Unaccompanied migrant minors and polarisation on digital social media: the feedback of hate

Stribor Kuric Kardelis, Anna Sanmartín Ortí, Xavier Morano Ferrer, Xavier Guiteras Vila

Unaccompanied migrant minors and polarisation on digital social media: the feedback of hate

ICONO 14, Revista de comunicación y tecnologías emergentes, vol. 22, no. 1, 2024

Asociación científica ICONO 14

MENAs y polarización en medios sociales digitales: la retroalimentación del odio

MENAs e polarização nas mídias sociais digitais: contranarrativas sem tornar o ódio visível

Stribor Kuric Kardelis *

Centro Reina Sofía de Fad Juventud, Madrid, Spain


Anna Sanmartín Ortí **

Centro Reina Sofía de Fad Juventud, Madrid, Spain


Xavier Morano Ferrer ***

Empirica Influentials & Research, Barcelona, Spain


Xavier Guiteras Vila ****

Empirica Influentials & Research, Barcelona, Spain


Received: 14 september 2023

Revised: 07 october 2023

Accepted: 09 january 2024

Published: 16 may 2024

Abstract: This article analyses the way that the otherness of unaccompanied migrant minors, known as MENAs in Spanish, is constructed in the digital communicative environment of social media in Spain (Twitter, press, blogs and forums). To this end, 1.6 million conversations about MENAs and youth gangs have been analysed between 2010 and 2021, categorising the mentions between themes and calculating their volume. The conversation around youth gangs remained stable throughout the study period while there was a drastic increase in the volume of mentions of MENAs from 2018 onwards. The polarisation of the discourse around unaccompanied migrant minors appears to be is the primary factor explaining this difference. An analysis of 1.3 million tweets identified four large communities of nodes with a dominant narrative: MENAs or youth gangs as generators of conflict vis-à-vis defenders of MENAs or youth gangs. Network analysis shows a low level of polarisation in the conversation around youth gangs while there is a clear contrast between the increase in the unfavourable position towards MENAs, most notably generated by the far-right, and contrary positions promoted by those associated with left-wing ideology. The increase in polarisation around MENAs has resulted in an escalation in hate speech towards this group.

Keywords: Minors; immigration; social network analysis; political polarisation; hate speech; cyberhate.

Resumen: El artículo analiza el modo en el que se construye la otredad de Menores Extranjeros No Acompañados en el entorno comunicativo de los medios sociales digitales en España (Twitter, prensa, blogs y foros). Para ello, se han analizado 1,6 millones de conversaciones entre 2010 y 2021 sobre MENAs y bandas juveniles, categorizando las menciones en base a temáticas y dimensionando su volumen. La conversación en torno a bandas se ha mantenido estable a lo largo del período analizado mientras que desde 2018 se ha producido un incremento drástico en el volumen de menciones a MENAs, y la polarización en el discurso es el principal factor explicativo de esta diferencia. Se ha realizado un análisis de 1,3 millones de tweets, definiendo cuatro grandes comunidades de nodos con una narrativa dominante: MENAs o bandas como generadores de conflicto y defensores de MENAs o bandas. El análisis de redes muestra un nivel bajo de polarización en la conversación en torno a bandas mientras que se observa un claro contraste entre el aumento de posturas desfavorables hacia MENAs (sobre todo generadas por la extrema derecha) y el proceso contrario en las posturas de izquierda. El incremento en la polarización en torno a los MENAs tiene como consecuencia una escalada en los discursos de odio hacia este grupo.

Palabras clave: Menores; inmigración; análisis de redes sociales; polarización política; discurso de odio; ciberodio.

Resumo: O artigo analisa a forma como se constrói a alteridade dos menores estrangeiros não acompanhados no ambiente comunicativo das mídias sociais digitais na Espanha (Twitter, imprensa, blogs e fóruns). Para tanto, foram analisadas 1,6 milhão de conversas entre 2010 e 2021 sobre MENAs e gangues juvenis, categorizando as menções com base em temas e dimensionando seu volume. A conversa em torno das bandas manteve-se estável ao longo do período analisado, enquanto desde 2018 houve um aumento drástico no volume de menções aos MENAs, sendo a polarização no discurso o principal fator explicativo para esta diferença. Foi realizada uma análise de 1,3 milhões de tweets, definindo quatro grandes comunidades de nós com uma narrativa dominante: MENAs ou gangues como geradores de conflitos e defensores de MENAs ou gangues. A análise da rede mostra um baixo nível de polarização na conversa em torno das gangues, enquanto se observa um claro contraste entre o aumento das posições desfavoráveis ​​aos MENAs (especialmente geradas pela extrema direita) e o processo oposto nas posições da esquerda. O aumento da polarização em torno dos MENA resulta numa escalada do discurso de ódio contra este grupo.

