Angela Angulo
Sep 30, 2017 · 3 min read

Anti-Immigrant Moral Panic in Online Spaces

The demonization of new immigrant groups has been a common occurrence throughout the history of the United States. However, the Internet and social media have given the public sphere, including anti-immigrant groups, a new medium through which they can express and spread their views. In their Information, Communication & Society article, Nadia Yamel Flores-Yeffal, Guadalupe Vidales, and April Plemons use the backlash against the recent incoming waves of Latino immigrants to ask whether and how the internet and online technology have affected the spread and influence of the anti-immigrant movement in the United States.

With moral panic theory as their framework, or the process through which “moral entrepreneurs” create and spread false and/or exaggerated information to promote the idea that a certain social subgroup poses a threat to society, Flores-Yeffal and colleagues discovered evidence of a “Latino cyber-moral panic”.

Their analysis of 60 anti-immigrant websites found that anti-immigrant moral entrepreneurs used derogatory metaphors, manipulated images, and fabricated statistics to raise awareness of the “Latino problem”. The seemingly credible organizations that create these faulty statistical reports often cite documents fabricated by the other two organizations, which helps legitimize their claims to site visitors.

The internet provides a more efficient means to spread the movement’s views and reach a larger audience than traditional media as site visitors reproduce content onto other online forums again and again. Spikes in site visitor traffic and volume, which correlate closely with dates of important events in immigration reform, provide evidence of a moral panic among the anti-immigrant online community. Online moral entrepreneurs then use alarmist reports cited by major news outlets to penetrate mass media and reach an even larger audience in an effort to influence politics.

In addition to the classical stages of moral panic theory (e.g. “awareness”, “moral conversion”, and “full moral panic”) the authors describe how these websites also go through a “call to civil and political action” stage. Visitors to the anti-immigration sites were encouraged to directly participate or contribute to the movement by volunteering to be Minutemen border protectors, reporting undocumented immigrants, participating in rallies, voting for specific congressmen or legislation, or donating money with a click of a button to moral entrepreneur organizations and politicians that would further the movement’s agenda. The revenue accrued from site visitors can then be used to sway politics by funding favorable research, endorsing anti-immigrant politicians, and to lobbying for or against legislation.

Digital Sociology at VCU

The Digital Sociology Magazine is the public-facing community of the digital sociology program in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. We study intersecting inequalities in the digital society.

Thanks to Tressie McMillan Cottom