On any given day, you won’t need to read or watch the news for long before coming across an article or story about immigration in the U.S. It’s one of the most divisive topics in American politics, yet it’s also one of the least understood. This is because U.S. immigration policy is complex and changes frequently, but more so because the narratives in the media have been fueled by concerted efforts to spread anti-immigrant bias under the guise of factual reporting.

According to the Pew Research Center, immigrants made up 13.7% of the total U.S. population in 2020. Accounting for more than 44 million people across the country, immigrants are deeply connected to the foundation of our society. They represent more than just the common stereotype of unskilled laborers — immigrants in the U.S. are friends, family members, co-workers, business owners, and taxpayers who are making our country stronger and more resilient. Yet, the topic of immigration is routinely framed as a policy problem rather than an issue that affects ordinary people. Historically, the primary goal of the pro-immigrant movement has been to enact comprehensive immigration reform. However, this has provided the opportunity for anti-immigrant groups to wage a largely uncontested culture war, defining what it means to be “American” and determining who does and does not belong.

A 2018 Data & Society study of YouTube revealed the existence of an “alternative influencer network” utilizing the platform as a breeding ground for white supremacist radicalization by subtly exposing casual viewers to more and more alt-right extremist content. This network was and continues to be fueled by the four largest national anti-immigrant organizations — NumbersUSA, Center for Immigration Studies, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and US Inc. Despite most of these organizations being labeled as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for their strong ties to white nationalism, they have produced biased content and reports that have been shared by credible news outlets. Often, these are later debunked or proved to be misleading, but only after they have already been embedded into the public discourse. These groups started to ramp up their efforts in 2016 with nearly $32 million in assets for anti-immigrant research, media influence, and political "education" work.

Since then, the majority of anti-immigration content online has centered around the white supremacist Great Replacement Theory. Through fear-mongering, divisive discourse, and inaccurate studies, these anti-immigrant groups have embedded a toxic narrative in news media that paints immigrants as undeserving of human rights. Although the number of hate groups in the U.S. has been declining since its peak in 2018, the SPLC’s Year in Hate & Extremism Report 2021 suggests that this is due to white nationalist ideology operating more openly in mainstream politics and media. Because 26% of Americans now get their news from YouTube, a platform that recommends content based on an opaque algorithm that leads the user into content echo chambers, immigrant advocacy organizations have seen the need to confront this growing challenge head-on.

Define American, a culture change organization that uses the power of narrative to humanize conversations about immigrants, is one such organization leading the fight against anti-immigrant rhetoric in the U.S. One of its main strategies is to expose and disrupt the ever-growing network of anti-immigrant content online by conducting research on this “alternative influencer network,” or what Define American describes as the “Great Replacement Network,” and by supporting fact-based content about immigrants and immigration.

From its independent research, Define American discovered that more than television, YouTube has a greater influence on the actions of many Americans. This is particularly true of those who could be described as the “Moveable Middle” — audiences relatively uninformed about immigration and are neither strongly against nor for immigration. To disrupt the well-coordinated tactics of the Great Replacement Network, Define American’s Digital Storytelling program works with social media partners and influencers to create an alternative content narrative ecosystem that will scientifically target those audiences being cultivated by the alt-right and create an off-ramp from radicalization.

Although the anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. is usually presented as inherent and natural, there is actually a well-funded network of people and organizations that has been pushing this narrative in the media for decades. By continuing to build research-backed and fact-based resources for partners and allies, Define American sees the solution to this problem as building and supporting a new network of content creators that presents a more compelling vision of America — one where everyone belongs.

Some ways to get involved:

  • Consider supporting Define American and other narrative change organizations
  • Share the Define American YouTube research report and toolkit with advocates and content creators
  • Research sources and citations before sharing an article or post with your network