Targeting the Caravan: Debunking an Anti-Migrant Video Spread as U.S. Right Wing Propaganda

CITRIS Policy Lab
Jan 25, 2020 · 6 min read

By Maria Isabel Di Franco Quinonez, Digital Investigations Lab Manager, Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley

Venezuelans took to the streets in 2017, some wearing helmets and holding shields to brace for the severe response from the Maduro regime against their calls for greater democracy. Citizens captured the brutality on their cell phones and posted on social media, enabling the world to watch protestors felled by tear gas, water cannons, and bullets.

A year and a half after the protests in Venezuela, a video (see VID 01) depicting protesters being blasted to the ground by high pressure water cannons was circulated on Twitter by @RightWingLawMan. Disturbingly, this tweet wasn’t lamenting the violence in Venezuela, but rather fueling hatred against Central American migrants: “I like watching them get slammed into the ground,” tweeted @LindyWithAWhy, in response to the video. “START SHOOTING,” added @NMLarry1.

Tweet posted by @RightWingLawMan with misattribution of video of the Venezuela protest.

The gross misrepresentation of events exemplified in this tweet came to my attention during my involvement in a research project between the CITRIS Policy Lab and the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley which analyzed thousands of tweets from the top 10 most influential bot and non-bot accounts spreading anti-migrant propaganda on Twitter leading up to the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. A team of students spent 6 weeks analyzing and deconstructing examples of harassment and hate speech from these tweets.

In this case, @RightWingLawMan used this video to mislead his audience and stoke hateful sentiments targeting the migrant caravan traveling to the U.S. border through Mexico. His tweet sought to justify the violence against the protesters in the video, citing federal law and the role of the President as “commander-in chief” and characterized the caravan as “massive” and an “invasion” to invoke violent military force against civilians. Upon analyzing this tweet, I provide evidence of a galling contradiction embedded in the American right wing whose members condemn repressive governments such as Maduro’s as well as the people fleeing these hostile environments.

As a Venezuelan native, I have seen countless videos from the 2017 protests. While combing through anti-migrant tweets for this research, I immediately flagged this video as a possible fake. Using online discovery, reverse image search, and satellite imagery, I was able to reveal the misleading nature of this tweet by verifying and geolocating the video embedded in the tweet.

The shield which is almost ripped out of a protestor’s hands as they are blasted to the ground by the water cannon in seconds 0:08–0:10 is painted with the flag of Venezuela. The use of water cannons and the presence of the Venezuelan flag spurred my initial suspicions of this video of the “caravan invasion.” Since VID 01 is embedded in the tweet, I pulled out keyframes which I then ran through the Yandex reverse image search engine. The search tool led me to an earlier use of the video (VID 02), which had been originally posted on YouTube on May 16, 2017.

Comparison of video embedded in the tweet (VID 01) and same video posted to YouTube in 2017 (VID 02).

Once I discovered that this video was from 2017, and therefore not of the 2018 migrant caravan, my next step was to find its exact location. I found a video (VID 03) which compiled scenes of government repression on the Autopista Francisco Fajardo in Caracas. A minute into the video, specifically at 1:19–1:21, I found a scene that appeared to match VID 01 and Vid 02. VID 03 was clear enough to see a road sign that helped to confirm the location. A side-by-side comparison of the two scenes yielded clues for geolocation.

Comparison of geographic features present in VID 02 and VID 03 & Google Earth street view

The location of the freeway, the road sign and the distinctive building with the white border (Torre Luxor) allowed me to find the exact coordinates for both VID 01 and VID 03 and confirm that the video used in @RightWingLawMan’s tweet is from the Autopista Francisco Fajardo in Caracas, Venezuela (coordinates: 10.29.13.59, -66.51.56.50) and was taken in 2017 during the widespread protests. Below is a map with pins placed on the relevant locations.

Map showing geo-location of distinctive structures identified in the videos

@RightWingLawMan’s misattribution of the video of the Venezuela protest not only promotes the fear of migrants, the post encourages and celebrates violence against them. This tweet has over 1,000 likes, over 900 retweets and nearly 200 replies. “Awe, & I had to pay to bring my daughters to water parks when they were kids… #FreeWaterParks #CaravanInvasion #WalkAway,” responded @Jasmine_Jewels. “Is this actually happening now?? I pray so…The last thing we need is more immigrants,” added @Patrici76892729.

Tweets in reply to @RightWingLawMan inciting violence toward migrants.

Common themes featured in reactions include making jokes out of the physical suffering displayed in the video and blatantly encouraging the government to use violent force to stop migrants from entering the United States. Despite having nothing to do with the migrant caravan, this video was used to spread anti-migrant propaganda. The collective response to this tweet reveals the severity of anti-migrant sentiment in some communities leading up to the 2018 midterm elections. By making it seem as though horrific government repression is already being used against the migrants, the tweets normalize excessive violence.

What is particularly troubling about this tweet is the inconsistency it reveals between the position of the U.S. right wing on the Venezuelan crisis and their utter disregard for people fleeing crises in countries across Latin America.

Tweet from President Donald Trump expressing support for Venezuelans.

“We cannot stand by and watch,” said Donald Trump in reference to Maduro’s attacks on pro-democracy protesters. Nobody rushes to condemn the Maduro regime’s use of violence against protestors in Venezuela quite like the American right wing.

“The Venezuelan people are starving and their country is collapsing. Their democratic institutions are being destroyed. This situation is completely unacceptable and we cannot stand by and watch.”

- Donald J. Trump, 2017

How can the same people who categorically condemn the Maduro regime’s violence against its own people circulate a video of said violence as anti-migrant propaganda? To further deepen this moral contradiction, think of the thousands of Venezuelans fleeing to the United States to escape government persecution. Should they be met with water cannons at the U.S. border?

The dissonance between the position of U.S. conservatives in “support” of the people of Venezuela and their opposition to supporting migrants who flee such crises — as illuminated by the use of VID 01 in @RightWingLawMan’s tweet — is jarring and should be challenged for its hypocrisy. Their outspoken condemnation of governments like Maduro’s is not enough; it is merely step one. Now it’s time to walk the walk.

This piece is co-published with the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley (here) and co-edited by Maryam Khan, Andrea Lampros, Gisela Perez de Acha, and Brandie Nonnecke.

The CITRIS Policy Lab, headquartered at CITRIS and the Banatao Institute at UC Berkeley, supports interdisciplinary research, education, and thought leadership to address core questions regarding the role of formal and informal regulation in promoting innovation and amplifying its positive effects on society.

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CITRIS Policy Lab

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The CITRIS Policy Lab supports interdisciplinary tech policy research and engagement in the interest of society. citrispolicylab.org

CITRISPolicyLab

TECHNOLOGY POLICY RESEARCH & ENGAGEMENT IN THE INTEREST OF SOCIETY

CITRIS Policy Lab

Written by

The CITRIS Policy Lab supports interdisciplinary tech policy research and engagement in the interest of society. citrispolicylab.org

CITRISPolicyLab

TECHNOLOGY POLICY RESEARCH & ENGAGEMENT IN THE INTEREST OF SOCIETY

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