Palavras-chave: Menores; imigração; análise de redes sociais; polarização política; discurso de ódio; ódio cibernético.

1. Introduction

The analysis of otherness has long been a central theme of sociological and anthropological research on migration (Bauman, 2010; Schutz, 2003; Simmel, 1977). All societies construct ideal types through the arbitrary selection of differentiating characteristics that permit their members to define themselves in opposition to the ‘other’. This process generates symbolic boundaries between the familiar and the foreign (Dines et al., 2015), hierarchising immigrant people on the basis of differences to the supposed shared ethnocultural identity of the autochthonous population (Andújar Llosa et al., 2022; Izaola & Zubero, 2015).

In this article, we focus on the way that the otherness of unaccompanied migrant children is constructed in digital space. Migrant children and youth have been arriving to Spain for decades. In the 1990s, international agreements were signed to regulate how national institutions received children that were unaccompanied or separated from an adult, establishing systems for guardianship by child protection agencies. This period also saw the introduction of terms such as “unaccompanied migrant minors”, commonly known in Spain as MENAs .Menores Extranjeros No Acompañados] (Lázaro González, 2007; Rached, 2020).1

A number of studies have analysed the representation of migrant minors in the Spanish media (Gómez-Quintero et al., 2021; Martínez Lirola, 2022) and its international counterparts (Ekman, 2019; de Saint et al., 2020). Generally, these studies have found a tendency to overrepresent the negative aspects of immigration, contributing to ‘social alarm’ and undermining the peaceful coexistence of people from different cultural backgrounds (Bañón Hernández, 2003). Martínez Lirola (2022) has shown that the majority of information and discourse on unaccompanied migrant children in the Spanish media focuses on youth gangs and the problems and conflicts they supposedly create in reception centres or other places they frequent. While the analysis also shows that a certain amount of attention is given to the legal vulnerability of their circumstances, it highlights a propensity within the media to stigmatise these young people.

In the new digital communicative ecosystem, social media have become crucially important, transforming the way that information related to migrants and hate speech is produced and reproduced (Megías et al. 2020). Digital social media refers to the technological network that permits the instantaneous and global exchange of hypertext and multimedia content in this “space of flows” (Castells, 2011). Despite the transformation in communication that this has implied, representations of unaccompanied migrant minors in the digital sphere have followed the same path as traditional media. An analysis carried out by Laintersección (2022) found that of the 105 Facebook publications with the greatest reach and impact in 2021 referencing migrant children, most were negative (65%) and tended to link them to criminality.

The objective of this article is to broaden our knowledge of this phenomenon through a longitudinal analysis of the volume and type of content published on unaccompanied migrant minors on digital social media between 2010 and 2021. We also conducted a comparative analysis between unaccompanied migrant minors and ‘youth gangs’ on Twitter, in order to test two hypotheses: Firstly, both unaccompanied migrant minors and youth gangs would be characterised by the media as conflictive or criminal groups, based on stereotypes and ethnic discrimination (Queirolo, 2017; Feixa y Canelles, 2007). Secondly, despite the similarities in the treatment of both terms, the polarisation of the digital conversation around unaccompanied migrant minors would translate to an increase in the virality and volume of conversations related to migrant persons. Given that there was much more content protesting against the criminalisation of unaccompanied migrant minors than youth gangs – which in turn affects the construction of the digital conversation – it was possible to compare the discourse associated with both groups and examine the effect of polarisation.

2. Materials and methods

The methodological approach was based on computational techniques, both to extract the sample and to conduct the content analysis of social media messages related to unaccompanied migrant minors and youth gangs in Spain. The study was carried out within the framework of the LEBAN project (Feixa et al., 2022). In total, 1.6 million digital conversations were identified, 81 percent relative to unaccompanied minors and 19 percent to youth gangs. The data was gathered from four channels: Twitter (1,362,855 tweets), news reports (169,117 articles), forums (91,719 comments) and blogs (9,991 comments). However, only the Twitter data was used for the comparative analysis of unaccompanied minors and youth gangs.

