Xenophobia more widespread than homophobia, Malta study shows

Negative comments with respect to articles about migration are nearly double than positive ones, while LGBTIQ-related reports elicited more positive comments

Xenophobia is a more widespread sentiment than homophobia, according to a scientific analysis of online comments linked to news reports on migrants and the LGBTIQ community.

While negative comments on articles about migration are nearly double the positive ones, on LGBTIQ-related reports the positive comments out number the negative ones.

The study was conducted by Stavros Assimakopoulus and Rebecca Vella Muscat from the University of Malta’s Institute of Linguistics and has been published on Xjenza online, the journal of the Malta Chamber of Scientists.

The research showed that 19% of online comments on LGBTIQ articles are negative compared to 24% which are positive, and 57%, which are neutral.

In the case of articles dealing with migration, 32.3% of comments are negative, 16% are positive while 51% are neutral.

The study also found that an overwhelming majority of xenophobic comments were directed against migrants of a Muslim faith.

Researchers said the comments generally reflected an ‘Us vs Them’ dichotomy, depicting migrants as a “threat to traditional values and the homogeneity of the island”. Other comments blamed migrants for bringing with them “disease, degradation and crime”.

The most pervasive metaphor found in comments was that of an “invasion”,  reflected in comments about migrants “taking over”, “over-running the country” and “exploding in numbers”.

Most comments were directed at migrants who have not been granted legal residence status.

While Muslims are specifically targeted, the study also found that commentators tended to confuse Muslim identity with that of sub-Saharan migrants.

“Although not all asylum seekers are Muslims, there is a common perception that all sub-Saharans are Muslims,” the researchers said.

The study found that most negative comments directed towards LGBTIQ persons were motivated by religion and an assumption that these individuals defy divine laws.

The next prevalent negative sentiment was one that assumed heterosexuality to be the norm and all other orientations abnormal or even the result of “disease” and “disorder”.

The most common metaphorical allusion related to these issues was one of “doom” and this was found in expressions linking LGBTIQ people with“Sodom and Gomorrah”, and “hell”.

The study also included the results of a questionnaire among 209 respondents aged between 18 and 35, the vast majority of which had completed a post-secondary level of education.

Participants were faced with contents of articles expressing negative sentiments on both categories and were asked to deem which were acceptable and which were not.

The majority of respondents were more likely to find negative comments about migrants acceptable than negative comments about LGBTIQ persons.

An article which claimed that “some cultures are downright incompatible” and that cultures should not mix, was deemed acceptable or somewhat acceptable by 46%.

A comment that labelled the “gay community” as “arrogant” and “aggressive towards achieving a one-sided political agenda at the expense of all other human rights to live and procreate as nature intended” was only deemed acceptable or somewhat acceptable by 28% of respondents.

Basing themselves on interviews carried out in a focus group, the authors attributed the more positive attitude towards LGBTIQ issues to their inclusion in the Maltese “in group” and to the “role of recent legislation” in the field.

The research suggested that LGBTIQ persons were not perceived as a “threat to the country’s stability”, as opposed to migrants who were largely perceived as being a“threat to the Maltese way of life and stability”.

The discrepancy in attitudes towards the two minorities was also noted in a paper co-authored by Equality Minister Helena Dalli and Silvan Agius, director of the Human Rights and Integration Directorate, in a paper published in Sociology of the Maltese Islands in 2016.

While Malta saw a “meteoric rise” on ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow Index that measures progress on rights for LGBTIQ people, mainly due to legislative progress, the authors noted that a similar rapid rise on the Migrant Integration Policy Index was “unlikely”.

Dalli and Agius had said that migrant integration was“significantly more complex” to address and needed a sustained information campaign to raise awareness and knowledge about what integration meant in practice.

The paper cited “harsh words and protests” on online comment boards and the social media that accompanied reports on the minister’s initiatives promoting integration.

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