The Industry

How Conservative Videos on Facebook Boosted Trump’s Message on Immigration

Right-wing content about the border was viral magic—until the president backed down on child separation.

White House Brief host Jon Miller
White House Brief host Jon Miller Facebook

On Friday, June 15, the day after reports began to surface about the former Walmart that had been retrofitted into a private shelter for teenage boys apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, and as public outrage over the Trump administration policy of separating undocumented families began to swell, President Trump’s official page on Facebook posted a video in which he told his millions of followers that “the Democrats are forcing the break up of families at the border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda” and that the separation policy is “a Democrat bill.” That video racked up more than 751,000 views—and it set the tone for the next five days among Trump’s most ardent defenders posting videos on Facebook.

Your personal Facebook bubble doesn’t need to lean right for you to know that the social network is home to a vast pro-Trump media machine, where accounts from nominally journalistic organizations, well-funded advocacy groups, and more homespun video operations defend the policies of the Trump administration almost in lockstep with its message, pumping out content in the hopes of it being shared on the platform as widely as possible. The pace of news, in which nearly every day seems to produce a crisis or conflagration, can make the cohesion of these missives feel impressive in its way—at least when the news isn’t so fast and whiplashing, as it was this past week, that Trump’s online defenders can’t keep up.

By the morning of Monday, June 18, the Trump Facebook machine was revving. A Facebook Watch program called White House Brief, a product of the Conservative Review’s video arm CRTV, posted an 8-minute video that has since garnered 13.8 million views titled “Don’t Want Families Separated? Close the Border!” in which anchor Jon Miller argued that anyone who breaks the law, like undocumented immigrants, has to be punished. In another video on Monday that attracted millions of views, from the right-wing Daily Caller’s Facebook Watch show American Voices, host Stephanie Hamill incorrectly explained that “there is no Trump policy of separating families at the border” and that the separation was happening because of a Clinton-era court ruling. That’s deeply misleading, as my colleague Mark Joseph-Stern explained, but the video still notched 2.2 million views, with thousands of commenters chiming in in support of the administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy. For its part, the White House continued to blame the Democrats on the president’s Facebook page that Monday, saying that Democrats had forced the family separation law on the country and that it was up to Congress to fix it. The caption read, “Why don’t the Democrats give us the votes to fix the world’s worst immigration laws?”

Let’s take it day by day. On Tuesday, as public outrage over Trump’s family separation at the border continued to boil, a video from MRCTV anchor Brittany Hughes, a popular conservative personality on Facebook, started making the rounds. (MRCTV is the online video arm of the Media Research Center, a conservative organization that analyzes and disputes mainstream media narratives. That video (1.7 million views and counting) argues that liberals’ concern for the separated children is hypocritical and really about their hated of Donald Trump, since children are killed all the time by gun violence and the U.S. foster system is loaded with kids who can’t find a permanent home. This wasn’t far off from Trump’s own Facebook page, which on Tuesday posted a video with text that read, “Where is the outcry for the killings and crimes being caused by gangs and thugs, including MS-13, coming into our country illegally?” The White House Brief was on the same beat that day, arguing that liberals don’t actually care about kids, citing the lack of outrage over the youth who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border under similar conditions while Obama was president. White House Brief’s video was a blockbuster—more than 6.8 million people have watched it.

Then on Wednesday, Trump TV, the Facebook show that airs on the Donald J. Trump Facebook page and is anchored by Lara Trump (the wife of Eric Trump), aired an episode about the Democrats’ unwillingness to vote for Trump’s wall. That video now has more than 829,000 views. This echoed another video on President Trump’s personal Facebook page that day, a 30-second montage of famous Democrats, like Hillary and Bill Clinton and Sen. Diane Feinstein, making speeches about how important it is for the government to clamp down on illegal immigration, which now counts 2.7 million views. “Just because your child gets across the border, doesn’t mean your child gets to stay,” said Hillary Clinton in the last line of the montage.

But later Wednesday afternoon, Trump threw his media machine for a loop after he signed his executive order signaling an intent to keep families together—something he had previously claimed was out of his hands—even as his administration would continue to enforce zero tolerance, treating undocumented border-crossers as criminals. The White House portrayed the move as the president taking decisive action to ameliorate a humanitarian emergency.

But this time, Trump’s Facebook cheerleading squad didn’t get the memo. On Thursday, the conservative Facebook video news sites that were raking in millions of views either couldn’t keep up with president’s u-turned agenda or decided to try to change the conversation. American Voices, the Daily Caller’s Facebook show, briefly spoke about Trump’s executive order on its Thursday show and warned that liberals would try to use this as an excuse to push the goal post to eventually reach the goal of “unfettered open borders,” but pivoted in the middle of Thursday’s segment to boast about how well the economy is doing under Trump. That video has only clocked 104,000 views. White House Brief also changed topics, choosing instead on Thursday to focus on an elementary school that was being named for former President Obama, which likewise has received 1.1 million views—not bad, but far less than the millions of views it racked up with its videos about immigration.

Trump’s own Facebook page aired a video of a segment of a rally he spoke at Wednesday evening in Duluth, Minnesota, in which the president discussed the importance of keeping the border secure. But after that the videos on Trump’s Facebook page almost entirely pivoted to conversation about Trump’s tax cuts. The Media Research Center had another relatively low-traffic video with host Patrick Hauf saying, incorrectly, that an Associated Press story about immigrant youth being tortured at border facilities had neglected to note many of the abuses happened under President Obama. (The AP explicitly says the incidents reported on happened under Obama and Trump.)

Even when the Trump administration makes a moral and political misstep, as it is widely agreed it did with its child separation policy, its message finds a receptive audience. Partisan content on social media plays no small part in that: If we know anything about Facebook, it’s that people like and share content that flatters their worldview, no matter what the fact-based news is telling them. Most of the time, when the administration and its boosters are on the same page, that message is angry, satisfying, and viral; when the former stumbles, the latter’s shares plummet. But never for long. By the end of the week, Trump was attempting to gin up more antipathy toward migrants by appearing with a group “angel moms” whose children had been killed by undocumented immigrants (and lying about those immigrants in the process). The Daily Caller’s American Voices posted a video titled “’Stop Me In My Tracks’ — Angel Mom Tells Story Of Her Son And How Trump Saved Her Life.” It’s been watched 1.5 million times.