Content analysis is one the most common and valued research techniques in social science (Marcos Ramos et al., 2014). It permits the generation of reproducible inferences that can be applied to a specific context on the basis of quantitative data and has been used to research perceptions and meaning construction in relation to migrant persons (Igartua et al., 2008). To identify and download the information related to the object of study from the social media platforms, we used Brandwatch, a social media monitoring tool of British origin that has become a leader in its field (Liu et al., 2020; Powell, 2021). This tool uses four different methods to gather content from social media platforms: web crawlers or bots to record mentions, search APIs, data streams from third-party data providers and direct relationships with specific websites. In the case of Twitter, Brandwatch connects through the Firehose API.

2.1. Construction of the query and monitoring

The first content query was carried out on April 19, 2021. Monitoring was restricted to the Spanish state, content in Spanish or Catalan and publications between July 2010 and April 2021. It was considered important to include Catalan because, over the last few years, Barcelona has become the second largest destination in Spain for unaccompanied migrant minors (Lázaro González, 2007), which has created a considerable amount of related social media output in Catalan.

The human analysis of the results from the first query led to a second iteration, which aimed to broaden the coverage of the study object and refine the dataset on the basis of new keywords and exclusion criteria. The third query was carried out on April 31, 2021, with the aim of obtaining a close to finalised dataset, which was used to carry out the social network analysis (SNA) of Twitter. The results from the SNA allowed the research team to add new keywords as the analysis of segmented communities identified micro-conversational patterns that made it possible to follow the thread of the query and to decide on a definitive query for the coverage of the study object.

In the SNA, which was conducted with the network analysis and visualisation software Gephi, the nodes represent Twitter profiles, while directed and weighted edges correspond to the conversational relations between profiles: retweets, replies and profile mentions. The topological analysis of the network was performed on the total number of edges while filtering nodes that had no relationship with any other node. To cluster the network, a modularity algorithm based on the Louvain method was used, incorporating weighting and the randomness parameter. The resolution was set at 0.7, resulting in a modularity metric of 0.464. The tweets emitted by each of the detected communities were also analysed qualitatively.

2.2 Coding and content analysis

The coding process began with a predefined list of categories that was used, deductively, to frame the data. For each of the analytic categories, a set of rules were generated to detect when a mention referred to it. Keywords were extracted inductively from the data as the automated coding process was based on a previously developed coding system that had been developed manually through a sample of mentions. The initial sample comprised more than 1,000 mentions selected using various criteria such as greater impact, randomness across different channels and representativeness over time.

In this sense, the coding was developed through keyword detection: when a query detected a mention containing the term “pitched battle”, for example, this content was automatically categorised with the predefined code “violence and conflict”. Categories for both unaccompanied migrant minors and youth gangs were established as well as 21 thematic categories. When 10 percent of mentions had yet to be coded, the query was segmented on the basis of the group being referred to (unaccompanied migrants or youth gangs) and on the 21 thematic categories. Two further iterations to refine the keywords were carried out, until saturation was reached: the point at which new mentions no longer provided new keywords according to the predefined rules. Finally, a sample of 300 mentions with their respective codes were manually reviewed, which found an overall accuracy level of 84 percent.

Once the definitive coding rules were configured and the final version of the query was ready, the database was downloaded in Excel format on February 11, 2022. Each of the downloaded mentions contained a unique identifier, which allowed for the final content analysis to be merged with the network analysis and the identification of themes from each of the communities (clusters) detected on Twitter. Nine percent of mentions from the network analysis could not be merged due to differences between the initial and the final query and the usage conditions imposed by Twitter.

3. Results

3.1. Unaccompanied migrant minors on digital social media

The analysis found that between 2010 and 2018, the social media conversation on “unaccompanied migrant minors” was marginal. In fact, the “MENA” acronym was hardly mentioned in the context of a preference for terms such as “unaccompanied minors” or “migrant children”. Furthermore, these mentions were generally associated with condemnations of the precarious circumstances faced by these young people, their vulnerability and the violence they suffered in destination and home countries. However, from 2018 onwards, a notable shift occurred in the type of discourse and the volume of mentions on digital social media. As also found by Gómez-Quintero et al. (2021), use of the MENA acronym to refer to unaccompanied minors became more common and was frequently linked to criminalising and moralistic discourses that dehumanise these children, placing them within the discursive frame of welfare and handouts.

