Every action of the Trump administration is refracted through my Facebook feed in a torrent of righteous outrage. I became aware of the notorious travel ban via a host of articles posted onto my timeline, each accompanied by a horrified preface reflecting the link-sharers’ shock. The same was true of this week’s scandal involving now former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
Social media allows us to discover and absorb news faster than ever before, and share insights – some profound, many banal – near instantly with our respective networks. But we also know this transmission mechanism can be hijacked to spread misinformation: and not only in the form of “fake news” from dubious conservative sources. Anti-Trump activists, on hair-trigger alert for the administration’s expected evils, have also misled one another in their zeal to fight his agenda.
This was true over the weekend as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents swept New York City on the hunt for undocumented immigrants. Reports of the agents’ movements saturated my social media feeds – and probably many of yours, too.
It soon became clear, though, that few of the reports were genuine. Claimed ICE raids in Jackson Heights, Corona, and Manhattan relayed by Facebook warriors were later disproved by community organizations Make the Road New York (MRNY) and Desis Rising Up and Moving (Drum). MRNY urged followers not to share unconfirmed information online and instead call the Immigrant Defense Project if they suspected something.
Drum went further and warned users that sharing false reports was harmful:
“Spreading such [unconfirmed] reports online without precision is causing more damage than helping people,” the group wrote on its Facebook page.
“Those of us from and dealing with impacted communities are seeing the damage being caused,” it added.
Unconfirmed reports tempt activists into rash, unplanned actions in places where ICE may not even be present. This deprives well-informed organizations such as Drum and MRNY of the human resources they need to make more effective interventions. Worse, if these spontaneous protests result in arrests, the activist base can be depleted permanently.
Drum later posted guidelines on best practice for sharing information of ICE activities online. These include common sense measures such as verifying witnessed raids with photos and video, and posting these with exact times and locations, as well as the names of the law enforcement agencies involved.
The organization also recommended that concerned users reach out directly to organizations that are trained in immigrant community outreach when they encounter ICE, to dissuade untrained activists – alerted to raids through Facebook – from engaging with ICE officers, and risking arrest and potential criminal charges.
The threat posed by ICE to undocumented immigrants is real. There were a confirmed 40 arrests last weekend by agents in New York City alone. However the threat to Anti-ICE activists, and the causes they fight for, posed by misinformation, is real too.
Emotions are running high. Concerned New Yorkers are desperate to take action – any action – to protect their immigrant friends and neighbors. Striking out at ICE may be a proportionate response. But doing so without the proper information and preparation will always cause more harm than good. Activists cannot afford to succumb to their own brand of fake news – the stakes are just too high.