Anti-immigration groups have been “employing highly effective and consistent visual styles, messaging format and narrative strategy” in videos posted to YouTube in their effort to convince viewers to adopt more hardline beliefs, as a new report lays out.
Conducted by the immigration advocacy non-profit Define American, the study titled “Immigration Will Destroy Us & Other Talking Points: Uncovering the Tactics of Anti-Immigration Messaging on YouTube” hopes to serve as a wake-up call to pro-immigration advocates as to the methods used by nativists in swaying discussions around immigration policy. The report also outlines what makes anti-immigration messaging so effective, at least in video format, while encouraging pro-immigration groups to adopt similar techniques in their messaging to the public.
“We set out to discover how extreme narratives online were shaping public perception of immigrants offline as well,” write the authors of the report. “What does narrative advocacy look like in the digital space, where the gatekeepers are diffuse, and the editorial standards for social media are all but non-existent? There is an urgent need for a better understanding of how anti-immigration narratives succeed online, if we hope to develop the advocacy tools to fight back.”
The report begins by looking at the “Moveable Middle,” the tens of millions of Americans who are neither strongly for nor against immigration. “Reaching this audience is critical for shifting the rhetoric and politics around immigration in the United States,” the authors write.
The report cites a 2018 study conducted by the Norman Lear Center and futurePerfect lab which showed that those who remain undecided on the issue of immigration make up roughly 18 percent of population. The undecided also tend to be whiter (70 percent) and less Latino (seven percent) than the general population.
Sixty percent of viewers in swing states watch videos on YouTube at least a few times per week, according to the report, with almost a third of those watching YouTube on a daily basis. The numbers are much higher for viewers aged 18 to 34, 83 percent of whom watch YouTube a few times per week, with 56 percent watching daily and 44 percent of those watching multiple times a day.
While the fact that young people watch an inordinate amount of YouTube videos on a regular basis may not be much cause for concern by now, what worries the authors of the report is that 25 percent of viewers aged 18 to 34 said they changed their beliefs on immigration after watching a video on YouTube—a higher percentage than the 19 percent of those of all ages who said the same.
Sixty-three percent of all viewers in swing states said they spoke with friends or family members about immigration after watching a YouTube video, 28 percent spoke with a political representative of some kind, and 21 percent actually changed their vote for a candidate.
In studying the methods used in anti-immigration videos themselves, the researchers looked at the 23 most popular anti-immigration videos on YouTube as of November 2021, with upload dates spanning 13 years (2007 to 2020) and over 100 million views combined on YouTube alone.
The videos share a common narrative, the so-called “Great Replacement Theory,” which dates back to French nationalist literature of the 1890s and warns that “non-white foreigners will migrate en masse to white, Western nations, overwhelm these economies, and bring about the collapse of Western civilization.”
“Current U.S. supporters of the Great Replacement Theory rely on census data that show America moving towards more racial plurality as evidence for their argument,” the report explains. “White nationalists then justify anti-immigration rhetoric as a form of self-defense, since the ultimate result of the Great Replacement is believed to be a ‘genocide’ of white people. In 2019, both the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51, and in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 21, were inspired by the Great Replacement Theory.”
The use of the Great Replacement Theory in anti-immigration videos paints strict immigration policy as a common-sense defense against the threats to Western civilization posed by the, as is implied, uncivilized masses from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
Two groups are especially targeted by the anti-immigration videos studied in the report—which together are dubbed the “Great Replacement Network,” or “GRN” for short. The two main boogeymen of the GRN are the undocumented Latino immigrant and the legal Muslim immigrant.
Negative stereotypes are deployed against both groups. GRN videos about undocumented immigrants often portray them as drug-smuggling, crime-committing, job-stealing, freeloading Latinos, while the videos against legal immigration often warn of anti-Western, woman-hating, terrorist-supporting Muslims. Thus, the Great Replacement Network presents immigration, both legal and illegal, as a threat to the United States.
The report also looks at other features that the videos share in common, including animation styles and the authority of the presenter. Researchers found a semi-realistic animation style, for instance, to be the most effective, and that, for the Moveable Middle, highly-credentialed professors and journalists are “only slightly more trustworthy than someone with absolutely no credentials.”
Before recommending ways in which pro-immigration groups might borrow the methods used by anti-immigration videos to produce their own messaging, the authors end with a discussion on disinformation and other deceptive strategies used by the GRN.
In one glaring example, Prager University, which produced eight of the top 23 anti-immigration YouTube videos of the past 15 years and “is not an academic institution,” uses “the word ‘university’ in its name” to give the impression “that the right-wing messaging they spread is factually correct and expert-driven.”
“According to their bi-annual report, PragerU’s 2021 budget was $50 million,” the authors note. “In that year alone, their content was viewed over 5 billion times.”
In other cases, anti-immigration videos utilize partial data, half-truths, and outright lies to make their point.
“By manipulating demographic data to support their claims, these videos spread misinformation about immigration policy,” the authors write. “GRN creators suggest that pro-immigration advocates have not considered practical concerns, but those on the anti-immigration side have the intelligence and courage to see things logically.”
The report provides a firm definition of the differences between misinformation, disinformation, and malformation.
“While mis- and disinformation are commonly discussed around the spread of harmful digital content, malinformation is the tactic most commonly seen in GRN videos. Malinformation contains kernels of truth, but the messengers of the information manipulate data to mislead their audiences into unsupported conclusions,” the authors explain.
“The findings in this report are symptomatic of the information crisis of our time,” Shauna Siggelkow, director of digital storytelling at Define American and one of the authors of the report, told Latino Rebels. “As trust in traditional legacy news media has waned, consumers are looking to other sources for their information, including YouTube. Unlike in journalism, creators and platforms aren’t held to journalistic editorial or ethical standards, and the result has been a crisis of mis- and disinformation.”
While highlighting the work being done to make social media companies like YouTube and others more accountable for the information and messages shared on their platforms, and though Define America is engaged in that work as well, Siggelkow says that was not the focus of this study.
“We know that it may be impossible to fully de-platform something as complex and nuanced as a narrative, so we’re hoping to develop content-based strategies to combat this well-funded and prolific anti-immigration machine,” she said. “Our biggest recommendation is for advocates to meet audiences online where they are, and to plan strategies that utilize influencer networks that take account of pre-existing digital landscapes.”
“The moment I told my specific story about being an undocumented immigrant, Define American was born,” founder Jose Antonio Vargas told Latino Rebels. “From the very beginning, our goal was to use specific, authentic, complex stories to fight the often reductive, inaccurate, dehumanizing anti-immigrant narratives in the news media.”
Describing himself as “a journalist by training” —“I grew up in newsrooms”— Vargas explains that Define American began with a focus on how traditional media “reported on and contextualized immigrants, specifically undocumented immigrants.” Ten years in, he says, Define American has “become more strategic, more comprehensive, and more research-driven in our media-centric approach.”
In adapting to “a fractured media ecosystem that mirrors our divided country,” Define American has added “an entertainment media pillar that consults on TV shows and films” —to go along with its initial news-media arm— as well as a new digital-storytelling arm.
“This report marks the first public-facing project coming from our new digital storytelling department, which is dedicated to shifting the narrative about immigration in digital spaces,” Vargas explained. “With this report, we are sending a big signal that understanding the landscape of anti-immigrant narratives online is critical, and we’re looking forward to expanding this work in the years to come.”