Between 2019 and 2021, 90 percent of all mentions analysed (1,380,280) between July 2010 and Abril 2021 related to unaccompanied migrant minors. The evolution of this trend is illustrated in Figure 1, below.

Number of times unaccompanied migrant minors were mentioned on digital social media (2010-2021)
Figure 1
Number of times unaccompanied migrant minors were mentioned on digital social media (2010-2021)


Source: Author’s elaboration on the basis of data from the LEBAN Project (Feixa et al., 2022)

In terms of the themes used to categorise the mentions, 39.2 percent could not be categorised. However, among the rest of the mentions there was a clear trend towards criminalise this group. As Figure 2 shows, in 28.2 percent of the mentions analysed, unaccompanied minors were associated with “violence and conflict” and in 15.3 percent with “crimes”. These themes related to instances where unaccompanied migrant minors were associated with violence (fights, murders, rapes, etc.) or crimes (robberies, drug trafficking, etc.) that members of this group were alleged to have committed, either specifically or in a generalised fashion. This trend could be linked to the spread of accusations, from 2019 onwards, that this group of migrants was particularly violent, committing robberies, assaults, kidnappings and sexual assaults, as well as positioning Spanish citizens as the main victims of these crimes.

Themes associated with unaccompanied migrant minors on digital social media (2010-2021)
Figure 2
Themes associated with unaccompanied migrant minors on digital social media (2010-2021)


Source: Author’s elaboration on the basis of data from the LEBAN Project (Feixa et al., 2022).

A number of other categories also stand out. “Youth centres – migrant detention centres and prisons” (9.7%) and “arrests – trials – sentences” (9.1%) related to social media content focused on the repressive role of the state and police in addressing the threat to public safety caused by unaccompanied migrant minors. The “racism and xenophobia” (8.7%) category was linked to the explicit use of hate speech towards unaccompanied minors. To a lesser degree, some thematic categories were linked to counternarratives of racism and xenophobia (6.8%), where the Tweets expressed disagreement with racist and/or xenophobic posts or spoke of migrant youth in general without any semantic bias toward violence. Another 6 percent of the mentions made specific reference to the spaces where migrant minors meet or socialise.

During 2019, specifically in July, there was a notable increase in Twitter mentions from politicians, particularly those aligned with the VOX political party (Santiago Abascal, Rocío Monasterio, Ignacio Garriga, Jorge Buxadé) and associated right-wing media, journalists and influencers (Alvise Pérez, Luis del Pino, Elena Berberana, Cristina Seguí, Caso Aislado, Juanfran Escudero, María de Tabarnia). This content drew a specific connection between unaccompanied migrant minors and the safety of Spanish citizens. In opposition was content emitted from the political left, politicians (Teresa Rodríguez, Alberto Garzón, Isa Serra, Vicky Rosell) and journalists (Gerardo Tecé, Rubén Sánchez, Ignacio Escolar, Antonio Maestre) defending the rights of unaccompanied migrant children and accusing VOX of dehumanising and criminalising discourses.

It is evident, as such, that political parties and the media have incorporated the use of social media as a key tool for political communication (López-Rabadán et al., 2016). We can also see, in the treatment of unaccompanied migrant children, the predominance of a model that Bauman (2010) called national racism, in which immigration policy alludes to the inevitable limitation – in some cases impossibility – of cultural integration through extreme manifestations of otherness: the “monster” (Izaola & Zubero, 2015). Monsters fulfil a dual role in fiction, demarcating the line between normal and deviant (human and non-human). However, they also reveal the fragility of these axiomatic categories by giving space to the emergence of unexpected and contradictory subjects and worlds that cross boundaries, threatening distinctions that otherwise seem clear (Graham, 2002). In the MENA acronym, elements such as innocence and purity associated with childhood are combined with others linked to violence and criminality, generating a contradictory and paradoxical figure that inevitably situates the people it represents as non-human or “beings from another world”, to use the words of Delgado (2009).

