Since the election of President Joe Biden in November, a right-wing media ecosystem of both Fox News and right-leaning Facebook pages has dominated the national conversation on immigration. CNN, MSNBC, and left-leaning pages eventually followed in the steps of these conservative actors, most notably when attention turned to the increase in migration at the southern border in late February and early March.
According to Media Matters’ internal database, although Fox has steadily misinformed about immigration since the 2020 election, the network’s immigration programming began to significantly spike near Biden’s inauguration, relentlessly increasing through March. Fox fearmongering on immigration issues has been consistently xenophobic, biased, and inaccurate, culminating in the recent whole-hearted and unapologetic embrace of the white supremacist “replacement” conspiracy theory.
CNN and MSNBC largely ignored immigration topics throughout the transition and well into the Biden administration. Rather, these two networks dedicated significant coverage to the increase in migration at the southern border only after Fox began focusing on Biden’s “crisis,” a characterization of the increase in migration CNN and MSNBC seemingly adopted. While mentions of a “crisis” at the border began to pick up on Fox throughout February, the network went all in on the term during the week of February 28. CNN and MSNBC, which largely hadn’t been using the “crisis” framing in their conversations about the border, began to do so more heavily the week after Fox News’ oversaturated coverage.
Right-leaning Facebook pages similarly dominated the online conversation about immigration with the end of the Trump administration in late 2020 through the beginning of the Biden administration in 2021. This prevalence was also notable in pages dedicated to talk about the “crisis” of the migration increase at the border, and the conversation spiked in interactions and overall quantity at roughly the same time as the cable networks pushed this narrative in late February. Right-leaning pages’ posts about immigration and the “crisis” at the border often pushed racist tropes and stereotypes and were rife with misinformation.
How a narrative bounces around the online echo chamber
As one example of how right-leaning posts dominate the conversation and contribute to an echo chamber of misinformation, the spread of a Daily Wire article claiming White House press secretary Jen Psaki “dodged numerous questions” about Biden’s “border crisis” during a press briefing on March 11 is illustrative. As of April 26, the Daily Wire article has received 20,700 Facebook interactions. On March 14, a translated version of the narrative was posted in Spanish to Tierra Pura, a partisan “news” website that regularly disseminates content in Spanish and Portguese from media outlets related to the Epoch Media Group and has links to the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong. Tierra Pura also posted the article on its Telegram channel, which has over 30,000 subscribers, with an additional video clip pushing the “crisis” narrative, which was viewed 8,200 times. From there, the clips and articles ricocheted around right-wing Twitter.
At the same time, different xenophobic and fearmongering immigration narratives similarly spread on right-wing communities online and on fringe platforms. In another example among many Media Matters found, two separate videos spread misinformation connecting migrants to human smuggling and a common QAnon conspiracy theory -- that children (in this case, migrant children) are being harvested for adrenochrome by pedohiles and “elites” from political and entertainment circles. One video appeared on an Argentine Telegram channel, Médicos por la Verdad Argentina (over 35,000 subscribers) and the other was shared on Tierra Pura’s website and Telegram channel on February 27 with a combined 21,700 views on Telegram to date. The video shared by Tierra Pura was originally posted in August 2020 by kla.tv, a German right-wing news network that promotes conspiracy theories in multiple languages. This kla.tv video now has over 1 million views.
Media Matters searched our internal database of all original, weekday programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC (shows airing from 6 a.m. through midnight) for segments that analysts determined to be about immigration from November 2, 2020, through April 23, 2021.
We searched transcripts in the Kinetiq video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any instances of the exact phrases “border crisis,” “crisis at the border,” or “crisis at the southern border” from November 1, 2020, through April 23, 2021.
We searched Facebook posts using CrowdTangle from 1,773 Facebook pages that frequently posted about U.S. politics from January 1, 2020, through August 25, 2020.
Of those 1,773 pages, we identified 771 right-leaning pages, 497 ideologically nonaligned pages, and 505 left-leaning pages. For an explanation of how we compiled the pages and identified them as right-leaning, left-leaning, or ideologically nonaligned, see the methodology here.
We then compiled all posts from these 1,773 Facebook pages that we determined to be about immigration dated from 8 a.m. EST November 2, 2020, through 8 a.m. EST April 23, 2021.
We defined posts as being related to or about immigration if a post had any of the following terms in the message, the included link, article headline, or article description: “American asylum,” “asylum,” “asylum in America,” “asylum in the US,” “Biden immigration,” “Biden's border,” “border crisis,” “Border crossing,” “Border crossings,” “border patrol,” “border wall,” “caravan,” “cartel,” “cartels,” “CBP,” “children in cages,” “crisis at the border,” “family separation,” “grant citizenship,” “ICE Agent,” “ICE Agents,” “ICE leadership,” “ICE raid,” “ICE raids,” “illegal alien,” “illegal aliens,” “illegals,” “immigrant,” “immigrants,” “immigration,” “kids in cages,” “migrant,” “migrants,” “migration,” “ms-13,” “rio grande,” “sanctuary cities,” “sanctuary city,” “sanctuary jurisdiction,” “smuggle,” “smuggler,” “smugglers,” “smuggles,” “smuggling,” “southern border,” “spiraling tsunami,” “terrorism watch list,” “Trump border,” “Trump immigration,” “Trump's border,” “Trump's immigration,” “trump's wall,” “US asylum,” “visa,” “visas,” or “war on drugs.”
We then reviewed the total interactions -- reactions, comments, and shares -- for the resulting 66,825 posts.
We also conducted a second search for this same time frame to identify posts discussing a so-called “border crisis” or using similar rhetoric. We defined posts as being related to this topic or using this rhetoric if a post had any of the following terms or phrases in the message, the included link, article headline, or article description: “crisis at the southern border,” “US border crisis,” “Trump border crisis,” “Biden border crisis,” “Mexican border crisis,” “US immigration crisis,” “Mexican immigration crisis,” “American border crisis,” “Trump immigration crisis,” “Biden immigration crisis,” “border crossing crisis,” “Trump's border crisis,” “Biden's border crisis,” “United States' border crisis,” “United States' immigration crisis,” “America's border crisis,” “America border crisis,” “America immigration crisis,” “American immigration crisis," “Trump's immigration crisis,” “Biden's immigration crisis,” “America's immigration crisis," or “crisis at the Mexican border.”
We then reviewed the total interactions for the resulting 7,699 posts. We excluded duplicate posts.