I shouldn’t have to write this, but it has become increasingly clear that I do. People do not understand how sophisticated, modern propaganda works and the nativist disinformation network makes a great example. My hope – probably forlorn – is that if I can make people understand it they might stop being victims of it and other similar efforts, because a lot of its current success depends on social media and the unwitting participation of a wide base of willing dupes.
The modern nativist movement really took off with the involvement of a wealthy opthamologist named John Tanton. In the 1970s Tanton was a leftist who had an obsession with eugenics and limiting population growth, growing out of his concern for maintaining a sustainable environment. He founded chapters of the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood in Michigan and then established the nationwide organization Zero Population Growth which advocates for US funding of abortions and other population control measures in the Third World.
Seeing that he was making limited progress with his population reduction agenda on the left, Tanton began to market it to the other end of the political spectrum as part of an immigration restriction program and began to become increasingly influenced by a nativist and racist ethos, to the point where he was eventually arguing for genocidal race war. To save the world he had to eliminate population and the best way to do that was through white nationalism and elimination of the threat of competing groups. To do this work he established a number of similar groups including the Center for Immigration Studies, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, US English, NumbersUSA, the American Immigration Control Foundation, American Patrol, Californians for Population Stabilization and ProjectUSA.
He populated the boards of these groups with an interlocking pool of like minded investors and notable leaders of the nativist movement. Staff was hired with similar views, many from the extreme right and white nationalist movements, and by the mid-80s they were on their way.
Their technique for disseminating and legitimizing propaganda is simple, borrowed from methods used by the Soviet Union during the cold war. One of their groups produces a “study” using legitimate looking methodology, but usually with muddy or distorted results. Typical techniques used include conflating different immigrant groups, presenting one figure as if it is a similar but significantly different figure, cherry-picking data and straight out fabrication of research.
Once the biased data is established, another of their groups picks it up as source material for another report or article, then others report on that story and treat it as legitimate, distancing it from the original and distorting the interpretation further and further. The ultimate goal is to have an alarming report from one of these tertiary groups picked up and treated as legitimate by the mainstream media who only check the sources one or two deep and assume they are legitimate. Reporters rarely have time to look into numbers and methodology with any depth especially if someone is providing them news ready to use.
This would have had limited success except for the emergence of cable news and then the internet. The demand for stories to fill the 24 hour news cycle made cable news reporters less discerning and less inclined to do research when presented with a ready-made story based on legitimate sounding sources, so they began drawing on these sources. In a few more years the internet made it possible to spread these stories from person to person and sources like FAIR, CIS and NumbersUSA were already established as apparently legitimate sources for data because CNN and FoxNews were using them, so no one thought twice about their legitimacy.
In a second wave of expansion, Tanton-associated individuals got involved with other organizations like Judicial Watch and the Heritage Foundation and found new allies with money to fund their efforts, like the Scaife Foundation and the Mercer Family Foundation. They also began to use their influence through PACs to elect supporters to congress. Tanton operatives started to appear on organization boards and in staff positions and they began to warp the mission of those organizations to serve a nativist agenda. The original Tanton organizations also acted as a kind of reputation-cleaning mill, taking people who got their start on the fringe, giving them a legitimate looking job for a few years and then passing them on to media outlets, congressional staff and think tanks where they would return the favor by using material from Tanton organizations.
By the early 2000s Tanton organizations and influence were pervasive in the immigration debate and they gained more sway with the spread of anti-immigrant paranoia after 9/11. Serious journalists have been using them as sources, though that has declined a bit in recent years. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and other national print media were the first to stop using material from Tanton organizations and CNN has finally followed suit, but right-wing media and local news media where research is less of a priority are still unwitting purveyors of their disinformation.
The cumulative effect of the Tanton Network’s efforts has been to totally skew how immigration is viewed in our nation today. A simple google search on any related topic will bring up scores of articles from Tanton organizations and you may have to go dozens deep to find an article based on other legitimate sources. Confirmation bias is strong in politics these days, but I urge anyone dealing with the immigration issue to consider the sources of the information they are using. There are legitimate looking organizations out there which are pushing extremely deceptive information and if you use them you may be doing the dirty work of people with a very unsavory agenda, including white nationalism and radical population control.