Migrant Misinfo

Border Militias Use Facebook to Spread Migrant Conspiracies

Facebook bans ‘militia communities.’ But it’s hosting an array of militia groups that push misinformation about migrants at the U.S. southern border.

Facebook is allowing self-styled border militia groups to operate on its platform in violation of company policy and spread baseless conspiracy theories about migrants arriving from Mexico, according to a new investigation by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP).

The groups identified by TTP regularly post about conducting border security operations, display weapons, and make references to violence—exhibiting characteristics of “militia communities” that Facebook says it bans. These groups spread an array of misinformation about the situation at the border, ranging from unfounded claims that U.S. border agents are smuggling migrants into the country with the help of Mexican drug cartels to the widely debunked conspiracy theory that billionaire George Soros is financing a migrant “invasion.”

TTP also found border militias drawing on the baseless QAnon conspiracy to claim that migrant children are frequent victims of sex trafficking, despite a lack of evidence for that. (QAnon followers believe the world is run by a “deep state” of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.) Facebook has banned QAnon but is doing nothing to stop this activity.

This investigation is the latest in a series of reports by TTP on how social media is affecting the lives of migrants, exposing them to misinformation, expanding the outreach of human smugglers, creating new opportunities for visa scams, and whipping up anti-migrant sentiment in Mexican communities along the journey north.

Our new findings show that Facebook is creating even more dangers for migrants by hosting armed border militias driven by fringe conspiracies.  

‘Weapon up’

TTP identified a series of migrant-focused border militias on Facebook that, according to Facebook policy, should be banned from the platform. One particularly active Facebook group, Texas Border Patriots, was created in May 2021 and had over 2,600 members as of December.

One of the group’s administrators, Wyatt Watson, has posted about running “recon teams up and down the border” and told followers to “pack a bag, weapon up and be ready to move.” In another post, he wrote that men in Texas should “form skirmish units and turn this trash back.”

In late 2021, Watson and the group’s other admin, William Ray Zavadil, posted links to a GoFundMe page to raise money for a “volunteer border security team.” Zavadil, who said his private security business was looking to help local communities that were “left to fend for themselves,” outlined plans to set up camps along the border and deploy all-terrain vehicles, horses, and K9 dog units to detect migrants.

Members of the Texas Border Patriots make explicit calls for a revolution and speak of violent confrontations. In one June 2022 post, a member wrote:

The only way to do this is a MASSIVE SHOW OF FORCE ON OUR BORDERS!  American citizens have the right to defend our border!  When I say a MASSIVE SHOW OF FORCE, I mean thousands and thousands of American citizens!  Citizens from all over this country, not just border states must come to the port of entry where these Illegals intend to cross and they MUST BE STOPPED!  THIS IS OUR NEW REVOLUTION.

In response, another member chimed in, “Are we talking about killing people to stop it? Because blood will fall on both sides!”

These posts suggest that Texas Border Patriots should be banned under Facebook parent company Meta’s Dangerous Organizations policy. The policy prohibits “militia communities” that “use weapons as a part of their training, communication, or presence,” are “structured or operate as unofficial military or security forces,” and “coordinate in preparation for violence.”

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Despite its apparent violation of Facebook policy, the Texas Border Patriots group operates freely on the platform, frequently spreading misinformation about migrants at the southern border. Group members claim, for example, that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents are aiding human smugglers and even working with Mexican drug cartels to bring migrants into the U.S.

One member posted that CBP and Texas Department of Public Safety agents “are facilitating the smuggling,” adding, “They are no better than the Cartels!!” Watson posted a series of videos on Nov. 2, 2022, purporting to show migrants taking a “coordinated route made possible by collaboration between Border Patrol and Mexican Cartels.” He added, “BP (Border Patrol) does nothing to stop these invaders from illegally crossing this land owners [sic] property … Shame on all these oath breakers who give up their honor and integrity, for a paycheck!”

The claim that Border Patrol agents are helping migrants enter the country illegally appears to be an outgrowth of debunked right-wing allegations that the Biden administration has “dismantled border security” and is “enabling” human trafficking. A Republican lawmaker said in 2021 that “Biden has turned over our border to the cartels,” an unsupported claim that was picked up by a number of conservative media outlets.

Other posts in the Texas Border Patriots group repeat the baseless conspiracy theory that billionaire philanthropist George Soros is financing a migrant “invasion” of the U.S.

