Secret Democratic plots, ISIS, voter fraud: The worst Fox News conspiracy theories and fearmongering about the migrant caravan (so far)

Secret Democratic plots, ISIS, voter fraud: The worst Fox News conspiracy theories and fearmongering about the migrant caravan (so far) 

How Fox News helped Trump transform migrants seeking safety into a xenophobic caricature looming over the midterms 

››› ››› PAM VOGEL


Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

The Republican Party needed a way to ignite its base and stoke fear in the American consciousness as voters head to the polls in November. Fox News has delivered by pushing just about every possible xenophobic talking point and conspiracy theory while discussing a group of migrants traveling from Honduras to the United States.

A caravan of several thousand Honduran immigrants, including many families and some people seeking sanctuary from gang violence, has been traveling through Central America and Mexico with the hopes of reaching the U.S. border around mid-November. Shortly after the group first began its journey, President Donald Trump and Fox News figures started tapping into their hive mind to incite resentment and fear about the caravan, by any means necessary. Throughout their coverage, Fox personalities have repeatedly suggested that the caravan story could potentially be a winning issue for Republicans in the midterm elections -- and they have done their best to make that a reality.

Together, Fox News and Trump have fed off of each other to recreate a xenophobic frenzy that’s worked for Republicans in past election seasonssetting the terms for a media discussion divorced from facts and chock-full of the bread-and-butter fearmongering and wild conspiracy theories that drive right-wing engagement. And thus, the story of thousands of immigrants seeking safety, stability, and a better life has instead become a story about: invasion, acts of war, disease, conspiracies about George Soros, secret Democratic plots, the MS-13 gang, terrorists from ISIS and other groups, flag burning, voter fraud, who will win in November, and the very end of civilization.

Video by Miles Le

Fox News latched onto the story and responded with generalized fearmongering about immigrants

Fox figures have used their coverage of the immigrant group to trot out many of their standard anti-immigrant talking points, vaguely telling viewers that the migrants participating in the caravan were unknown and possibly dangerous entities and suggesting that, unless the military was deployed to stop them, they would arrive at the U.S. border imminently and enter the country to wreak mysterious havoc.

  • Justice with Judge Jeanine host Jeanine Pirro began her October 20 show with a monologue baselessly speculating about the possible types of criminals that might be part of the group: “Now, I’m not saying they are all criminals. What I am asking is who are they? What I am saying is I want to vet them, screen them.” She went on to suggest some of the migrants could be gang members, pedophiles, sex offenders, abusers, drunk drivers, alcoholics, drug addicts, or international drug smugglers.
  • Fox & Friends Weekend co-host Pete Hegseth fearmongered about the immigration system more broadly in a discussion of the caravan, saying, “We don’t have any idea, or even a concept, of how many people are coming into our country illegally. And we have no idea who they are.”
  • Sean Hannity told his viewers, “And of course, we don’t really know who any of these undocumented migrants are. Where are they from? Who brought them here? Why are they coming here? An obvious major security concern for the country.”
  • Florida Attorney General and frequent Fox guest Pam Bondi told Fox & Friends viewers that members of the caravan are “not here peacefully” and are “here to cause trouble,” and she said that the U.S. has to be protected “from the drugs, from the human trafficking.”
  • On America’s Newsroom, guest Mike Huckabee stated, “We don’t know who’s in that great, vast number of people and, quite frankly, we already do know that there are some people who have some nefarious intentions.”

And some Fox personalities have coupled these well-worn, xenophobic comments with lies about immigrants taking away jobs from American citizens or becoming an economic burden on taxpayers.

  • Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocy ended an interview with Pam Bondi by offhandedly commenting, “And it looks like most of them are not going to apply for asylum. Most are just going to try to slip across the border and, in many cases, try to get jobs.”
  • Hannity coupled his fearmongering about the immigrants in the caravan with broader misinformation about immigration, telling his audience, “You, the American people, end up paying for the health care costs, educational costs, and criminal justice costs. We already pay billions and billions every single year.”
  • Days later, Hannity repeated almost the exact same talking point: “You, the American people, you’ll pay their legal costs, you’ll end up paying their educational costs, their health care costs. Some of them are incarcerated. You’ll pay for that too.”  
  • A Fox & Friends panelist argued, “It pays to be illegal in the United States.”   
  • Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade pushed a lie that “90 percent” of undocumented immigrants under electronic monitoring “cut” their ankle bracelets off and “we never see them again.”
  • And on The Ingraham Angle, host Laura Ingraham described the movement of the caravan as “a national security issue, an economic issue” that “costs taxpayers billions of dollars to take all of these people in, public schools, health care.”

Fox figures have attempted to dehumanize the immigrant group with slurs and hateful rhetoric

Fox News hosts and guests have repeatedly used dehumanizing language, including the slur “illegals,” to refer to the immigrants traveling through Central America. They’ve framed the group as “aliens” and invaders and hinted people in the group could be rapists, could be carrying diseases into the U.S., and may bring about the end of civilization.

