By Priscilla Alvarez, CNN
Human smugglers frequently misrepresent immigration policies and conditions along the US-Mexico border in Facebook and WhatsApp social media posts targeting US-bound migrants, according to a report released Wednesday by a tech transparency group.
Since taking office, President Joe Biden has faced an unprecedented number of migrants arriving at the US southern border amid worsening conditions across the Western hemisphere. But while senior administration officials repeatedly warn people not to journey north, they’re also contending with a multibillion-dollar smuggling industry peddling misinformation to migrants.
In its new report, the Tech Transparency Project found migrants predominantly relied on word of mouth and online platforms to get information about the route to the US that was often misleading.
“The misinformation has led people in the region to think it’s a lot easier to get into the United States than it is in reality,” said Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency Project. Migrants are aware of the risks and deception on platforms, Paul noted, but the volume of it makes it more difficult to decipher what is true.
Posts on Facebook and WhatsApp, which are included in the report, claim that border authorities are letting pregnant women into the US, display favorable conditions for border crossings by misrepresenting the state of rivers where migrants will have to pass and offer fake documents.
“Some of the false information posted online about environmental conditions appeared to influence survey respondents’ decision-making about their own migration attempts,” states the report, which includes interviews with migrants.
Migrants, who were interviewed in a survey and who provided some of the posts, said they were aware of the misinformation being disseminated and the accompanying risks, according to anecdotes included in the report.
“What smugglers will do is they will infiltrate those online communities. They will provide information — very oftentimes manufactured information — that there’s an opportunity to enter the US,” said John Cohen, who previously served as temporary head of the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence division.
“They’ll seek to organize large groups of migrants who will then travel to the southern border and present en masse,” Cohen added, referring to smugglers.
Last month, the Biden administration also launched an “unprecedented” operation to disrupt human smuggling networks. The operation included deploying hundreds of personnel throughout Latin America and a multimillion-dollar investment. From April 1 through July 22, authorities arrested 3,533 individuals connected to human smuggling networks and 262 busts, including stash houses, tractor trailers, and compartment and rail car loads, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The Biden administration continues to rely on a Trump-era public health authority, known as Title 42, that allows authorities to turn away migrants at the US-Mexico border. The administration tried to end the authority, but a lower court blocked them from doing so, prompting confusion among migrants.
The ongoing circulation of misinformation presents a steep challenge for the Biden administration as it tries to stem the flow of irregular migration. Human smuggling can also pose grave dangers. Last month, 53 migrants died after being transported in a semi-truck in the sweltering heat in what officials called the “worst human-smuggling event in the United States.”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is traveling to Honduras this week where human smuggling is expected to be a topic of discussion between the secretary and senior officials.
Wednesday’s report is the first in a series by the Tech Transparency Project on the influence of social media on migrants. Interviewers with the group met migrants in Guatemala, where they were beginning their trip north, and along the border.
Interviewers asked migrants to name social media accounts, pages, or groups they followed, and analysts later reviewed those sources, the report states.
Of the 200 migrants interviewed, many said they received information about migrating and the journey to the US southern border via word of mouth and platforms, like Facebook and WhatsApp.
The posts at times look like travel ads, listing a series of services and guarantees or promising easy journeys. Most pages use descriptors like “coyote,” a commonly used term used for human smugglers, to signal the service being offered.
Pages are also sometimes categorized as “travel company” or “product/service.” Smugglers also advertise on local buy-sell groups where ads show up along with posts about motorcycles and furniture, according to the report.
Facebook’s policy prohibits content that “offers to provide or facilitate human smuggling.”
A Meta spokesperson said the platform removes misinformation when flagged by experts and outlined efforts to fact check information. The spokesperson also noted that WhatsApp, which is an encrypted messaging service, relies on users reporting misinformation.
Migrants who had arrived at the Arizona-Mexico described treacherous conditions in their journey to the US southern border in interviews with CNN. A Peruvian migrant who traveled with his family, including two-year-old daughter, told CNN he felt deceived by the smugglers, adding the travels were more difficult than anticipated. He and his family paid $800 just to cross the river into the US.
A Colombian migrant similarly shared the challenges of coming to the US. He had paid $16,000 to a smuggler for the journey.
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at George Mason University who studies human smuggling, said smuggling fees can range from $3,000 to $20,000, depending on the circumstances. But in general, migrants will have to pay a fee to cross the US-Mexico border.
“Most of them need a smuggler sooner or later,” Correa-Cabrera said. “The majority of them pay the smuggler at the border. Some pay different smuggling networks along the route.”
An added challenge to deciphering misinformation spread on online platforms about migrating to the United States is determining who’s disseminating it, Correa-Cabrera said, adding that migrants might share with other migrants the bad information they’ve heard.
The State Department has run ads and posted messages on social media to dispel bad information. “We amplify these messages through television, radio, and print media stories generated via interviews with U.S. Government spokespeople in Washington DC and at our overseas Embassies,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
“We also continuously broadcast such messages via social media in Mexico, Central America, and in other high-emigration countries in the Western Hemisphere, including, in many countries, through the use of paid social-media boosting,” the spokesperson added.
US Customs and Border Protection also launched a digital ad campaign in May to dissuade migrants from journeying north. The initial two-month ad buy was intended to reach migrants on social media and other digital platforms.
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