In September 2021, one group member, commenting on the influx of Haitian migrants at the border, wrote, “How did they manage to get here in the 1st place? Which Democrat footed the bill?” Another member replied simply, “George Soros.” In another post from June 2022, a member posted a link to a YouTube video about migrants, commenting, “Invasion gets help with buses … Buses no doubt courtesy of UN, Catholic Charities. And George Soros.”

Fact checkers have repeatedly rated as false the assertion that Soros funded migrant caravans traveling to the U.S. border. Soros, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, has become an all-encompassing bogeyman for far-right figures around the world, who falsely blame him all manner of societal ills. The Anti-Defamation League has called the attacks on Soros a “gateway to antisemitism.”

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Repelling ‘invaders’

Members of the Texas Border Patriots group have also claimed that Democratic politicians are bringing migrants to Texas as part of a coordinated effort to artificially shift the demographic makeup of the state.

On April 26, 2022, one member stated, “The only reason the Biden crime family is letting all these illegals in and spreading them all over the country is for them to vote democrats [sic],” prompting a commenter to reply, “[T]his illegal immigrant invasion will reproduce, gain voting status, and completely change the demographic of the soil born citizens to a socialist country unless we as a nation stop it ourselves.”

Such rhetoric echoes the “great replacement theory,” which envisions a plot in the U.S. to replace with white majority with a non-white population, fueled by mass immigration. The racist conspiracy theory has been widely debunked, but it has been embraced by right-wing media figures and reportedly played a role in motivating mass shooters.

Fact checkers have also debunked the idea that there is an “invasion” at the southern border, saying that term doesn’t fit the reality on the ground. But members of the Texas Border Patriots have repeatedly pushed the invasion narrative, with Watson ranting on June 22 last year:

when an Illegal Alien chooses to invade my country at some other report point, with intentions of not being detected by normal and legal means, then I see it as any American’s duty, in the absence of state military or law enforcement, to repel such invaders by any means necessary.

Watson even published a link to GiveSendGo fundraiser for his group with the statement, “Texas is in the midst of an active invasion.” The fundraiser generated at least $5,335, according to the GiveSendGo website.

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It’s not clear if Meta would consider the above examples of misinformation as worthy of removal. The company states that it removes misinformation and unverifiable rumors that its expert partners determine are “are likely to directly contribute to a risk of imminent violence or physical harm to people.” But the company doesn’t provide further detail about its process for this.

Watson serves as the admin for at least three other anti-migrant groups on Facebook: “Texas Two States,” “Texas Lives Matter,” and “Intentional Invasion Documentary,” all of them created in the summer of 2022. He often posts the same content, including calls to protect Texas “at all costs” and fundraising requests, across all four of his groups.

Armed patrols

TTP also found that Samuel Hall, the founder of a Texas border militia called Patriots for America, is using Facebook to promote his group and spread misinformation about migrants. Hall does this through a Facebook profile with a misspelling of his name—“Sanuel Hal”—which appears designed to evade Facebook’s content moderation systems. The profile posts frequent updates on the militia’s activities, including “border ops” and “night operation prep,” with hashtags like #PFAstrong that make it easy for followers to find them. TTP could not find a Facebook page or group for Patriots for America. One follower posted in 2020 that Facebook had taken down its page.

Patriots for America has been identified as a militia by the Southern Poverty Law Center and multiple media reports. Its widely publicized activities, which include patrolling the border with AR-15 style rifles, have prompted complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas, which says the group’s members “embark on their missions in military-style tactical equipment” and “leave migrants with the impression that members of the group are law enforcement.” The Patriots for America website describes one of its core missions as “border security and protecting Texas citizens from dangerous illegal migrants.”

In December 2021, Hall posted a Facebook live “update on the Southern border,” featuring himself and a militia leader named Jeremy Liggett holding rifles next to a section of fence. (Liggett is a one-time Republican congressional candidate in Florida who ran a Florida offshoot of the Three Percenter anti-government militia movement.) On the video, Liggett calls on “patriots” to “start fighting for your country,” while another man says, “You’ve got to get down here, you’ve got to get connected, and you’ve got to make sure because this is the last stand.”

It's not clear why Facebook hasn’t removed these Patriots for America posts, given that the group appears to meet the criteria for banned “militia community” under Meta’s Dangerous Organizations policy.