  • Fox co-host Greg Gutfeld said that the MeToo movement was “disgusting” and “putting women in danger” by not speaking out against the caravan. Gutfeld speculated that “lives would be saved” and “rapes would be prevented” if the caravan were halted.
  • Fox contributor Newt Gingrich warned that civilization would not be able to “withstand it” if members of the caravan crossed the U.S. border.
  • Jeanine Pirro repeatedly referred to the group of immigrants as a “mob,” “aliens,” and “illegals” throughout her October 20 show.
  • Fox guest Amapola Hansberger appeared on the network multiple times this week, telling viewers that the caravan was a “Trojan horse” and a “threat to national security,” and saying that if it crossed the border, that would be an “act of war.”  
  • On The Ingraham Angle, one guest stated plainly, “These individuals are not immigrants. These are people that are invading our country.” In the very next segment, a different guest called the migrant group “storm troopers of the deconstructionists” and said it was pushing for “the destruction of American society and culture.”
  • Laura Ingraham speculated that the migrant group could be a “health issue too, because we don’t know what people have coming in here. We have diseases in this country we haven’t had for decades.”
  • On Fox & Friends, contributor Tomi Lahren said in an interview, “What we're seeing now with this migrant caravan, it's not a caravan, it's an invasion.”

Fox has elevated a caravan conspiracy theory with anti-Semitic roots, further drawing in the far-right base

Last week, frequent Fox News guest Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) introduced on Twitter a conspiracy theory that migrants traveling in the caravan were paid to join, possibly by the liberal Jewish billionaire George Soros or “US-backed NGOs.” Trump himself has promoted a version of this conspiracy theory, expanding it to include “the Democrats,” in tweets and rallies since October 18. Last week, Trump began telling rally crowds that he believed Democrats were behind the migrant group. He again hinted at this conspiracy theory at a Nevada rally on Saturday, saying, “The Democrats want caravans. They like the caravans.”

Conspiracy theories that invoke Soros frequently bounce around far-right online communities as explanations for many politically explosive events, and sometimes Fox, Trump, or other GOP figures like Gaetz elevate the claims. The anti-Soros rhetoric is also often littered with -- or inspired by -- virulent anti-Semitism. In a startling escalation this week, a pipe bomb was discovered in a mailbox at Soros’ home.

In the days since Gaetz first floated this theory, Fox hosts and guests have speculated about who could be “behind” the caravan, citing Soros, mysterious liberal groups, and Democrats as possible sources. Others have hinted at the theory more vaguely, saying the caravan is not “organic” and that the group has political aims.

  • Pirro ended her show monologue last weekend by yelling, “When you cross the border into these United States illegally, expect to be arrested. You do not have the right to come here. We did not invite you here. You cannot stay here. And on your way out, you can tell the Democrats, George Soros, and the angry mob that’s coming here, you either come the right way like everyone else or be ready to face the military and a one-way ticket back to where you came from.”
  • Fox & Friends Weekend co-host Hegseth reacted to reporting about the migrants’ movement by questioning whether the rafts that some were shown using were truly “makeshift” and suggesting the caravan was not “organic.” Co-host Ed Henry added that the president has “raise[d] questions” that “the left” might be funding it. Hegseth and Henry repeated these talking points later in the show.
  • Later that same day on America’s Newsroom, guest John Sununu said that Trump has to discourage immigrants from entering the country or “it’s going to be easy for the Democrats and the Soros groups to reorganize, to organize and reorganize continuous efforts like this over the next few years.”
  • And another guest on the program, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), said, “I can’t help but think that the Democrats, perhaps Soros, others, may be funding this, thinking it’s going to help them.” He added, “It’s designed. You meant it for evil, Democrat leaders, but it’s going to work out for the good of America and for the good of the Republican Party.”
  • And on Fox Business, Lou Dobbs polled his audience about whether “the radical left is working with Central and South American socialists and leftists to organize and support the migrant caravan?”

Some Fox figures have suggested immigrants with the caravan would commit voter fraud in the U.S. to help Democrats

For some Fox personalities, the Democratic Party is not just a potential organizer or supporter of the group of immigrants but also a prime beneficiary. Multiple figures suggested that migrants traveling with the caravan would line up to vote for Democrats upon arrival. The president picked up this talking point too, vaguely alluding to the idea at rallies by saying Democrats “want caravans.”

  • Pirro also floated this idea in her monologue last week, saying that Democrats “want illegals to cross as a mob and act as a mob, and unite around a state they have no right to be in, and register and vote Democrat.”
  • And Fox contributor Mike Huckabee called the caravan “a registration line for Democrat voters.”

Fox figures have speculated that the caravan could include members of the MS-13 gang

Some Fox News hosts and guests have explicitly suggested that the caravan could include members of the Salvadoran-American gang MS-13. (Trump and Fox News have long relied on talking points about the brutality of MS-13 to attack immigration policies and to dehumanize immigrants.)

