With numerous new studies investigating the impact of false and misleading news on election campaigns, it seems taken for granted that a majority of the false or misleading information relates to immigration. In a new research series, Migration Voter asks why the topic of immigration became central for those wishing to sway campaigns and referendums, looking at the USA, Britain, France and Germany.
“Online manipulation and disinformation tactics”
The US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House released their yearly study investigating freedom on the internet this week, Freedom of the Net 2017. This edition evaluated 65 countries on a range of indicators, including state restriction of internet access and attacks on independent media, but one finding really stood out for us at Migration Voter:
“Online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including the United States.” Freedom House
The study discusses numerous forms of “online manipulation and disinformation” in the lead up to elections: completely fabricated news stories about the parties or candidates, bots and fake accounts retweeting and amplifying campaign messages, and accounts with no discernable side simply sowing chaos and confusion.
But in many of the countries, the disinformation or manipulation focused heavily on one topic: immigration.
Although Freedom House and others studying this phenomenon seem to take it for granted, the power of immigration-related propaganda to shape elections is not a forgone conclusion. It would be equally plausible to focus on individual-driven scandals, the economy, corruption, or even divisive social issues like abortion or gay marriage, as elections have done in the past. So why the sudden shift, and why such a massive shift?
In this series we’ll be evaluating the new information available from Freedom House and numerous other sources to explore the following question: when trying to influence elections, why did foreign and domestic sources believe that focusing on immigration was their strongest bet?
Examining the exit polls from the 2016 presidential election, one could only conclude that immigration was one of the top issues in the United States. 64% of people who voted for Republican candidate Donald Trump identified immigration as their biggest concern, more than any other subject on either side of the political divide. (Terrorism was the second biggest issue concerning people who voted for Trump.) Asked what should happen to “working illegal immigrants,” 84% of people who voted for Trump called for them to be deported. And 86% agreed with the proposition of building a wall along the US border with Mexico. People who voted for Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, generally opposed both mass deportations and the construction of a wall, while identifying “foreign policy” as the most important issue.
For someone concern about and opposed to immigration, it would be reasonable to vote for Donald Trump, who centered immigration policy starting literally day one of his campaign, calling for restricting immigration from Mexico and linking Mexican immigrants with crime.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best …They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” – Donald Trump
He went on throughout his campaign to continuously highlight immigration- both lawful and unlawful, promising if elected to ban Muslims from lawfully entering the US, “build the wall,” end funding for sanctuary cities, and deport immigrants with criminal records (see how he fared on these campaign promises during his first 100 days here).
So did Donald Trump successfully align himself with voters’ already existent wishes on immigration? In other words, did he tap into a growing anti-immigrant sentiment? Or did he successfully persuade voters to think about immigration first and foremost when heading to the polls?
From Economy to Immigration
Looking back four years at 2012, exit polls show that immigration did not make it into the top four issues in the Presidential Election- for either side. Instead, Republican voters prioritized the deficit as the overall most important issue, with the economy ( which is obviously very related) coming in second. On a second question about the economy, people who voted for Mitt Romney identified taxes as the most important economic issue and prices as the second- both concerns that have the potential to be affected more by domestic policy-makers than by immigration.
In the years between the 2012 and 2016 election, migration from Mexico continued to decrease, continuing a downward trend that had started in 2004. Immigration from China and India increased, but the overall percentage of the US population that hailed from abroad rose modestly from 13% in 2013 to 13.5% in 2015- only 3.5% more than in 1850, when data is first available. At the same time, the Obama administration deported record numbers of people who came to the US irregularly, well over 2 million people.
Also during this period, popular opinion shifted: according to Gallup, who periodically polls Americans on the “most important problem” facing the country, fewer and fewer people identified the economy as the most important issue facing the United States.
To summarize, in the time between the 2012 and 2016 election, immigration did not dramatically increase, Mexican immigration to the US decreased, and record numbers of people were deported. It would appear that, more than tapping into frustration based on surges of immigrants or other observable facts, Trump’s campaign was successfully able to persuade a large number of voters that immigration was at the center of their frustrations, not the economy.
But Trump’s campaign had lots of help.
Fake News and Bots
By now, numerous studies have demonstrated that large amounts of the content surrounding the election, both real and fake (“real”, as in, arising from real people and websites, and “fake” as in, arising from concealed organizations pretending to be citizens or interest groups) focused heavily on immigration.
Following Trump’s election, both the US media and Congressional investigatory committees have been heavily focusing on uncovering Russia’s attempt to influence the US election in favor of Donald Trump. So far this influence appears to have played out heavily over social media. Testifying before the US Senate, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch said Facebook learned that a set of “coordinated, inauthentic accounts” had spread 80,000 pieces of content using paid ads between January 2015 and August 2017, reaching an estimated 11.7 million people directly, and perhaps 126 million people indirectly through shares, a number that is over one-third of the US population. The content covered a range of issues, including, Stretch notes, immigration.
But Kremlin-backed groups also published free, “un-boosted” posts, and these may have had an even wider reach. Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, made public his data demonstrating that the reach could have been much higher than estimated by Facebook, especially considering the views of images on Facebook-owned Instagram. The unpaid posts were often lengthy diatribes containing odd wording or mistakes (“Now wait to see how many more states will also ban the so-called ‘refugees’ – more appropriately to call them ILLEGALS.”)
But regardless of the exact numbers of people reach (or influenced) by Russian created content, the influence coming from inside of the United States also tended towards discussing immigration negatively.
