Call it the era of misinformation. Call it a crisis of trust. If you must, call it fake news. The truth is that in 2018, hot-button news events are immediately weaponized online by interested parties, whether that’s foreign actors trying to undermine democracy, local politicians trying to rally their base, spammers trying to make a quick buck, even trolls in it for the old-fashioned lulz—or all of the above.
In this treacherous landscape, you need to be armed with facts, and an awareness that conversation you see online may not be what it appears, especially when it comes to divisive social issues like immigration.
This week, you need to be aware of misinformation surrounding news of a caravan of migrants walking from Central America through Mexico to the US.
On October 13, some hundreds of people began to march from San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras toward the United States border, and have since been joined by thousands. Accurate reporting of how many people are on the move is hard to come by, but recent estimates put it around 7,500. The trip from San Pedro de Sula to the closest US border crossing in Texas is approximately 2,000 miles, and requires people to pass through inhospitable borders. People walking and hitchhiking know that when—if—they reach the US border, they likely will not be allowed to cross. Their children may be taken from them. They may be arrested and sent back. But they come anyway, fleeing gang violence and poverty.
They are not yet close to the US border, having only crossed between Guatemala and Mexico last weekend.
What People Are Saying
Journalists are traveling with the caravan, but even their on-the-ground reporting is competing with so much false information out there, and sometimes being co-opted by it, making it difficult to sort fact from fiction. One viral tweet spreading misinformation takes an ABC News video out of context and uses it as proof that the caravan is part of a liberal agenda to bring migrants into the US. In fact, the clip shows a few Mexican drivers “taking pity” on some in the caravan and picking them up in their trucks, as the reporter on the ground describes.
The caravan’s organization has been a major focus of politicians and misinformation campaigns. The Honduran government, attempting to downplay the dangerous conditions in the country, has claimed the caravan is an effort to destabilize the nation. The Daily Beast reports that it was actually an inaccurate news report on television in Honduras, falsely promising that their food and “transportation” would be paid for by a former politician, that inspired many people to begin walking. Some migrants interviewed by the Daily Beast say that since the trip to the US is so dangerous, they decided to join the caravan in the hopes of benefitting from safety in numbers.
One online conspiracy theory, pushed by sites like InfoWars, says the migrants in the caravan are getting rides paid for by wealthy bankers, and that they are organized by immigration advocacy groups. Last week, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz asked on Twitter whether liberal philanthropist George Soros or "US-backed NGOs" are behind it. Some message boards are more blunt, suggesting it’s not merely Soros but a vast Jewish cabal that’s driving the caravan. Soros, who is Jewish, is a favorite target of anti-semites and far-right conspiracy theorists, and is often blamed for everything from Pizzagate to the Women’s March to the refugee crisis in Europe; on Monday evening, the Times reported that an explosive device was found at Soros’s home, although the motive is still unclear. There is no evidence that Soros or any other rich liberal is paying for the migrants to reach the US.
Another inaccuracy being repeated on social media and YouTube is that the caravan will soon merge with more than 40,000 Mexican migrants, and flood over the border just after the midterms. Viral posts, memes, and messages targeted directly at journalists falsely call this an “army.” One copy-paste meme going around Facebook and Twitter, which cumulatively has at least 7,000 likes and shares, spreads the much higher statistic and urges people to get in touch with an anti-immigration militia. When WIRED called one of the listed numbers, the militia member who answered said that the 42,000 number was bogus, and that government officials have told the group that the caravan consists of around 7,000 people—a figure in line with on-the-ground reports. He also said he’s been inundated with calls since his phone number was shared.
President Trump and Vice President Pence have both added to the confusion, repeatedly suggesting, among other things, that “Middle Easterners” are among the migrants. So far, on-the-ground reporters have been unable to corroborate this. Rumors about Middle Eastern terrorists going through the Mexican border have circulated for years, and they have largely been debunked.
Interest in the caravan has spiked since President Trump started discussing it, according to Google Trends, although searches in the US for the word “caravan” picked up just a day after the first people began walking from northern Honduras. By Monday, it was one of Google's top trending searches in the US, with more than 200,000 queries. Searches for Soros—relating to the caravan and the bomb—hit more than 100,000 that day.
Misinformation is not isolated to the right. In some leftist groups, a theory is percolating that the whole migrant caravan could have been cooked up by Republican operatives looking to turn out more GOP voters.
It’s unclear at the moment what role automation is playing in misinformation around the caravan, though many of the Twitter accounts sharing these talking points are tweeting the exact same phrases hundreds of times a day, which could be an indication of bot activity.
Why It Matters
With the midterm elections two weeks away, politicians are hoping to use fears over immigration as a way to get people to turn out to the polls. Democrats hope to take over control of the House, while Republicans hope to hold on to their majority. Either party winning depends on more of their voters showing up on November 6. As the president as made clear in his tweets and rallies this week, he and the GOP are hoping the migrant caravan will inspire anti-immigration voters to show up. On the other side, democrats are using the family separation crisis and Trump’s harsh anti-immigration stance as reason for democrats to turn out.
Incendiary social issues are one of the key ways interested parties–from politicians to foreign nation states–attempt to sway turnout and opinion before important elections. By influencing the topics of conversation online, these stakeholders are able to influence not just individuals but news organizations, which often report on whatever is trending, thereby amplifying and spreading the information further. Even when news organization report on misinformation in order to debunk it, research shows that merely repeating the misinformation at all can lead people to believe it. Mainstream news organizations have also been criticized for parroting their alarmist language, such as when the AP referred to the migrants as an “army” in a tweet.
Earlier in October, a Russian national was indicted for heading a vast social media campaign to turn Americans against each other and undermine our ability to trust not just our institutions and news outlets, but our neighbors and the very fabric of reality. The point of creating such chaos? The disrupt the upcoming midterm elections. Backed by millions of dollars, and with the help of hackers and paid operatives, this campaign co-opted unwitting Americans, in some cases paying them to post inflammatory content, in other cases using their most intense beliefs as fuel to fire. The issues they focused on include the Russia inquiry, race, anti-Trump sentiment, voter registration, and yes, immigration.