  • In her opening monologue on Saturday, Pirro said she wanted to vet and screen everyone traveling in the caravan to see how many were members of MS-13. She said, “I want to find out who among them is a criminal, who among them is a gang member like the notorious MS-13 gang members who arrogantly rode into our United States by invitation during the Obama years and are now in New York and elsewhere brutally and savagely murdering innocent American citizens.”
  • Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton, a frequent Fox guest, appeared on Fox News’ Fox & Friends to fuel speculation that members of MS-13 and “gangbangers” may be traveling with the caravan.
  • In her Fox & Friends appearance, Pam Bondi also floated the idea that “gang members” could be crossing the U.S. border during a discussion about the caravan.
  • And in a shouting match with Fox’s Geraldo Rivera on Hannity, Fox contributor Sebastian Gorka claimed that MS-13 members were identified in the caravan, seemingly citing a tweet by conservative reporter Sara Carter.

Fox has also pushed the ridiculous conspiracy theory that ISIS fighters and other terrorists are part of the caravan

Further upping the irrational panic, Fox has also played a central role in spreading an absurd conspiracy theory that the migrant caravan may have been infiltrated by ISIS fighters and other terrorists. The theory about ISIS fighters joining the caravan originated with the conservative group Judicial Watch, which seized on a past statement from the Guatemalan president (from before the caravan had even formed) that the country has captured individuals linked to ISIS to baselessly fearmonger that ISIS fighters may be connected to the caravan. The theory spread around right-wing online outlets and soon after was mentioned on Fox & Friends. Trump then elevated the claim himself.

  • Fox & Friends highlighted the right-wing theory on October 21, and the Judicial Watch president, Tom Fitton, made an appearance to validate the claim that, as co-host Ed Henry put it, “there could be even more ISIS terrorists coming.”
  • The following morning, Fox & Friends’ Pete Hegseth doubled down on the theory by pushing the claim that “over a hundred ISIS fighters” were arrested while “trying to use this caravan.” (He even admitted the information wasn’t verified.)
  • Fitton appeared again on Fox Business that day and agreed with host Lou Dobbs that the group of migrants may include “radical Islamist terrorists.”
  • In at least two Fox appearances this week, guest Amapola Hansberger listed off terrorist groups she insinuated could be involved with the caravan and attempting to cross the U.S. border, including ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban.
  • During his Hannity appearance, Sebastian Gorka referenced the same old statement that Judicial Watch used to suggest that ISIS fighters, along with MS-13, may have infiltrated the caravan.

Fox hosts turned the caravan story into a conversation about burning the American flag

Last week, two Honduran protesters objecting to the mistreatment of members of the caravan burned an American flag with a swastika painted on it outside the U.S. embassy in Honduras. The protesters were not part of the caravan, but that didn’t stop right-wing media from misrepresenting the protest as a violent flag-burning by the group. And some Fox personalities quickly latched onto this story to frame the immigrants as a threat to Americans.

  • Sean Hannity told his viewers that “some of the caravan’s organizers” have been “caught on camera actually burning and defiling our American flag,” and he showed a photo of the burning flag on screen.
  • Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs similarly covered the flag protest, saying, “Well, if there’s any doubt of the anti-Trump politics surrounding the migrant caravan making its way through Mexico right now, take a look at this photo.” Dobbs showed the photo on screen and declared it “a poster image for building the wall along our southern border if we ever saw one.”

Fox and Trump fed off each other to frame the story as explicitly a midterm issue

Early on, Fox and Trump began capitalizing on the story by framing it in explicitly political terms and connecting it to the November elections.

  • On the same day Trump tweeted that the story of the traveling migrants would be a “Great Midterm issue for Republicans!” Newt Gingrich declared on Hannity that the caravan would be a defining issue for the election.
  • The following day, Fox & Friends repeatedly connected the caravan story to the midterms. In the show’s lead segment, co-host Steve Doocy said after several minutes of discussion about the caravan, “If you think that our southern border should be open, support the Democrat. If you think the southern border should actually be a border with security, and stopping people, and processing them accordingly, then you’ve got to vote for Republicans, the Republicans say.”

In the days since, Fox and Trump have continued trying to connect the November midterms and the group of immigrants thousands of miles from the United States. As of Wednesday morning, Fox Business host Stuart Varney was saying on Fox & Friends that the “caravans, plural,” are “due to arrive on Election Day.” (The Honduran caravan, in actuality, is estimated to arrive at the U.S. border in mid-November, and a second caravan Varney referenced has not yet departed from El Salvador.)

During an appearance on America’s Newsroom, right after Fox & Friends’ fear-filled daily programming block, panelist Chris Stirewalt summed up conservatives’ cynical midterms strategy. He kicked off a panel discussion about the caravan by saying simply, “This is setting up very nicely for the Republicans.”  

Miles Le and Nick Fernandez contributed research to this post.

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