The Breitbart Effect
Hyperpartisan media outlets and social media users continued to flourish online and affect the visibility of and attention paid to more balanced sources of news and information. Freedom House
A study cited by Freedom House argues that, more than Russian influence, one “hyper-partisan” media outlet had an outsized impact on the outcome of the election by dragging the conversation of the mainstream media towards both Trump and the topic of immigration: Breitbart News.
The study, conducted jointly by researchers from Harvard and MIT, examined over a million stories published between April 2015 and election day, showing that Breitbart and a related network of conservative media outlets set a tone for the election that successfully influenced coverage from the mainstream media of both presidential candidates Trump and Clinton. For Clinton, this translated to covering scandals such as her emails, and for Trump, this largely translated to covering one of Trump’s primary campaign themes: immigration. By partway through the campaign, the number one word polled voters associated with Hillary Clinton was “email” and for Donald Trump, “immigration.”
While mainstream media coverage was often critical, it nonetheless revolved around the agenda that the right-wing media sphere set: immigration. Right-wing media, in turn, framed immigration in terms of terror, crime, and Islam, as a review of Breitbart and other right-wing media stories about immigration most widely shared on social media exhibits. Immigration is the key topic around which Trump and Breitbart found common cause; just as Trump made this a focal point for his campaign, Breitbart devoted disproportionate attention to the topic. – Benkler et al in Columbia Journalism Review
The chart below demonstrates just how prominent the theme of immigration was for Breitbart, based on the articles sampled.
Numerous of the articles published on Breitbart contained information about migration that was false, misleading or simply confusing, combined with alarmist, eye-grabbing headlines. For instance, from August 2015, “Unchecked Immigration Greater Threat to US Than ISIS” was an opinion piece that borders on incoherence:
“Americans need to understand that too many legal immigrants from one region, country, or ethnicity which is opposes our historical norms cripples our country’s ability to have a future that stays faithful to our past.”
Another example from August 2015, “Mainstream: Polls Show Americans With Donald Trump on Immigration,” misleadingly stated that a majority of Americans backed Trump’s restrictive immigration measures, using as evidence a poll conducted by Trump campaign advisor Kelly Anne Conway and a poll that surveyed only Republican voters as prime examples.
In another example, Breitbart published in June 2016 this scandalous piece by former congressman Tom Tancredo, “Obama invites 18.7 million immigrants to avoid oath of allegiance, pledge to defend America,” claiming that then-President Obama had unilaterally exempted naturalized citizens from pledging to bear arms, a claim very far from the truth and apparently meant to frighten readers about gun rights, immigrant loyalty, and the motives of the Democratic president.
The combination of Kremlin-backed accounts spreading frightening falsehoods and memes about immigrants with Breitbart’s misleading alarmist invective provided a backdrop that reinforced and spread Trump’s messaging about immigration, touting his proposals (many of which have been impractical to enact) as the only solutions for America’s most urgent issue (according to them). In short, there is ample evidence for the sort of manipulation and disinformation spread during the US election campaign cited by Freedom House and many others. But it still doesn’t tell us why so much of that misinformation was about immigration.
What does it mean that both Kremlin-backed sources and the Conservative/ Far Right media led by Breitbart focused so heavily on misleading immigration-related stories? Were they sincerely concerned with representing the voices of Americans opposed to immigration? Were they attempting to help the Republicans by moving the national conversation to an arena they felt Democrats were weak on?
Both motivations are difficult to accept from the Russian side. What incentive would the Kremlin have to either amplify the concerns of any sub-section of US citizens, or to attempt to highlight policy differences between the two parties? As for Breitbart, the website had focused on immigration prior to both the election and to Donald Trump’s primary win, before which it was still possible that Republicans would lead a traditional campaign focusing on security and the economy. Moreover, it would seem unnecessary to conflate facts, lie and mislead about immigration if Breitbart sincerely wanted to highlight a real political movement.
So what was the real motivation? It seems to us that Breitbart, Trump and the Kremlin all recognized the power of activating a divisive issue like immigration and fueling fear and uncertainty with false and misleading information. As a wedge against both centrist Republicans and Democrats, it could prove capable of making Trump stand out from opponents on both sides with a clearly defined problem and a simple, clear-cut solution. After the primaries, it could be used to move the conversation away from complex areas like foreign policy or the economy, and on to a topic Democrats would be reluctant to engage with but the media would be forced to report on. They knew that such a strategy could bring fringe groups with unusual, even radical views into the mainstream, where they could force real changes that most politicians would have previously been unwilling to touch.
They didn’t just hope, they knew. Because they had just watched the exact same tactic work in the UK.
NEXT in our series: The Brexit Referendum in the UK
and Further Reading
Freedom of the Net 2017, Freedom House, Nov. 2017
Exit Polls of 2016 US Presidential Election, Published by The New York Times, collected by a consortium including ABC News, The Associated Press, CBSNews, CNN, Fox News and NBC News.
Exit Polls of the 2012 US Presidential Election, Published by CNN
Trump Calls Mexicans Rapists (video clip), Youtube
In Historic Shift, New Migration Flows from Mexico Fall Below Those from China and India, Migration Policy Institute, May 2015.
Frequently requested statistics on immigrants and immigration in the United States, Migration Policy Institute, Feb. 2015
Gallup News: Most Important Problem, Gallup, Accessed Nov. 2017
Testimony of Colin Stretch, Facebook General Counsel. US Senate Judiciary Committee on Crimes and Terrorism, October 2017.
Sample Kremlin-Backed ads, Democrat House Select Committee on Intelligence
Study: Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda. Benkler et al, Columbia Journalism Review, October 2017.
Oath Creeper, Snopes.com,
Header Image via KellyBDC on Flickr, http://bit.ly/2hv3EB6, (CC by 2.0)