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For five years, Facebook has let a white supremacist dog whistle thrive

Since 2014, right-wing Facebook pages have used the word “invasion” to push hateful rhetoric targeting Muslim and Latinx immigrants.

On Saturday, a white supremacist killed 22 people and injured another two dozen in El Paso, TX, a city along the U.S.-Mexico border with an 80% Latinx population. Shortly before he opened fire, the gunman reportedly posted a manifesto online that was filled with anti-immigrant, white supremacist talking points. In the aftermath of this hate-fueled tragedy, one word from the gunman’s post became a fixation for the media and public: “invasion.” It’s a term white supremacists use to demonize immigrants of color. And Facebook has let right-wing pages use the racist dog whistle for years.

  • Anti-immigrant “invasion” narratives gained traction on right-wing Facebook pages in August 2014 when Barack Obama was president.

  • Right-wing Facebook pages linked to clickbait junk news sites that warned of a coming “invasion” at the U.S. southern border. One of the first viral posts, which earned over 85,000 interactions, revered a group of armed Texans heading to the border “to defend [the U.S.] against illegals and criminals.” The post said: “The ranchers are tired of ‘waiting’ on the government, so they're doing what Obama won't... they're defending America from invasion.” Anti-immigrant “invasion” posts in 2014 followed a template: fearmonger about Latin American immigrants coming to the U.S. and blame Obama for it.

    • “Obama deliberately abandoned the border and border states are suffering the consequences... they should be able to send Obama a bill for stopping the invasion. It's only fair. Period.” [8/7/14]

    • “Obama opened up the floodgates for this invasion... and violent criminals are roaming free in America. Obama is to blame. Period.” [8/10/14]

    • “Invasion - Will Obama Choose Nuclear Immigration Option to create Second Revolutionary War?” [8/11/14]

    • “No, Obama, our border is not secure. This video proves it. Could this be a dry run for something worse than simply illegals attempting to enter the country?” [8/29/14]
    • “We are all aware of the Obama administration's orchestrated invasion of illegals across our southern border. There is no debate in the matter that it was purposeful.” [10/8/14]

  • Other posts fearmongered about Latin American immigrants by making baseless claims about diseases and blaming immigrants for a variety of economic issues.

    • “The illegal invasion of our southern border is devastating America. Amnesty will take jobs away from millions of Americans in need of employment.” [8/31/14]

    • “With the dangerous distractions of Ebola and Enterovirus 68, let's not forget about another huge danger to our country....the illegal alien invasion. Those told to leave are still here and there are Tons.” [10/18/14]

  • On Facebook, anti-immigrant attacks spread alongside anti-Muslim conspiracy theories inspired by white supremacist ideology. Some posts alluded to racist conspiracy theories surrounding Obama’s religious affiliation. Others didn’t even reference immigration, characterizing a “Muslim invasion” as a negative cultural, religious, or demographic shift in the U.S.

    • “The Muslim invasion of America has begun.” [9/16/14]
    • “The Obama administration is threatening to Arrest any agents who are warning America about the terrorist threat at the border... Obama doesn't want you to know about his planned invasion.” [9/20/14]

    • “Woman Unleashes On Muslim Extremists Who Invaded Her Hometown. ... The reality of radicalism needs to be seen by Americans and prevented before it takes root in U.S. towns.” [10/18/14]

  • In 2015, as the presidential election cycle was starting to pick up, right-wing pages channeled anti-Muslim hate in their “invasion” narratives.

  • Most posts either pushed a right-wing conspiracy theory of “sharia law” overtaking local towns across America or used immigration news stories from Europe as a “warning” for the U.S.

    • “The creeping invasion ... From East London to Islamberg NY… Sharia Law Is Coming.” [1/23/15]

    • “How every lawmaker should handle any Sharia invasion. Our laws, not Sharia: Female mayor tells unhappy Muslims 'respect them, obey them, embrace them.'” [3/24/15]

    • “Spread this before it's too late for America as well.” The post linked to an article titled “Islamic Invasion of Sweden Has Led To These Terrible Consequences - All Americans Need To See This.” [9/1/15]

    • “A nation destroyed just before our eyes...America Wake Up.” The post linked to an article titled “Greece: Muslim invasion has totally destroyed the tourist trade and endangered residents.” [9/7/15]

    • “Alan Gottlieb, executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation, said he recently returned from a gun rights event in Europe, where he sensed a change in attitude toward firearms. ‘I just returned from a gun rights meeting in Belgium, and I can attest that all over Europe people now want the means to defend themselves.’” This post linked to an article titled “Islamic invasion pulls trigger: Europeans scramble for guns.” [10/26/15]
    • “Remember: This is what the Left calls Progress!” The post linked to an article titled “What the Muslim Invasion Taught Europeans (Too Late) About Guns; America Next?” [10/31/15]
  • Two Facebook posts from 2015 pushing the "invasion" narrative
  • Anti-Muslim “invasion” narratives continued to escalate in 2016, through the presidential elections, and into 2017.

