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Is online misinformation creating more obstacles for refugees?

"Leave from behind the Hara hotel in the early hours of the morning, open your GPS and walk," read the Facebook post. "You’ll find the river. Cross the bridge across the river, fast."

This time last year, I came across dozens of posts like this one. It was early spring, and I was trying to find out why the previously little-known migration route through Turkey, Greece and then the Balkans was suddenly overtaking Italy as the main gateway to the EU.

The main reasons were the unending wars in Syria and Afghanistan, and the lack of refugee rights in the Middle East. But one of the many subsidiary reasons was on Facebook. The Syrians who trail-blazed this path in late 2014 were now sharing their experiences online. The author of this now-deleted group – The Safe and Free Route to Asylum for Syrians – spelt out in painstaking detail how to get from Athens to northern Europe, and in this particular case, how to cross the Macedonian border.

He wasn’t the only one: by April 2015 Facebook was full of DIY Baedekers, explaining how to get from Turkey to places like Germany. Suddenly, a route that was previously only open to the intrepid – or those with the money to pay smugglers to guide them all the way to Germany – was now a bit more accessible.

"You’ll be asking yourself: should I do it alone, or seek a smuggler?" the post’s anonymous author summarised. "I advise you to do more by yourself."

He (or she) was right. When I reported from the Macedonian border a couple of months later, the way was exactly as our Facebook friend had described. In the first half of 2015, anyone who knew their way around Arabic Facebook, or who simply had a 3G connection, had a chance of getting to the heart of Europe under their own steam.

All some people really needed was Google Maps. One dark night last June, I edged through a wood in northern Serbia with a group of jovial Syrians. Most of the time they kept their phones off, terrified the signal would make them more visible to the Hungarian border guards who lay ahead. But every so often, someone would fire up their Android, check where they were on GPS – and then alter their direction accordingly. There wasn’t a smuggler in sight.

On other evenings, refugees showed me maps of the Aegean sea. The water was often pocked with Google pins to highlight the route, so that their boat would reach the right island. Some people showed me Whatsapp groups that connected those that had arrived with those still on the road. Others would use Viber to call relatives who’d passed this way last week. If you had access to internet, advice was usually to hand.

But the problem was, not all of it was true. For all the advice from the refugees themselves, a lot of the information flow was still controlled by smugglers. Using their own Facebook pages, smugglers advertised the dangerous trip to Europe with pictures of luxury yachts and pristine ocean liners. "Two floors, air-conditioned, prepared for tourists," read one dubious advert. "Recommended for families."

As the summer went on, not even the refugees' offerings were too useful. The routes and techniques changed slightly, meaning that the advice of those who came last month, or even last week, was soon out of date. Some people didn't even have phones. To begin with, this didn't matter. Once the governments of the Balkans began to bus people towards Germany in September, refugees stopped needing to know the latest info: their hosts were doing their thinking for them. 

But this absence of accurate information became problematic when the Balkan governments started creating new obstacles. When I was at the newly-built Hungarian border fence in mid-September, the thousands of refugees left stranded there simply didn't know where to go next. It was the Serbian government who ultimately changed the route, transporting all those stuck at the Hungarian border to the Croatian one to the west. Many of them didn't have a clue where they were going. "What's the name of this country?" one man asked me when we got there. "Cro … Cro-atia?"

Trying to fill the information void, Internews – a group that provides news to refugees – began to circulate myth-busting information to refugees landing on the Greek islands in September. Internews set up a website for this purpose – News That Moves – but in a telling development they mainly used physical signage and print-outs.

"Rumour and disinformation were flourishing because of social media," remembers Alison Campbell, who runs News That Moves. "It was like a grapevine on steroids. The routes were changing so quickly that the guy who got to Germany a month ago doesn't actually know the best route now."

In the course of a few months, refugees heading to Europe had turned from being fairly knowledgeable about the route to increasingly hazy about it. And instead of clearing up confusion, the internet often amplified it.

"Will I stay there?" wondered Youssef, a young Syrian student I interviewed a few weeks ago, on the night he tried to leave Turkey for Greece. "Or will they send me back?"

The internet had few answers.

THE NEW ODYSSEY: The Story of Europe's Refugee Crisis, by Patrick Kingsley, is published May 5 by Guardian Faber (£14.99)

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