3.2. MENAs and youth gangs: compartison and polarisation

Despite having some elements in common, from 2018 onwards, the term MENA started to generate a much greater volume of conversations than youth gangs. Between 2010 and 2018, mentions of youth gangs and migrant children were very similar, although those associated with youth gangs stood out a little more. As we have already stated, in this period, the themes associated with young unaccompanied migrants tended to revolve around condemnations of the extreme vulnerability and injustice they experience in their home countries and Spain. For their part, youth gangs and their members tended to be associated with criminalising discourses. Nevertheless, between 2018 and 2021, mentions of youth gangs fell to just below 10 percent of all mentions while mentions of unaccompanied migrant minors rose to just above 90 percent and were directly connected to threats to the public safety of citizens and criminality, as previously happened with youth gangs. The evolution and differentiation between the two terms over the period of the study is illustrated in Figure 3.

The conversation on gangs and unaccompanied migrant minors on Twitter (2010-2021)
Figure 3
The conversation on gangs and unaccompanied migrant minors on Twitter (2010-2021)


Source: Author’s elaboration on the basis of data from the LEBAN Project (Feixa et al., 2022).

Why this sudden change and exponential growth in the mentions of MENAs on social media? To answer this, it is necessary to examine the evolution of unaccompanied migrant children as a social group in Spain and, above all, the polarisation of discourse on migration in general and young migrants in particular. To start, the number of unaccompanied migrant minors registered annually in Spain by the General Commissariat for Immigration and Borders had been increasing: from 2,841 in 2008 to 4,685 in 2016. However, there was a more significant jump in subsequent years, reaching a peak of 13,796 in 2018, before descending to 9,030 in 2020 – the last year of published statistics. Despite this drop, political and media discourse connected the increase between 2016 and 2018 to a narrative of uncontrolled immigration. However, numbers alone are insufficient to explain the exponential increase in the volume of conversations generated, which leads us to consider the polarisation of discourse. To examine this change, we undertook an analysis of Twitter communities, including 1.3 million tweets on youth gangs and unaccompanied migrant minors by 261,000 users. The results of the analysis can be seen in Figure 4. The relational dynamics evident in the data provide clues to what lies behind the different communicative strategies.

Twitter communities where unaccompanied migrant minors and/or youth gang themes predominate
Figure 4
Twitter communities where unaccompanied migrant minors and/or youth gang themes predominate


Source: Author’s elaboration on the basis of data from the LEBAN Project (Feixa et al., 2022).

As can be observed, in the vast majority of communities analysed, the conversation is dominated by unaccompanied migrant minors. At the same time, the analysis was able to identify clusters or communities that appear to share the same point of view through an “echo chamber” type mechanism – ideologically segregated access to digital information (Flaxman et al., 2016). The analysis permitted the identification of four large dominant groups in the conversation, representing 25.2 percent of nodes and 70.3 percent of all tweets analysed:

  1. Unaccompanied migrant minors as conflict generators (3.3% of nodes and 55.1% of tweets)

  2. Defenders of unaccompanied migrant minors (15.4% of nodes and 12.5% of tweets)

  3. Youth gangs as conflict generators (5.7% of nodes and 2.4% of tweets)

  4. Defenders of youth gangs (0.7% of nodes and 0.3% of tweets)

The data indicates that, in the case of unaccompanied migrant children, the polarisation is much more pronounced, given that a significant proportion of the nodes analysed either associate this group with conflict (3.3%) or come to its defence (15.4%). In contrast, while 5.7 percent of mentions associated youth gangs with conflict, only a very small percentage defended them (0.7%). The confrontation between stigmatising positions of unaccompanied minors and counternarratives appears to have generated a chain reaction, an ever-increasing vicious circle that contributes to the viralisation of content linked to migrant children. Commensurate with the study by Robles et al. (2022), polarisation acts as fuel in digital communication. As such, by observing the volume of tweets generated, it is clear that the number of tweets related to unaccompanied minors was much greater (67.6%) than those linked to youth gangs (2.7%). Focusing on opinion leaders and communicative strategies deployed on Twitter by the opposing communities, the community promoting conflictive discourses around unaccompanied minors generated by far the largest number of tweets (55.1%). On this point, it is vital to emphasise that the Vox political party and its communicative environment generated practically all of this content, positioning itself as the undisputed protagonist of the conversation. Accounts linked to Vox made up only 1.9 percent of the dataset, but generated 52 percent of the tweets analysed in the conversation on unaccompanied migrant minors and youth gangs. Other political actors, police unions and independent far-right groups also contributed to the construction of unaccompanied minors as the “new public enemy” (Queirolo, 2017), but only accounted for 1.13 percent of accounts generating content and 2.4 percent of all tweets analysed. Figure 5 visualises the volume of conversation generated by the far-right, represented by Vox, and its position in the global network of content:

