Less than a fifth of respondents have not traveled to an Arab country, and 41 percent would not consider doing so, mainly due to concerns over personal safety and human rights. Almost two-thirds of respondents feel that Arab migrants in the UK have failed to integrate into society and live in isolated communities. Only 28 percent agree that Arab migrants and/or refugees are beneficial to Europe/Britain.
Unsurprisingly, then, 69 percent believe the UK should take in fewer refugees from Syria and Iraq (despite the paltry numbers taken in so far). And 55 percent would support racial profiling against Arabs and Muslims for security reasons.
These findings are all the more disconcerting given that Brexit was touted as an opportunity to open up to the rest of the world beyond the EU, and since the referendum the British government has strived to bolster ties particularly with Gulf Arab states. At a time when London is trying to portray an image of a more outward-looking Britain post-referendum, Brexiteers are more likely to hold negative views of the Arab world, according to the poll.
It found that while 39 percent think UK media coverage of the Arab world is inaccurate, only 22 percent think it is accurate. It is puzzling how respondents can assess the accuracy or otherwise of UK media coverage when the vast majority acknowledge having little or no knowledge of the Arab world. Many do not know which countries are Arab, citing Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia and India. It is not even clear what is meant by accuracy — is the media overly harsh or overly soft in its coverage?
Regardless, this finding will lead some — perhaps many — to surmise that it is the UK media that is shaping residents’ negative stereotypes of Arabs. The media has always influenced public perceptions, whether by agenda or pervasiveness.
But in the age of the Internet, social media, citizen journalism, smartphones, satellite TV and “fake news,” we must not underestimate the public’s increasing choices and control over its news sources, or the influence that readers and audiences have on media content.
Among UK resident’s perceptions of the Arab world, the negative ones identified by the poll include strict gender roles, extremism, authoritarianism, violence and poverty. Those perceptions are not fabricated by the media — sadly, they are realities in various parts of the region.
Respondents to Arab News/YouGov poll say press coverage about the region is inaccurate, but are they passing the buck?
To complain that the media focuses on the negative over the positive is to ignore that the news industry is a business, and thus has to produce what sells in order to survive in a highly competitive environment.
The fact is, violence, sensationalism and titillation are far more popular than good news. This largely explains why the circulation of tabloids is so much higher than that of broadsheets, even though a poll in July showed that Britons place far more trust in the latter than the former. As such, if the Arab world ceased to produce bad news, it would largely cease to make headlines. In this context, the phrase “no news is good news” springs to mind.
The industry in the UK is centralized and controlled by a handful of media empires. This gave them captive markets until the advent of satellite TV and the Internet. But now people can get their news from wherever they want, and increasingly their source is online, particularly social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Again, though, the news that appears on people’s feeds is derived from algorithms that assess what will interest you based on your reading and viewing history, likes and shares. In other words, it is not social media that influences what news you consume and from where. You inadvertently influence what kind of content you receive.
As such, social media does not shape your prejudices as much as it reinforces your existing ones. This is compounded by the echo chamber produced by your choices of social media contacts, who are likely to share similar views, interests, mindsets and ideologies.
The Arab News/YouGov poll shows a clear and urgent need for outreach in Britain to dispel misconceptions and raise awareness. But the scope of that outreach should be much wider than the media, and should be accompanied by a realization that negative public perceptions cannot be divorced from the nature of the industry as a business, or from realities on the ground. Arabs have to get their house in order if they wish to effectively advertise it.
• Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs.