In the United States, misinformation and fake news have plagued the immigration debate for years, fostering anti-immigrant sentiment and hostility within certain segments of the population.
A global phenomenon, misinformation has driven public debate on immigration and ethnic conflict in multiple countries—leading in a number of cases to violence. In Mexico, social media users took misleading images out of context and shared them on online platforms. The subsequent upsurge in misinformation led to anti-immigrant hostility and violent confrontations between Tijuana residents and the Central American migrant caravan.
The caravan arrives in Mexico
In October 2018, thousands of migrants fled violence in Central America and traveled to the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Residents from the village of Pijijiapan demonstrated their solidarity with crates of food, water, clothing, and medical supplies. After receiving clothing and a toy for his 3-year-old son, Alexander, Pedro Osmin Ulloa told reporters, “These people have been beautiful. … Everyone’s helping us out.” By the time the caravan traveled into Mexico City, the group had grown to include 5,000 migrants. The city turned a sports stadium into a camp that offered medical and dental services. Children spent their mornings drawing, and mariachi bands and masked wrestlers filled the stadium to perform.
The caravan’s planned destination in Mexico was Tijuana, where the group intended to present themselves at the San Ysidro Port of Entry several miles south of San Diego. However, as the migrant caravan grew, so did Mexico’s anti-immigrant sentiment. Misinformation exploded on social media, including rumors that caravan members were hostile toward Mexican citizens, refused to accept Mexican aid, and behaved violently toward police authorities.
Misinformation spreads on social media
One of the most potent images circulated on social media just days after the caravan arrived in Mexico. It was first shared by a news outlet and on social media on October 20, under the headline “Brutally beaten by the members of the caravan in their attempt to force their entry into Mexico.” The image shows an injured Mexican police officer with blood covering his face and running from his head to his neck. (warning: graphic image) The narrative on social media and in the news contended that members of the caravan had injured a Mexican police officer while they crossed the Mexico-Guatemala border. This is patently false.
The photo was actually taken years earlier, in 2012, by journalist Gustavo Aguado Butanda. On October 23, 2018, Aguado Butanda took to Twitter to explain that the photo depicts a confrontation between the Mexican Federal Police and students in a school in Tiripetío, Michoacán. Aguado Butanda only found out that the photo was being misused when news outlets contacted him for more details about the confrontation. But by then, the image had spread across the public consciousness.
This was not the first time the image had been used to spread misinformation. Aguado Butanda told Univision, “[M]y photograph was used to depict another confrontation between the police and local residents. … This is happening because of the internet’s ability to spread fake news on social networks, eventually making it into the mainstream media.”
Other content used to mislead the public about the caravan includes a photo taken in 2014 of a Mexican flag burned during a protest in Oaxaca, Mexico, that was falsely portrayed as having been destroyed by members of the caravan.
The motivations behind misinformation
Misinformation, commonly referred as “fake news,” generally refers to a wide range of inaccurate or false information circulating online and in the media. Websites that intentionally spread misinformation have different motivations. Some sites generate fraudulent, intentionally sensational content on topics from celebrities to politics and immigrants, with the goal of driving clicks and building ad revenue. These sites often try to look reputable, or even mimic another legitimate news site, in order to increase readership and make a profit. Other outlets manipulate information and mischaracterize events to disseminate an ideological agenda and achieve a specific political goal. Mainstream media sources sometimes pick up and publish these pieces, without much corroboration, unintentionally giving misinformation more exposure.
By the time the caravan reached Tijuana, the misleading images and fraudulent posts had gone viral on social media. Even as some civic groups welcomed the caravan with open arms, social media helped amplify the voices of people expressing hostility toward the migrant caravan. Groups on Facebook such as “Tijuana against the migrant caravan” called on members to rise up in opposition.
Days after the caravan’s arrival in Tijuana, groups, including some associated with the Facebook group, organized anti-immigrant rallies—a stark contrast to the reception of the caravan in southern Mexico or even Mexico City. On November 14, a violent confrontation erupted in Playas de Tijuana, during which people in the crowd were heard calling the caravan members “invaders.” Then, a fight broke out between residents and caravan members. This hostility is unbecoming of the region, since Tijuana prides itself on being a “city of migrants.” According to the Mexican government agency Council on National Population, 1 in every 2 residents of Tijuana was not born in the city.
Claudia Benassini, a researcher in digital media at La Salle University in Mexico City, told BBC News that fake news significantly affected the perception of migrants in Mexico: “Information has been shared out of context and accepted as facts by consumers of social media.” In the case of Tijuana, misinformation drove some residents to act hostilely toward members of the caravan.
Misinformation has deadly consequences worldwide
What happened in Tijuana is consistent with recent incidents around the world and reflects a growing challenge facing social media platforms. While most social media companies have adopted terms of service and user agreements intended to ensure that users do not misuse their platforms to spread hateful content and incite violence, these companies have struggled to effectively manage the content shared on their platforms. Facebook, for example, currently has 2.3 billion monthly users—nearly one-third of the world’s population. The platform’s most daunting task is to moderate the content of so many users, all of whom regularly share content in different languages and within different political, religious, and ideological contexts.
In 2017, for example, hateful posts on Facebook aimed at Myanmar’s Muslim minority Rohingya incited murder and rape, ultimately leading to the exodus of 700,000 members of this community and what the United Nations called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” In Sri Lanka, misinformation on Facebook exacerbated violence between Muslims and the country’s Buddhist majority. In this case, the Facebook-owned message application WhatsApp was used to organize violent mobs in several towns, burning mosques, businesses, and homes. In the case of Tijuana, misinformation led to anti-immigrant sentiment and hostile demonstrations.
While these examples differ in the severity of hateful activities, they present a significant parallel: In each case, misinformation spread on social media negatively affected the perception of a specific group, leading to tensions and civil unrest.
More work needs to be done to moderate content effectively
Although companies such as Facebook have undertaken efforts to increase the number of content reviewers on their staffs, more work needs to be done. As misinformation and hateful online content continues to grow on social media, it has the potential to cause more civil unrest worldwide. In Tijuana, the removal of false and misleading images would have pre-empted the anti-immigrant sentiment that led to violent confrontations.
As international unrest prompted by misinformation on social media has increased, civil rights organizations have urged internet companies to reduce hateful activities on their platforms. The Change the Terms coalition, comprising more than 50 civil rights, human rights, and open internet organizations, recently released a set of recommended internet company corporate polices and terms of service to reduce hateful activities. The policies include steps that companies can take to prevent the atrocities that happened in Tijuana, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, from recurring. These include: ensuring that internet companies are engaging experts on hateful activities; training both content review staff and programmers on how hateful activities occur; and hiring content reviewers from affected countries who can bring cultural, social, and political history, as well as context, to the assessment of what constitutes a hateful activities and should be removed from platforms.
The effects of failing to reduce hateful activities on social media are violent and deadly. The spread of misinformation in Mexico led to anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobic violence against the Central American migrant caravan. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, social media platforms have been used to organize hateful activities, and misinformation led to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Companies must do more to ensure that their social media platforms are not used to spread misinformation and organize hateful activities. Until they do, the international public remains vulnerable to misinformation—and the fate of marginalized communities remains at risk.
Jessica Cobian is the senior campaign manager for Anti-Hate and Immigration at the Center for American Progress.
The author thanks Philip E. Wolgin, Tom Jawetz, and Henry Fernandez of the Center for American Progress for their valuable feedback.
Author’s note: The author translated various sources cited in this column from Spanish to English.