Twitter conversation generated by accounts associated with Vox and its position in the global network
Figure 5
Twitter conversation generated by accounts associated with Vox and its position in the global network


Source: Author’s elaboration on the basis of data from the LEBAN Project (Feixa et al., 2022)

When we analysed the discursive themes most commonly deployed by accounts linked to Vox, we found that 34 percent associated unaccompanied migrant minors with “violence and conflict” and 20 percent with “crimes”. These two themes were followed by tweets that were manifestly xenophobic in nature (13%), appealing in particular to the deportation of unaccompanied children.

In a study of Vox’s ideology, Ferreira (2019) identified four basic characteristics that align the party within the framework of the European far-right: nationalism, nativism, authoritarianism and the defence of traditional values. Of these four elements, nativism is central to Vox’s discourse, which explicitly separates nationals and foreigners by promoting criminalising discourses of immigration. Another element that characterises its position on the far-right is the instrumentalisation of populist strategies to present itself as the only alternative to social conflict and as the guarantors of stability and order in the face of uncontrolled immigration (Baldauf et al., 2019). Research by Cheddadi (2020) shows how Vox’s discourse on unaccompanied migrant minors is based on three arguments: public institutions and the media are controlled by progressives who are uninterested in the defence of autochthonous Spanish society and only concerned with the wellbeing of minorities; a rejection of universal welfare on the basis that unaccompanied migrant minors are appropriating pubic resources they are not entitled to; and the issue of public safety and unaccompanied minors supposed links to conflict and crime. A paradigmatic example of the three arguments identified by Cheddadi can be observed in the poster, reproduced in Figure 6, used by Vox during its 2021 election campaign for the Madrid Assembly:

Vox election poster displayed in the hall of one of Madrid’s main metro stations
Figure 6
Vox election poster displayed in the hall of one of Madrid’s main metro stations


Through the use of misleading information, this type of discourse posits the existence of a social breach between Spanish nationals and the immigrant population around welfare and public safety. As Hernández-Conde and Fernández-García (2019) have analysed, a clear connection exists between disinformation and fake news in the communicative strategies of the new far-right populist parties globally. The main objective of these parties is not to position specific themes in the mainstream media but to reinforce an image of anti-establishment or political outsiders to gain an advantage among politically disaffected voters. Confrontation permits the far-right to position itself in the political debate and gain visibility through the deployment of populist political communication strategies.

In opposition to these discourses, the second largest community in the online conversation on unaccompanied migrant minors are those who defend this group. We could identify five principal types of actors driving this type of content. (i) Firstly, media and fact-checking organisations made up 1 percent of accounts and 5.7 percent of tweets defending unaccompanied migrant children. Some examples of prominent accounts in this category include: @eldiarioes, @m_migración, @elperiodico, @moalditobulo o @carnecrudaradio. The content generated by this group of actors tended to analyse and denounce the unjust treatment of this group and to highlight the various problems they face. On the other hand, they also criticised politicians and other media for hate speech and criminalising young people. (ii) Secondly, influencers, such as @danirovira, @jonbaldw and @malamalamente, tended to generate content that was highly viral and had very significant reach. These accounts made up 9 percent of the dataset, generating 3 percent of tweets and tended to focus on criticising the criminalisation of young migrants. (iii) Thirdly, profiles from within the centre-left political spectrum (conventional political parties) made up 1 percent of accounts and 2 percent of tweets. Some examples of this group include @rita_maestre, @susanadiaz and @agarzon, whose tweets tended to criticise disinformation and the incitement of hate by Vox towards unaccompanied migrant minors. (iv) Fourthly, the community of NGOs, platforms and associations defending the social rights of migrant children in Spain made up 1.4 percent of the network and 1.6 percent of tweets. Some examples of accounts in this group include @SaveChildrenES, @EspacioInmigran and @exmenas. These groups focused on condemning the criminalisation of migrant children and xenophobic content, fake news and assaults on unaccompanied migrant children. These accounts were also responsible for the most proactive content by proposing solutions to facilitate the integration and successful transition of these children to adult life. (v) Finally, explicitly antifascist, antisystem or anticapitalist profiles connected to the far-left made up 0.28 percent of accounts and 0.13 percent of tweets. Some examples include @qvef, @estebandemanuel, @vuelvalaurss and @jaraneros_style. The content of these profiles tended to revolve around arguments that unaccompanied minors are victims of political failure and criticised neo-Nazi groups and far-right parties, as well as left-wing parties such as the PSOE and Podemos, for failing to protect these minors.

