How a lie about George Soros and the migrant caravan multiplied online

Nov 02, 2018, 05:06 PM

USA Today

This is the life of a lie.

Three weeks ago, a caravan of Hondurans began walking nearly 2,000 miles to the United States. Their ranks grew as they inched north and, along with them, falsehoods grew, too. But one stands out: a conspiracy theory that liberal billionaire George Soros, a Jewish immigrant, is paying the migrants to make the journey – or even orchestrating it.

Members of Congress and the president’s son both repeated it. Conservative celebrities, too.

It also may have resonated in darker places. Cesar Sayoc, the man charged with mailing pipe bombs to Soros and other prominent critics of President Donald Trump, dwelled at length online about conspiracy theories involving the Hungarian-American philanthropist. Robert Bowers, charged with killing 11 people worshiping in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, used his social media accounts to post extensively about the caravan, including circulating an image of refugees in Guatemala purportedly climbing into a truck with a Star of David on the side.

But it began with a handful of posts in the caravan’s early days.

One of the first was from a North Carolina writer who goes by the screen name “lorettatheprole.” Loretta Malakie has more than 6,000 followers on Twitter, to whom she directs frequent posts about “white genocide,” Jews and the “invading force” approaching the border.

On Oct. 14, Malakie posted a link to an article about the caravan, with a single word of commentary: “Soros.”

That same day, identical posts appeared over the course of 20 minutes in six pro-Trump Facebook groups. Combined, those six groups had 165,000 members. A user who gave the name Philip Balzano, a Trump supporter from Chicago, wrote to the Trump Train group: “Here Comes ANOTHER Group of Paid for New Demoncratic Voters Just in Time for the Primaries... The Financier aka ‘Win at All Costs’ ‘Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste’ the Evil George Soros and His 140+ Orgs, Should Be Classified as Terrorist and Terrorist Orgs.”

Malakie declined to comment, though on Twitter she panned the USA TODAY reporter who called her as “evil.” Balzano did not respond to an interview request sent through Facebook.

The Soros theory was not new – it had made the rounds during previous caravans in the spring and again in August. In fact, one Facebook user posting in October provided as evidence a video of Glenn Beck discussing the spring caravan’s alleged connections to Soros.

This time, though, the theory snowballed, gaining political purchase as the caravan became a flashpoint in the final weeks of a contentious midterm campaign.

“It’s really significant how these memes can go from feverswamp-ish places to be amplified by lawmakers, even the president," said David Carroll, associate professor at The New School's Parsons School of Design in New York. “From there, the impact on world events can’t be underestimated.”

Lies, of course, are not new either. But social media can turn a breeze into a hurricane. It carried this falsehood to millions with a few taps on a screen. It also left a distinct trail that makes it possible to follow how lies spread and who told them, a map of their trajectory from the darker corners of the internet to the political mainstream.

USA TODAY followed that path by examining tens of thousands of social media posts on three major mainstream social media sites: Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.

Over the next three days, a few louder social media voices weighed in. By Oct. 16 – four days after the caravan departed – the combined following of accounts mentioning both Soros and the caravan had reached 2 million, still a pebble in the flood tide of social media. (The total includes some duplicates because people follow more than one account.)

On Twitter, someone with the username “LibertyBell1000” warned about 42,000 followers that Soros had “manufactured yet another immigrant caravan ‘crisis.’ ” Another, using the name “WhoWolfe,” asked “Anybody else think Soros and t...