Tracing False Stories: George Soros and the Migrant Caravan
As rumors and false information surrounding a migrant caravan of 5,000 Central Americans attempting to walk to the United States to seek asylum run rampant on social media, the Human Rights Center’s Disinformation Team is tracking down the origins of these narratives and following their perpetuation into mainstream media.
The rumor that George Soros and other prominent Democrats are funding the caravan has been among the most salient of these narratives. A detailed Medium post by Jonathan Albright of Columbia University’s Digital Forensics Initiative tracks the emergence of this storyline from its origins relating to different caravan in March to its appearance throughout social media channels and the mainstream media today. Our investigation and analysis sheds additional light on recent developments in the narrative.
According to Vox, the caravan began on October 12. Using Twitter Advanced Search, we looked for tweets between October 12 and October 14 to track down the earliest mentions of this rumor. We found the following tweet from October 13, in response to a Fox News article chronicling the caravan’s first couple of days:
In an unrelated thread, another tweet from October 13 also suggested Soros’s involvement in the caravan:
In the following days, posts, tweets, and videos parroting the theory began to pop up all over the web, reaching higher and higher levels of engagement. Our team searched for perpetuation of this message on TweetDeck, filtering for tweets with over 700 retweets in order to track the most widely engaged content. One of the most popular tweets suggesting Soros’s involvement was shared by Florida Republican congressman Matt Gaetz on October 17:
The theory quickly made its way to the mainstream media. On October 20, Jeanine Pirro of Fox News linked Soros to the caravan, saying, “We did not invite you here. You cannot stay here. And on your way out, you can tell the Democrats, George Soros and the angry mob that’s coming here you either come the right way… or be ready to face the military.” On October 22, Texas Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert suggested in a Fox News interview that Soros and other Democrats are funding the caravan. The New York Times, on the other hand, asserted on October 20 that “There is no evidence that George Soros, a billionaire and major Democratic donor, paid thousands of migrants to ‘storm.’”
The following lengthy thread from October 23 details several conspiracy theories about the caravan. I’ve selected a few that mention the Soros narrative as well as an association between the Central American migrants and the Israeli government (tweets #6 and #10 have since been deleted):
Some reports acknowledge doubt about the storyline, even while perpetuating it. An October 22 video clip from Right Wing Watch quotes televangelist Pat Robertson: “The person who has apparently been financing this thing is George Soros. Now, we don’t have hard evidence on that, but that’s the suspicion; that the George Soros foundation has somehow been providing money because somebody has been paying those people off.”
Others, like this clip from October 24, make claims that they have hard evidence for the theory:
The “absolute undeniable proof” that Josh Bernstein gives in this video is not, in fact, absolute or undeniable. He reads from an article linked to Soros’s purported official site, GeorgeSoros.com, in which Soros pledges to invest $500 million in migrants.This article, however, was originally published by the Wall Street Journal in September 2016, and the referenced funds were intended mainly “to help migrants and refugees arriving in Europe.”
Meanwhile, a video posted on Breitbart on Oct 23 shows CNN commentator and former Obama advisor Van Jones saying that it was “much more likely that Donald Trump is paying for [the caravan] than for George Soros to be paying for it,” because “what it does is it gives another talking point to Donald Trump, ‘Look at these invading hordes, etc., etc.’” This comment was construed on conservative social media as evidence that Van Jones is a “psycho”:
Soon, it began to circulate that the FBI had confirmed Soros’s funding of the caravan. According to Snopes, who debunked the claim, the first appearance of this story was in a Facebook post by a user named “Jim Snyder” on October 22:
In the first comment below the post, the user himself notes that it was intentionally incendiary “FAKE NEWS,” created “just to keep the Snowflakes on there [sic] toes”—in other words, as bait to fuel liberal readers’ outrage–but the post regardless went viral and was copied verbatim by dozens of Facebook and Twitter users in the following days.
The next day, Fox News personality Lou Dobbs used his right-wing viewership platform to take a poll on the issue:
Conservative blogger David Harris Jr. tweeted several days later:
The linked article from October 29 claims that the UN admitted it is “aiding the illegal aliens trying to invade our country”:
The only reference to aid that I could find on the United Nations website in the days prior to the above article’s publication on October 29 was an October 26 article stating: “A priority for UNHCR, which has mobilized extra staff and resources to help those making the journey in Mexico’s southern borderlands, is ensuring migrants are informed on their rights to asylum.” The rest of the article details the migrants’ plight, describing the gang violence that forced them out of their hometowns, warning of the treachery of their journey, and emphasizing that migrants need to be informed of their rights. It does not mention Soros or any other US Democrats.
In an October 28 interview on Fox News’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, Chris Farrell of Judicial Watch commented that the caravan is being directed by the “Soros-occupied State Department.” The video has since been taken down from Youtube and Fox News’s website, but this Twitter user shared a clip:
In the following thread, Talking Points editor and publisher @joshtpm, a presumed liberal, links Farrell’s rhetoric to the anti-Semitic “Zionist-occupied government” (or ZOG) conspiracy theory that suggests the US government is controlled by Jews. The mentioned Protocols of the Elders of Zion are a fabricated text published in the early twentieth century, purporting to document Jewish leaders’ plan for global domination. They have been used frequently since their creation to promote fear and anti-Semitism.
Although the statement does not appear on the Fox News or Fox Business websites, CNN, HuffPost, the Washington Post, and the New York Times reported that the Senior Vice President of Fox Business condemned Farrell’s comments and said he would no longer be booked on Fox’s shows. This dismissal was met with pushback from conservative Twitter users:
After the delivery of an unexploded pipe bomb to Soros’s house on October 22 and the fatal shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, the left-leaning public began to suggest that the Soros-funding-caravan theory triggered, or at least contributed to, these demonstrations of anti-Semitism. An October 28 Washington Post article detailed anti-Semitic social media posts made by the perpetrators of both of these crimes.
In the following days, many Twitter users echoed the connection, for example:
Another user (no relation to actor Morgan Freeman) pins the blame on President Trump:
In response, right-leaning figures such as Rep. Louie Gohmert defended the promotion of the Soros theory, saying “it isn’t anti-Semitic to criticize Soros”:
As the November 6 election approached, both sides continued to perpetuate their polar views. On the left, users continue to blame the week’s violent attacks on Republicans, particularly Trump:
On the other end of the spectrum, the images below, posted by user @TakeAStandLeav1 demonstrate some of the most extreme, hyper-partisan content perpetuated on the right. These particular messages have not gained the same viral traction as the content published by Twitter-verified politicians and journalists that we’ve documented, but it’s clear that the often-false, deeply provocative messages spread by prominent figures serve to normalize this type of extreme fearmongering in the fringes of the media.
The disinformation and theory-slinging surrounding this narrative present an example of the rampant hyperpolarization of social media and the mainstream news in the lead-up to the midterm elections. We hope that our coverage can provide a more balanced, nuanced, and fact-based perspective on this issue and others.
Be on the lookout for more investigations by the Human Rights Center’s Disinformation Team to help combat the disinformation surrounding political discourse and human rights.
The Human Rights Investigations Lab is a part of the Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley School of Law. To learn more about HRC or the Lab, click here.