  • Many of these white supremacist dog whistle posts were accompanied with calls to action like “stop the invasion.” Some posed questions such as: “How many Americans would come together to fight … if our government wanted to open up our borders for a invasion like Europe has?” Such “invasion” posts asking followers to take action escalated the already extreme, hateful rhetoric on the issue. Most articles linked to in the posts we found between 2014 and 2017 have since been removed by the websites.

    • “What he said...Ridiculous!!!” The post linked to an article titled “He's Lost It! Pope Francis Says 'Arab Invasion' Will Bring Unity To The World!!!” [3/4/16]
    • “George Soros Admits He's Behind Invasion Of Europe: ‘National borders are the obstacle.’ Something tells me he's behind anything anti-American too!” [3/12/16]
    • “If. This. Doesn’t. Freak. You. Out. You’re. Past. Saving. Europe is Done. Will America be Next?” The post linked to an article titled “This ‘Banned’ Islamic Invasion Video Is THE Most Disturbing Thing You’ll Watch Today.” [8/30/16]

    • “This video is a Wake Up Call & Warning To All Americans! This Invasion Must Be Stopped Now!!!! Please Share This Shocking Video, They Cannot Hide Any Longer!!!” [8/30/16]

    • “Now, 32 States Say ‘Hell No’, Directly Defying Barack Obama & His Islamic Refugee Invasion!” [12/3/16]

    • “Flashback! Montana Town Fights Back Against 'Government-Sponsored Invasion' Of Mooching Muslim 'Refugees.'” [2/17/17]

    • “In one Eastern European nation, citizens just took matters into their own hands. Here's what they're doing to stop migrants from the Muslim world from pouring in.” The post linked to a piece titled “Citizens in This Country Just Took Matters into Their Own Hands to Stop the Islamic Invasion.” [3/15/17]
    • “Share This Everywhere! Diseased Refugees Get SSN and Passport Upon Arrival to the U.S. Refugee worker speaks out on what's Really going on!” [3/18/17]
    • “Any immigration Without Assimilation is considered an Invasion by Enemy Forces!This applies to All Immigrants!” [5/29/17]

  • Two Facebook memes from 2016 and 2017 that use the "invasion" narrative to attack Muslims
  • Right-wing pages utilize “invasion” rhetoric as part of a larger anti-immigrant propaganda campaign. They have implemented the narrative twice in the past year alone.

  • These narratives tend to seem repetitive from year to year. That’s not a coincidence; many articles are recycled on Facebook month after month and even year after year. It’s a common tactic right-wing propaganda pages use to make any issue they fearmonger about seem like a pattern. For example, the Facebook page of fake news site Mad World News originally posted an anti-Muslim “invasion” link on September 21, 2014. The page then reposted it again on October 18, 2014, then again on June 21, 2015, and yet again on December 30, 2016 -- presenting it as a new story each time. Another link from the far-right outlet The New American from 2016 was posted by different Facebook pages over 500 times over the past three years, and has earned 525,000 interactions on Facebook since 2016.

    Over the past year, right-wing pages have implemented this white supremacist dog whistle in reaction to two major news cycles: the Trump administration’s family separation policies from May to July 2018 and the caravans of Central American migrants and asylum-seekers heading toward the southern U.S. border in October and November.

    After President Donald Trump faced backlash over his administration’s inhumane family separation policies, right-wing Facebook pages rallied behind him by spreading anti-immigrant conspiracy theories and justifying his policies as a tactic to fight the asylum-seekers they characterized as invaders.

  • One post that earned about 64,000 interactions pushed the conspiracy theory that children coming to the border were part of a “well planned invasion to make the American people fight amongst themselves and to try to prevent Donald Trump from being reelected.” Another post claimed that immigrants at the southern border “are not all Asylum seekers. This human stampede. Is An Invasion Force.” Newsmax TV host Joe Walsh claimed that family separation policies were the result of an “invasion issue.” CRTV host Michelle Malkin shared an article titled “Let’s stop managing this invasion and start blocking it.”

  • Facebook post using the "invasion" narrative to defend family separation policies
  • As the 2018 midterm elections approached, there was a new wave of “invasion” posts reacting to caravans of migrants heading toward the U.S. border -- a topic that also became a fixation of Fox News and other right-wing outlets. A Media Matters study of top-engaged caravan news coverage on Facebook found that viral content from right-leaning Facebook pages often depicted the migrant caravan as a violent invasion.