4. Discussion and conclusions

The digital social media analysis carried out in this study aimed to capture the various discursive postures around the MENA acronym in Spain. The analysis shows how, between 2018 and 2021, mentions and conversations around unaccompanied migrant minors experienced exponential growth, accounting for over 90 percent of the all mentions analysed between 2010 and 2021. This finding points to a change in the discursive strategies of the leading actors in this type of social media conversation. The turning point came in 2018 with the rise of the Spanish far-right, when the online community linked to the Vox political party began to play a decisive role in the articulation of the conversation around unaccompanied migrant minors, representing 1.9 percent of all Twitter accounts analysed but 52 percent of all tweets on this group and youth gangs.

González-Enríquez and Rinken (2021) show how a likely effect of the sudden emergence of Vox in the Spanish political landscape was to facilitate and give social respectability to the expression of suspicious and distrusting attitudes towards immigration, contributing to the polarisation of opinions. The fact that negative postures on migration began to be publicly proclaimed through media outlets by representative institutions of the state appears to have had a differentiating effect on the population on the basis of political ideology, intensifying a tendency toward polarisation. The analysis found a clear contrast between a net increase in unfavourable stances towards immigration among individuals aligned to right-wing political ideology, especially the far-right, which contrasted with accounts linked to left-wing political ideology. The social media analysis also showed that within this polarisation, the volume of conversation generated clearly leaned toward those who viewed unaccompanied migrant minors in a negative light. The volume of messages associating this group with violence and conflict represented more than half of the whole network analysed: 55 percent of tweets, generated by 3.3 percent of nodes. On the other hand, only 12.5 percent of mentions analysed were in defence of child migrants even though they originated from a superior number of nodes (15.4%). This data manifests that in the framework of polarisation, the stigmatising discourses of tweets about unaccompanied migrant minors are much more visible and hegemonic than other positions, emerging as labels that function as autonomous mechanisms of discrimination (Eseverri Mayer, 2015). In this way, as well as being discriminated against for their social origin or racial or ethnic characteristics, young migrants are also stigmatised by association with the label MENA.

To explain this trend, it is important to take into account that social media platforms have promoted forms of political communication and marketing that are ever more personalised, going beyond traditional sociodemographic variables (sex, age, social class, education, etc.). Now, users’ own tastes, interactions and activities on social media are the fundamental variables for filtering the content that they are exposed to: a technique known as the strategic segmentation of digital content (Bejarano Campos, 2017). These mechanisms help to create virtual spaces that are mostly occupied by individuals with similar worldviews, reinforcing each other’s discourses and creating a sense of belonging and community (Bustos Martínez et al., 2019). Messages generated by hate speech tend to be highly emotionally charged, making them extremely difficult to manage or separate from processes of group affiliation and acceptance. Furthermore, they encourage polarisation by actively opposing positions that do not adhere to the same ideology. On the other hand, transformations in the media ecosystem have also introduced automated tools that influence public debate (Calvo et al., 2020; Robles et al. 2022).

