Entering the U.S. illegally from Mexico has become increasingly hazardous for migrants due to scammers flooding social media with misinformation and false hope, according to a study by a technology industry watchdog group.
The Tech Transparency Project interviewed 200 U.S.-bound migrants south of the border about the source and reliability of the information they used during their journeys northward. Most reported being misled by online sources that downplayed dangers along the route and at the border and about the potential legal consequences once reaching the U.S. Many reported using social media to hire guides, also known as “coyotes,” only to be betrayed by them along the way.
“For migrants making the precarious journey to the United States, acting on misinformation had devastating consequences,” the study said. “Participants in this study told interviewers harrowing stories of being deported, abandoned in dangerous terrain, or robbed of their life savings.”
The nonprofit group added that research into the role of social media outlets on immigration has become time critical: “The recent discovery of a truck carrying the bodies of 46 dead migrants in San Antonio underscores how important it is that migrants have access to reliable information in order to make safe, informed decisions about their journey.”
The survey describes Facebook and WhatsApp as the social media outlets most used by migrants to plan and embark on journeys to the United States. And it claims Meta, the owner of both apps, is doing little to remove disinformation from the sites. The survey claims Meta “has done little to stop dangerous misinformation targeting (migrants).”
In response to numerous critics, the company told The New York Times in 2021 that it works to remove such content as quickly as possible: “People-smuggling across international borders is illegal, and ads, posts, pages or groups that provide, facilitate or coordinate this activity are not allowed on Facebook. We remove this content as soon as we become aware of it.”
But whatever the quality of information, Facebook and WhatsApp remain the go-to social media outlets for migrants seeking better lives in the U.S., the survey found.
When asked how they obtained information about migration, their journeys, conditions along the way and conditions in the United States, 159 of the 200 migrants interviewed said “word of mouth,” while 113 cited Facebook, 35 cited newspapers, 21 cited television and 14 cited WhatsApp. Multiple answers were accepted.
“Migrants told interviewers that information posted on Facebook was ‘the most real’ and that it reflected the experiences of people who had migrated to the U.S.,” Tech Transparency reported. “WhatsApp was also popular with migrants because they perceive it as direct communication with people who have personal knowledge about migrating to the U.S. But the popularity of these platforms also makes them targets for scammers seeking to defraud migrants by infiltrating group accounts.”
Some respondents said contacts reached through Facebook accounts promised safe passage and took their money but turned them into U.S. authorities once across the border. Other migrants were fleeced without ever making it out of Mexico.
“Take the Facebook account for ‘Alejandra Utis, which advertises coyote services using a profile picture stolen from a travel blogger named Mariel Galán. The ads use stock photos for leisure travel to avoid detection but make references to the American dream and the amount of time that travelers will be required to walk — revealing that ‘Alejandra’ isn’t advertising vacations,” according to the report.
“In another likely scam, a post promoting a widely advertised and since-deleted document-forging account used the logos of Mexican government agencies, in a move seemingly intended to trick migrants seeking government assistance into paying the forger instead.”
The project also uncovered misleading or false posts painting unrealistic conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border, including naming ports of entry supposedly exempt from deportations by American authorities or where pregnant women or those traveling with children would be granted entry.
“It is unclear whether these posts reflect intentional disinformation or simply unwitting misunderstandings, but the effect of these messages — a widespread belief that entry to the U.S. is easier than it is — is the same.”
Geography along the route and at the border often is portrayed as much less challenging than the reality, the report added. “In a recent post in a Facebook group for migrants attempting to cross the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass in central Texas, an administrator posted a photo taken from an angle that makes it appear as if the riverbed is completely dry. The same image appeared in a WhatsApp group. In fact, historical data from the U.S. Geological Survey shows water levels nearing three feet deep on the day of the post and during the week prior.”
U.S. immigration laws also are often misrepresented or misunderstood in social media posts attempting to lure migrants.
“On WhatsApp, a cropped image of a news story about Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s immigration policies created the false impression that Texas was no longer deporting migrants,” researchers found. “On Facebook, a poster was told that they would be allowed to enter the U.S. with their children during May and June because Title 42, a policy of immediately expelling migrants on public health grounds first invoked by the Trump administration at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, was set to be repealed.”
Title 42 remains in effect by federal court order.
But the survey also found Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media outlets providing help to migrants, Tech Transparency added.
“To be sure, migrants and their advocates also use tech platforms to dispel misinformation and raise awareness of helpful resources. HIAS Mexico, a branch of the international aid NGO Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, frequently runs Facebook posts urging migrants to avoid common scams and rumors, including misinformation surrounding pregnancy exceptions,” the report said. “Several migrants in shelters along the U.S.-Mexico border told our interviewers they had used Facebook to connect with reputable NGOs or government agencies that assist migrants attempting to navigate complex immigration laws.”
The survey noted that migrants often are aware that social media is rife with scams but still take the risk to escape the poverty and violence of their home countries.
“Many migrants expressed frustration that it was impossible to discern fact from misinformation online. One respondent told an interviewer that ‘everyone lies or manipulates information.’ But many also told us they feel that they have no choice but to trust what they read and hear.”
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