(CNN) — Human smugglers often misrepresent immigration policies and conditions along the US-Mexico border in Facebook and WhatsApp posts targeting migrants heading to the United States, according to a report published Wednesday by a technological transparency group.

Since taking office, President Joe Biden has faced an unprecedented number of migrants arriving at the US southern border amid worsening conditions across the Western Hemisphere. But while top administration officials repeatedly warn people not to travel north, they’re also up against a multibillion-dollar smuggling industry that sells misinformation to migrants.

In your new reportthe Technology Transparency Project found that migrants relied primarily on word of mouth and online platforms for route information to the United States, which was often misleading.

“Misinformation has led people in the region to think that it is much easier to enter the United States than it really is,” said Katie Paul, director of the Technology Transparency Project. Migrants are aware of the risks and deception on the platforms, Paul noted, but their volume makes it harder to decipher what is true.

Posts on Facebook and WhatsApp, which are included in the report, claim that border authorities let pregnant women into the US, show favorable conditions for crossing the border by misrepresenting the state of the rivers they will have to cross. pass migrants and offer false documents.

“Some of the misinformation posted online about environmental conditions seemed to influence respondents’ decision-making about their own migration attempts,” states the report, which includes interviews with migrants.

Migrants interviewed in a survey who provided some of the messages said they were aware of misinformation being spread and the risks that accompanied it, according to testimonies included in the report.

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“What smugglers do is infiltrate these online communities. They will provide information — very often fabricated — that there is an opportunity to get into the United States,” said John Cohen, who was previously temporary chief of the intelligence division of the Department of National security.

“They will seek to organize large groups of migrants who will then travel to the southern border and show up en masse,” Cohen added, referring to the smugglers.

Last month, the Biden administration also launched an “unprecedented” operation to disrupt human smuggling networks. The operation included the deployment of hundreds of troops throughout Latin America and a multi-million dollar investment. Between April 1 and July 22, authorities detained 3,533 people associated with human smuggling networks and conducted 262 raids, including hideouts, tractor trailers, and railroad cars and compartments, according to the Department. of National Security.

The Biden administration continues to rely on a Trump-era public health rule, known as Title 42, that allows authorities to turn away migrants at the US-Mexico border. The administration tried to end the authority, but was prevented from doing so by a lower court, causing confusion among the migrants.

migrant identification

Asylum-seeking migrants, mostly from Venezuela and Cuba, wait to be transported by US Customs and Border Protection agents after crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States from Mexico in Eagle Pass, Texas, 14 December. July 2022.

The continued circulation of misinformation poses a major challenge to the Biden administration as it tries to stem the flow of irregular migration. Human smuggling can also pose serious dangers. Last month, 53 migrants died after being transported in a semitrailer in sweltering heat in what authorities called the “worst human smuggling incident in the United States.”

National Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will travel this week to Honduras, where human trafficking is expected to be a topic of discussion between the secretary and top officials.

What the migrants told

Wednesday’s report is the first in a series by the Tech Transparency Project on the influence of social media on migrants. The group’s interviewers met with the migrants in Guatemala, where they were beginning their journey north, and along the border.

Interviewers asked migrants to name the social media accounts, pages or groups they followed, and analysts subsequently reviewed those sources, the report said.

Of the 200 migrants interviewed, many said they received information about migration and travel to the southern border of the United States through word of mouth and platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp.

Posts sometimes resemble travel advertisements, listing a host of services and guarantees or promising easy travel. Most of the pages use descriptors like “coyote”, a term commonly used for human smugglers, to indicate the service being offered.

Pages are also sometimes classified as “travel company” or “product/service”. According to the report, smugglers also advertise in local buy-sell groups, where the ads appear alongside posts about motorcycles and furniture.

Facebook’s policy prohibits content that “offers or facilitates human smuggling.”

A spokesperson for Meta said the platform removes misinformation when flagged by experts and highlighted efforts to verify the information. The spokesperson also noted that WhatsApp, which is an encrypted messaging service, relies on users to report misinformation.

Migrants who arrived at the Arizona-Mexico border described in interviews with CNN the treacherous conditions of their journey to the southern border of the United States. A Peruvian migrant who traveled with his family, including his two-year-old daughter, told CNN that he felt cheated by the smugglers, adding that the journey was more difficult than anticipated. He and his family paid US$800 just to cross the river into the United States.

A Colombian immigrant also shared the challenges of reaching the United States. He had paid a smuggler $16,000 for the trip.

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a George Mason University professor who studies human trafficking, said smuggling fees can range from $3,000 to $20,000, depending on the circumstances. But in general, migrants will have to pay a fee to cross the border between Mexico and the United States.

“Most of them need a smuggler sooner or later,” Correa-Cabrera said. “Most pay the smuggler at the border. Some pay different smuggling networks along the route.”

An added challenge to deciphering misinformation spread on online platforms about migration to the United States is determining who is spreading it, Correa-Cabrera said, adding that migrants could share the misinformation they have heard with other migrants.

The State Department has posted announcements and messages on social media to dispel misinformation. “We amplify these messages through television, radio and print media stories generated through interviews with United States Government spokespersons in Washington DC and at our embassies abroad,” said a Department of Defense spokesperson. Status in a statement.

“We also continually spread those messages through social media in Mexico, Central America, and other high-emigration countries in the Western Hemisphere, including, in many countries, through the use of paid social media boosting,” the spokesperson added. .

The US Customs and Border Protection Service also launched a digital advertising campaign in May to discourage immigrants from traveling north. The initial two-month advertising campaign aimed to reach immigrants on social media and other digital platforms.

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