With news spreading of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents conducting raids in cities across the U.S. in the past two weeks, people are turning to social media to figure out what’s going on in their area. But what they’re getting frequently turns out to be bad information.
It’s not all Facebook and Twitter’s fault, but it does show how these social networks are powerful distributors of rumor, which is affecting the work of both immigration activists and law enforcement.
Since President Trump issued his Jan. 25 executive order on immigration, ICE has conducted raids on undocumented immigrants in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, and several other cities, arresting hundreds of people. A leaked DHS document said that about 40 were arrested in New York City alone over the past week. But plenty of unconfirmed reports of ICE activity are also showing up everywhere from the San Francisco Bay Area to Chicago to New York City. For example, a Facebook post circulating this week around Oakland, Calif., advised people that there were “checkpoints reported at Richmond Costco, West Oakland BART, Contra Costa College, and San Carlos Home Depot RIGHT NOW.”
Another viral rumor that hasn’t been confirmed but has picked up steam on Facebook and Twitter in the New York City area this week, warned about a reported ICE checkpoint in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Speaking to local press on Tuesday, ICE officials said there were no Bay Area roundups in progress, and that they don’t use such checkpoints. Thanu Yakupitiyage, a spokeswoman for the New York Immigration Council, told VICE News that her organization was “trying to verify” the Flatbush rumor.
Similarly in Chicago and Southern California, local officials denied widespread rumors that they were cooperating with ICE officials to arrest undocumented immigrants. Representatives for ICE did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Yakupitiyage said that the activists are struggling to keep up with the number of reports.
“It makes our jobs difficult in that we are trying to verify rumors and at the same time deal with actual cases of ICE arrests,” Yakupitiyage said. “It’s an added component to the work we are doing in order to protect people.”
The rumors extend beyond just bad reports of where ICE raids are happening. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued “an urgent fraud alert” on Wednesday afternoon, “warning immigrant communities of potential scams in light of recent reports that fraudsters have been posing as [ICE] agents[…] and demanding money in order to avoid deportation.”
Yakupitiyage and others lay a lot of blame for the spread of the rumors at the feet of ICE and the Trump administration’s January 25 executive order targeting undocumented immigrants in American cities. She said that because “ICE is ramping up enforcement activities, we completely understand why people are afraid.”
Speaking to the press Thursday morning, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that ICE has turned down Democratic members’ requests to meet with the agency to learn how the agency is enforcing the order, which rolled back Obama-era policies that ordered ICE agents to use discretion and only target people with criminal records. With his recent executive order, Trump has essentially made any person who entered the country without authorization a target for deportation.
“It’s a lethal combination of vague and overly broad executive orders, number one, and number two, the speed of information-sharing now with social media ultimately results in mass hysteria,” said Maurice Goldman, an immigration attorney in Tucson. “That’s what happened with the Muslim ban, it’s what happened with this order. It’s frustrating, because if you’re going to put orders out that are this overly broad and vague, you’re going to wind up with results like this.”
It’s not clear how social media companies are monitoring or advising users on how to keep track of rumors about ICE enforcement activity. When asked about rumors on Facebook, the company said in a statement that it “strongly disapproves of any effort by law enforcement to force people to turn over their private communications.” A representative for Twitter declined a request for comment.
Asked how people should respond to reports on social media about local ICE activity, Yakupitiyage said they should “call an immigration organization and ask them to verify it, as opposed to spreading it on Facebook.”
By sharing such posts, Yakupitiyage said, “what you are also doing is adding to the already existing fear and anxiety in these communities, and it could be harmful to an immigrant who is impacted by ICE enforcement activities.”