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Hall has posted several videos of people questioning migrants at the border about the children with them, using the hashtag #SaveOurChildren. In one video posted on April 14, 2022, an unidentified man approaches a group of what appear to be newly arrived migrants and asks them, through a translator, if they are parents to the children with them. The man, who is not shown, says he wants to find out if the children are unaccompanied and describes his organization as dedicated to helping “rescue children out of sex trafficking.”

The suspicions about trafficked children and the use of the #SaveOurChildren hashtag suggest that Patriots for America is one of the growing number of far-right activist groups that—influenced by the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory—claim that migrant children are falling victim to sex traffickers, despite warnings by experts that they haven’t seen evidence of such activity. QAnon is a collection of unfounded claims that the world is controlled by a secret cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles. In early 2022, a post by Hall included the phrase “Where we go one we go all,” a known QAnon slogan—further evidence of his group’s QAnon leanings.

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QAnon, which the FBI has called a domestic terrorism threat, has been linked to multiple acts of violence, including the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Facebook banned QAnon accounts in October 2020 and said it would limit distribution of the #SaveOurChildren hashtag after it was co-opted by QAnon followers.

‘We are at war’

TTP also identified a Facebook group called “VOP and ALLIES,” which is linked to Veterans on Patrol, a Tucson, Arizona-based group that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as an anti-government militia. The Facebook group, which was created in Nov. 2020, includes frequent updates from Veterans on Patrol leader Michael “Lewis Arthur” Meyer, who evidently passes messages to the group’s admin to post for members. For example, on Oct. 12, 2022, a post marked as “From Lewis” sought to recruit members for a three-month “operation.”

VOP and ALLIES members post frequently about their border “operations.” A video posted in February 2021 shows the apparent detention of two migrants in the desert, with an off-camera person going through their belongings as she waits for Border Patrol. In another video, a man who identifies himself as Lewis goes on a 47-minute conspiracy-laden rant, warning, “We are at war,” and making references to violence using Biblical language. (“Sell your Cloak. Buy your Sword. Keep it sharp and at the ready.”) With these posts, VOP and ALLIES appears to meet the definition of a “militia community” that Facebook has promised to ban.

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Like Patriots for America, the VOP and ALLIES group makes dubious claims about sex trafficking of migrant children, drawing apparent inspiration from QAnon.

For example, a May 29, 2022, post in the group sought recruits to fight what it called a “government-funded cartel run child sex trafficking” operation. In a June 1 “border update,” the admin wrote, “Children are being raped, trafficked, and abused while an overwhelming majority of Americans post nonsense all day.” The message was accompanied by a photo of a man who appears to be Lewis holding a handwritten note that reads, “Stop Child Rape.”

The group’s admin also pushed a years-old conspiracy theory advanced by Veterans on Patrol about a child sex trafficking camp in Tucson—which authorities investigated and found no evidence to support. On another occasion, the admin posted photos of a border visit by Ron Watkins, the man suspected of being “Q” in the QAnon conspiracy, and thanked him for “helping to get the word out to get help down here to stop cartel run government funded child sex trafficking.”

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This QAnon-themed misinformation about migrants is consistent with Veterans on Patrol’s on-the-ground activities. According to SPLC, members of the group have collected the personal details of migrants near the Arizona border in order to track children, believing they’re at risk of being sent “to the homes of U.S.-based pedophiles and human traffickers.”

In Nov. 2021, a Veterans on Patrol volunteer named Shawna Martin hosted a personal fundraiser on Facebook, saying she needed money to camp out at the border because “large amounts of children are being trafficked all hours.” Facebook’s personal fundraiser policies state that the feature cannot be used for “militias” and “vigilantism, including support of or engagement in any activity that would normally fall to law enforcement.” (Facebook ended the personal fundraiser feature on Nov. 1, 2022.)

Conclusion

Border militia and vigilante groups have a long history of targeting migrants in the U.S. But Facebook is giving them an unprecedented platform to coordinate their activities—and amplify misinformation and conspiracy theories about migrants.

This activity is taking place on Facebook even though the platform has banned militant social movements and dangerous conspiracy theories like QAnon. Until Facebook does a better job of enforcing the policies it has on the books, it will continue to play host to armed groups that target vulnerable migrant populations.