Canadians' misperceptions about immigration reflect disinformation online: experts

A recent poll from the Angus Reid Institute suggested most Canadians didn't understand where immigrants to Canada come from or how many are refugees.

Current level of misinformation described as unique

A new Canadian holds a flag, their citizenship certificate and a letter signed by Prime Minister Trudeau.
A new Canadian holds a Canadian flag, their citizenship certificate and a letter signed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as they sing O Canada after becoming a Canadian citizen, during a Canada Day citizenship ceremony in West Vancouver on Monday, July 1, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

When asked where most immigrants to Canada come from, a majority of Canadians get it wrong. In fact, many Canadians hold a number of misperceptions about the immigration system, according to a new public opinion poll published this week by the Angus Reid Institute.

Given the amount of online disinformation about Canada's immigration system, that might come as no surprise. False claims about how much financial support new immigrants get, the number of immigrants coming to Canada and the process for seeking asylum have all circulated widely online in the months leading up to the election. Experts say this may be playing a role in forming misperceptions.

The poll suggested that most Canadians are misinformed about the nature of immigration in Canada. A majority of respondents — 64 per cent — said most immigrants coming to Canada are from North Africa and the Middle East. In fact, only 12 per cent of immigrants come from those regions.

Most of Canada's immigration comes from South Asia and Southeast Asia. Just 29 per cent of those polled chose South Asia as the source of most immigrants, while 27 per cent picked Southeast Asia.

Canadians also greatly overestimated the percentage of immigrants who are refugees. Refugees make up just 15 per cent of all immigrants — Angus Reid said the average response from those polled was that 30 per cent of all immigrants were refugees. They also underestimated the percentage coming as economic immigrants (i.e. qualifying to come work in Canada, as opposed to refugees or family reunification).

"From a data standpoint, we did not ask 'where are you getting these perceptions from?'" Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, told CBC News. "But to see such significantly outsized misconceptions and misperceptions, to have the perception so disengaged from the reality, this isn't something that simply just popped up in the last few weeks. This has to be something that's been baked in for quite a while."

Misinformation on the rise

Part of the heightened interest in immigration in Canada over the last few years is likely due to the Syrian refugee crisis, the increase in irregular border crossings, and the debate over the United Nations Global Compact for Migration, according to Craig Damian Smith, director of the Global Migration Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy in Toronto.

"Misperceptions about immigration levels and about refugees are quite a broad phenomenon across immigration states like liberal democracies in Europe and the United States," Smith said. "But the current level of misinformation coming out around immigration issues is unique."

Asylum seekers walk along Roxham Road near Champlain, New York on August 6, 2017, making their way towards the Canada/US border. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

Online, immigration has been a major focus of disinformation campaigns in Canada. Over the past few months, popular online stories and memes have made a number of false claims about the immigration system. 

One claimed that Canada was "begging" African nations for millions of immigrants. Others misrepresented the benefits immigrants are able to access in Canada, claiming they were getting more money than they do and that they receive more financial assistance than pensioners, which is untrue. 

There have also been attempts to stoke fears over voter fraud, including suggesting new immigrants who are not yet Canadian citizens will be able to vote in the upcoming election. 

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These inaccurate claims are often focused on refugees and immigrants from Middle Eastern countries in particular and are shared widely online through social media. The posts are often laced with overt xenophobic or Islamphobic tones, such as claiming Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is a "secret Muslim" who wants to enact Sharia Law in Canada—a common claim among disinformation posts. 

"If we can't say there's causation, we can certainly say there's a correlation between the rise in social media use for news gathering and misperceptions about immigration in Canada," said Samuel Woolley, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism at the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas-Austin, who studies disinformation. 

Highly political topic

Woolley said that because immigration is already a highly political topic, it can be used as a tool to sow division among voters and create polarization in an effort to disrupt democracy. 

"Because immigration is a well-established topic for political communication and because it is particularly concerning to a lot of people, it is a very useful lever to pull when spreading disinformation," Woolley said.

Despite the misconceptions found in the poll, the findings also suggested that a majority of respondents are fine with present levels of immigration.

To conduct the poll, the Angus Reid Institute used an online survey conducted Sept. 27-30 among a representative randomized sample of 1,522 Canadian adults who are members of Angus Reid Forum. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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