Another particularly revealing aspect of the research, in relation to the effect of polarisation, was the comparison between mentions of unaccompanied migrant minors and youth gangs during the period of the study. Despite the hegemonic discourse associating both groups with violence, threats to public safety and conflict, only mentions of unaccompanied migrant minors experienced a dramatic increase from 2018 onwards, while the volume of mentions associated with youth gangs remained stable. We argue that the difference is due to the counternarratives of left-wing politicians and media and the deployment of confrontational communicative strategies aiming to counteract the stigmatisation of migrant children, while remaining almost absent from the discourse on youth gangs. The work of Feixa and Canelles (2007) shows that youth gangs can be conceptualised from the prism of cultural and youth associations, in which mutual support and social participation are the principal drivers of affiliation. However, in the collective social imaginary, youth gangs are conceived as violent and criminal groups. As such, while the left-wing and youth collectives fiercely contested the scapegoating of unaccompanied child migrants to explain lack of public safety and excessive welfare handouts by the state, they also remained largely absent on the stigmatisation of gangs. The analysis of Twitter communities reveals that the discourses positioning youth gangs as the source of conflict were emitted by 5.7 percent of nodes, producing 2.4 percent of the tweets analysed, while only 0.7 percent of nodes defended youth gangs, producing 0.3 percent of tweets, mostly linked to academia. The data also shows a very high level of communicative endogamy as those participating in the conversation tended to be ideologically like-minded, with very little inter-cluster cohesion. This leads us to argue that the social actors defending unaccompanied migrant minors did not defend youth gangs. The absence of a confrontational communicative strategy in the face of the stigmatisation of youth gangs on digital social media also led to marginal presence in the public discourse. As the TRANSGANG and LEBAN projects (Feixa et al., 2022) have analysed, social media discourses promoting calmness, prevention and mediation get buried by alarmist and distressing images depicting violence, detentions and seizures. The public discourse on youth gangs feeds moral panic instead of contextualising the phenomenon or examining its social causes.

At this point we are faced with a strategic challenge of how to address systematic social media attacks against young migrants, who suffer the additional stigmatisation of being categorised as “gang members” or “MENAs” and portrayed as “public enemies”. On the one hand, we know that reacting to these attacks can have undesirable effects by multiplying their visibility, as seen in the social media conversation around “MENAs” since 2018. In a polarising context, this effect is amplified because the more reactionary and exclusionary stances are those that achieve greater reach and visibility. On the other hand, the absence of a counternarrative to stigmatising discourses, as happens in the case of youth gangs, albeit with a much lower volume of mentions, also extends and reinforces the interpretative framework that explains the phenomenon as one of public safety and criminalisation. Taking this into account, it is fundamental to engage in a collective reflection on how to address these issues on digital social media. It is essential to reject the interpretative framework that portrays young migrants as “other”, associating them with conflict and violence and exposing them to stigmatisation and discrimination. The way to do this is to create counternarratives that contextualise the problems they face, with virtual space appearing to be the ideal setting to achieve this. However, we still lack the mechanisms to prevent the defence of young migrants from giving greater visibility and conversational volume to stigmatising discourses.

Authors’ contribution

Stribor Kuric Kardelis: Conceptualization, formal analysis, investigation, supervision, visualisation, writing – original draft, writing – review and editing. Anna Sanmartín Ortí: Conceptualization, funding acquisition, project management, investigation, supervision, writing – review and editing. Xavier Morano Ferrer: Investigation, methodology, formal analysis, data curation, software, validation. Xavier Guiteras Vila: Investigation, methodology, formal analysis, data curation, software, validation. All authors have read and agree with the published version of the manuscript. Conflicts of Interest: The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

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Notes

1 Translation note: It is important to take into account that in Spanish acronyms are pronounced as words, such that “MENA” has entered popular culture and the media as a new word, meaning that a migrant child or group of migrant children can be referred to as “a MENA” or “MENAs”. As such, no equivalent exists in English that captures the formal and popular meanings associated with the term, which is why the text refers to MENA rather than an English alternative such as UFM (Unaccompanied Foreign Minor), which would be the formal translation.

Author notes

* Social researcher at the Centro Reina Sofía de Fad Juventud, Madrid, Spain

** Assistant Director of the Centro Reina Sofía de Fad Juventud, Madrid, Spain

*** Founder and Director of Empirica Influentials & Research, Barcelona, Spain

**** Researcher at Empirica Influentials & Research, Barcelona, Spain

Additional information

Translation to English : Paul Richard Cassidy

To cite this article : Kuric Kardelis, Stribor; Sanmartín Ortí, Anna; Moraño Ferrer, Xavier; & Guiteras Vila, Xavier. (2024). Unaccompanied migrant minors and polarisation on digital social media: the feedback of hate. ICONO 14. Scientific Journal of Communication and Emerging Technologies, 22(1). https://doi.org/10.7195/ri14.v22i1.2074

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ICONO 14, Revista de comunicación y tecnologías emergentes

ISSN: 1697-8293

Vol. 22

Num. 1

Año. 2024

Unaccompanied migrant minors and polarisation on digital social media: the feedback of hate

Stribor Kuric Kardelis 1, Anna Sanmartín Ortí 1, Xavier Morano Ferrer 2, Xavier Guiteras Vila 2






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