    One video with over 2.2 million views from The Daily Caller’s Facebook channel American Voices included a Fox & Friends clip of a guest calling the caravan “an invasion and an act of war.” A post from the right-wing group Secure America Now’s page tried to rally support to send “the military to defend our border now from the threat of invasion from the migrant caravan ravaging through Mexico.” The right-wing meme page The Federalist Papers claimed that the caravan had “suddenly [and] inexplicably grown much bigger, and now it’s looking like an invasion.” Daily Wire Editor-in-Chief Ben Shapiro compared a group of unarmed asylum-seekers carrying a flag to a foreign militia: “If you’re leading a march of economic migrants, not an invasion of citizens of a foreign state, why carry the flag of the nation you are escaping, exactly?”

  • Facebook video referring to a caravan of asylum-seekers as an "invasion"
  • On November 4, weeks into right-wing media’s caravan coverage frenzy, one pro-Trump Facebook page posted a meme -- which had gone viral a few times earlier in 2018 on right-wing Facebook pages -- that asked: “If necessary, are you OK with the U.S. Military using deadly force to protect the border?” Top-engaged comments all supported the use of deadly force on unarmed immigrants and asylum-seekers. One comment that earned over 3,000 interactions said that most immigrants were not seeking asylum, calling the caravans an “invasion.” Another comment, which earned around 1,000 interactions, answered, “Yes… this is an invasion [they’re] burning our flag and flying theirs.” The post itself earned over 200,000 interactions.

  • Top comments on a Facebook post justify shooting immigrants at the border
  • Posts using the word “invasion” to demonize immigrants seem to violate Facebook’s hate speech content policy. So why isn’t Facebook taking them down?

  • Facebook’s current hate speech guidelines in its community standards extend “some protections for immigration status.” The company considers “race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation,” among other things, “protected characteristics” against hate speech. On its policy page, Facebook breaks down these protections into multiple tiers that detail types of “attacks” which are prohibited.

    First tier attacks, which are prohibited against a person or group of people on the basis of immigration status in addition to all other protected characteristics, include:

    • “Any violent speech or support in written or visual form”

    • “Dehumanizing speech” that references or compares a protected characteristic to, among other things, violent criminals or “criminals” overall

    • “Designated dehumanizing comparisons in both written and visual form”

    Second tier attacks, which are prohibited against all protected characteristics including religious affiliation and national origin, but not against immigration status, include:

    • “Expressions of contempt” such as self-admission to Islamophobia

    • “Expressions of hate”

    • “Expressions of dismissal”

    • Other “statements of inferiority”

    Even though the company has policies that seem to prohibit most if not all “invasion” content, Facebook still allows it to exist and spread on its platform. In March, Facebook claimed it did not consider a post pushing white supremacist claims about a “Muslim Invasion” in the U.K. to be a violation of its community standards. A year after leaked documents revealed that Facebook allowed praise for white nationalism and separatism on its platform after the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, the company implemented a so-called white nationalist ban. But the auditors Facebook had hired to oversee its goals of “advancing civil rights on our platform” criticized the ban as “overly narrow.”

  • Today, clickbait links, memes, and long-winding video rants referring to immigration as an “invasion” are still part of the anti-immigrant content that is regularly recycled on right-wing Facebook pages.

  • In March, after Trump announced he was cutting all direct assistance to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala and threatened to close the southern border, content containing “invasion” rhetoric picked up traction on right-wing Facebook pages. For example:

    • “Close All borders, South & North! Until our laws are changed to benefit America & not illegals! Put a stop to this invasion!” [3/29/19]

    • “President Donald J. Trump should Close The Border Now. Too Many Coming At Once. It's An Invasion.” [3/29/19]
    • “Trump Declares War As ‘Invasion’ Approaches” [3/31/19]
    • “We must stop them!!” The post linked to an article titled “‘Surge’ Of Border Patrol Agents Headed To Border To Fend Off Immigrant Invasion” [4/1/19]

    And weeks before the El Paso shooting, “invasion” dog whistles littered right-wing Facebook pages.

    • “When the handouts don’t come fast enough or they want more...they’ll riot to get it. There’s nothing peaceful or respectful about this actual invasion.” [7/2/19]
    • “It’s not a Crisis, It’s an Invasion.” [7/9/19]
    • “Almost looks like an invasion.” [7/13/19]

    • “How much more evidence is needed that this is an invasion?” [7/14/19]

    • “When adult men from another country storm your border, its called an invasion.” [7/21/19]

    • “Sounds like an invasion.” [7/23/19]

    • “When can our CBP officers defend themselves and protect us from an invasion?” [7/23/19]

  • Two 2019 Facebook posts pushing the "invasion" narrative