areas. I have a Muslim friend who wears a hijab and goes to a school in Calgary. Islamophobia is well spread there. There are so many cases where people get yield at or people’s hijab is ripped off. I almost never hear of things that extreme here. If I was a Muslim and I would hear these stories, going there would terrify me. I would think of school campuses as a safe space, but if I hear those stories I wouldn’t want to even go there at all.
The last question I would like to ask you is: do you think online interactions and shared content influence the integration and the inclusion of Syrian refugees here in Canada?
Yes, definitely. That’s the whole thing. You need affirmation about your beliefs. Regardless whether you are a racist or really a social justice activist, actively talking about how to challenge racism and sexism and islamophobia, you need affirmation. You need other people to tell you, yes I support you, I am with you. This is one of the scariest things about what happened with Trump. On a policy level he is probably not going to be able to do a super drastic change, but because so many people voted for him and because he is now the president with such of a position of power, people feel affirmed in their racist and sexist beliefs. One of the scariest things is that on the individual level people are more comfortable being explicitly racist. When I think about the online responses and how they influence integration, I think it is very similar. It is definitely impactful because people from both sides would have affirmation on their beliefs. If we only had positive posts, people who are anti-refugee would probably less likely act out on their beliefs but it could also make them angrier.