How online myths drive migrants


Migrants linking arms with each other as they wade into the rio Grande river with intentions to cross into Eagle pass, texas. — reuters

SEEKING a better life in the United States, migrant Nohe Vargas spent months dodging police as he weaved a slow way north by bus and motorbike from his home in Nicaragua.

Taking refuge at a migrant camp in Mexico City, the 32-year-old cook is now in a hurry to breach the US-Mexico border.

If the internet and rumours peddled by smugglers are to be believed, time is running out for him and for hundreds of thousands of other migrants chasing the American Dream.

Social media posts spark fears that a stricter, new, US immigration policy is in the works, with November’s presidential election only injecting extra urgency.

So now Vargas is desperate to find a smuggler who can take him to the border without delay and preempt any such crackdown.

“I’ve heard that (former President Donald) Trump will win again, and he’ll start deporting people. It’s going to get ugly,” said Vargas at a crowded camp in Mexico that hundreds of people from mainly Central and South America call home as they prepare to illegally cross the border or seek asylum.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants aiming to reach the United States are making pivotal decisions based on fast-changing smuggler offers and nuggets of information – often misinformation – posted on social media.

Most of the snippets come via Facebook and WhatsApp accounts that do not belong to aid groups or official government sources and sell half truths, at best, or tall tales that ring true.

For migrants, having access to reliable and accurate information has become just as important as shelter and water – but online misinformation peddled by smugglers and organised crime groups make it hard to decipher fact from fiction.

A sign warning migrants of the extreme danger of attempting to cross into the United States through the floating barriers in the Rio Grande River in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. — ReutersA sign warning migrants of the extreme danger of attempting to cross into the United States through the floating barriers in the Rio Grande River in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. — Reuters

Facebook, the platform most popularly used by migrants, says it bans human smuggling content but tech experts see little evidence that bogus accounts are taken down.

“We prohibit human smuggling content or services on our platforms, and we remove such content when we find it,” a Meta spokesman told Reuters.

According to Katie Paul, head of advocacy group Tech Transparency Project, Facebook is the “biggest source of misinformation” – in part because it has the biggest regional reach of all the social media platforms.

“What makes it such a boom for human traffickers, for scammers, is that you have a completely unregulated platform with a huge cache of very desperate, vulnerable people who are willing to do and accept anything to get out of their situations,” said Paul, who campaigns to hold big tech companies accountable.

The Trump factor

Online disinformation is likely to get worse in the coming months as the US presidential election nears, influencing decisions made by migrants fleeing a complex mix of poverty, gang violence, unemployment and climate change.

The election and its outcome affect the messages that smugglers, known locally as coyotes, spread on social media - and influences how much they can charge for the trip north.

When Joe Biden took office in 2021, smugglers promoted a false perception that under his administration it would be easier to cross the border and stay in the United States.

Harder crossings and border closures also boost fares, with anecdotal evidence suggesting migrants must pay smugglers an extra 10-20% when journeys are riskier or more circuitous, so take longer.

Between January and February 2021, there was a 29% increase in the number of migrants encountered by US border authorities, according to official U.S. data.

“A lot of the rhetoric from Republicans claiming that there were open borders, which was false, would then get parroted by coyotes as if it was a fact coming from a politician,” said Paul.

Such a narrative has contributed to spikes in migration flows, with migrant arrivals at the US border rising to record highs during the Biden administration.

Members of the Texas Department of Public Safety patrol on an airboat in the Rio Grande river where migrants cross the river from Mexico into the US, in Eagle Pass, Texas. — ReutersMembers of the Texas Department of Public Safety patrol on an airboat in the Rio Grande river where migrants cross the river from Mexico into the US, in Eagle Pass, Texas. — Reuters

With Trump likely to be on the ballot in November, smugglers are telling migrants to leave now, saying a return of the Republican could mean tighter border restrictions and increased detentions, with Trump promising mass deportations if he wins.

“Smugglers will say and use anything they can just to create more revenue,” said Rafael Velasquez, Mexico country director at the International Rescue Committee aid group.

Spikes in migration flows can be triggered by false information posted online by smugglers or by word of mouth that then spreads across numerous WhatsApp migrant groups.

WhatsApp messages say, “The border is closing, run for it now,” said Velasquez.

Guatemalan farmer Carlos Aguilar, who hopes to scrape enough money to pay a smuggler about 120,000 quetzels (RM73,000) to take him north, says he wants to arrive at the border before the US election.

“I’ll go whenever the coyote says it’s time to go but I’ve heard I have a better chance if I go now,” said Aguilar, who hopes to join relatives already living in the United States.

‘Industrial scale’

Amid a new sense of urgency to reach the border combined with often changing rules on migration and border crossings, smugglers, human traffickers and organised crime groups exploit the confusion to spread disinformation, said Velasquez.

“If you are listening to a coyote who has told you something and you are on your way, you are not cross-checking the information,” he said.

Some smugglers offer faster and more expensive routes posted on Facebook under the cover of fake travel agencies, while others promote their services by posting videos showing migrants who have reached the United States with little hassle.

Haitians and other non-Spanish speaking migrants find it even harder to access reliable information, and Afghan migrants are considered “low-hanging fruit” for Mexico’s organised crime groups, said Velasquez.

Migrants walking on the banks of the rio Grande river to find a way to enter the uS as golfers play on the other side of the shipping container fence in Eagle pass, texas. — reutersMigrants walking on the banks of the rio Grande river to find a way to enter the uS as golfers play on the other side of the shipping container fence in Eagle pass, texas. — reuters

Migrants seeking asylum first need to schedule an appointment for free at a point of entry along the US-Mexico border using an official mobile app from the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency known as the CBP One app.

It is common to see disinformation and scams on Facebook involving the CBP One app.

“There are several (Facebook) ads that are either scams or nefarious efforts that reference the CBP One app and offer assistance with it,” said Paul.

Facebook posts reviewed by Reuters falsely promise migrants their appointment with CBP will be “approved in three days” in exchange for money, while other accounts sell tips to book an appointment sooner.

Nicaraguan Marina Perez, 38, has spent weeks sleeping in a cramped tent at the migrant camp in Mexico City trying to get an appointment through the CBP One app.

Connected to the city’s public – if intermittent – WiFi signal, Perez comes across countless videos promoting scams, flagged to her by fellow migrants in the camp.

“Getting an appointment is like winning the lottery, it all comes down to luck. That’s why people shouldn’t trust these scams,” said Perez, who is fleeing violence in her country to join her brother in the United States.

Research by the Tech Transparency Project, an advocacy group, says Facebook has failed to stop the spread of misleading and potentially dangerous posts that target vulnerable migrants.

“We are talking about an industrial scale of predation that is facilitated by this platform and is negligent in addressing these harms,” said Paul.

Venezuelan Leidy Rojas, who fled a humanitarian crisis and took her three children to Colombia six years ago, also plans to travel to the United States before the election. Her journey means crossing the Darien Gap - a treacherous stretch of rainforest straddling Colombia and Panama - a risk Rojas says is worth taking to build a better life for her children.

“I don’t know if Trump is going to be the next president and what he’ll do, but I want to get there before it gets harder to cross,” she said. “I have family living in the US and they say coyotes are telling people to leave now.” — Reuters

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