Image
Lines mimicking prison bars or stripes line up along a border, green on one side of the wall and red on the other

Ebola and the US Border: Spreading Virus Rumors to Build the Wall

By
Jennifer Nilsen
Published on
November 29, 2021
Last Updated
Media Manipulation Tactics Used
Date Range
December 2018 - June 2019
Region
USA
Attribution

Overview: 

Brian Kolfage, an avid Trump supporter and anti-immigration activist, raised millions of dollars in donations online to finance construction of a border wall with Mexico. Two days after a US court order halted construction, Kolfage tweeted that an “insider” had alerted him to nine migrants with “confirmed” Ebola cases at the Texas border.1  The claim was unfounded. But Kolfage used this disinformation to spread fear about a dangerous infectious disease to exploit the wedge issue of immigration and garner support for his political goal of restricting immigration—a longtime promise of then-US President Donald Trump. The Ebola rumor soon spread from Texas through the nation on social media and in right-wing circles.

Background:

An Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)2  became a “public health emergency of international concern” on July 17, 2019, according to the World Health Organization.3 Ebola wasn’t the only active crisis in DRC in 2019. By June of that year, more than 300,000 people fled the country because of resurgent tensions and violence between ethnic groups,4 as well as armed conflict between local militias and government forces.5

Hundreds of Congolese migrants eventually made their way to South America–primarily to Ecuador or Brazil–and, eventually, into Central America, Mexico, and then the United States. According to US Customs and Border Patrol, more than 500 African asylum seekers, most of them from the DRC, were arrested as they passed through the Del Rio border patrol sector in Texas between May 30, 2019, and June 6, 2019.6 Central American migrants were also arriving in record numbers in 2019,7 leading then-President Donald Trump to declare a border “crisis.”8 During the 2016 election, Trump campaigned on the promise of border security and had repeatedly inflamed the wedge issue of immigration since then. 

Despite an ongoing health crisis in the DRC, there was no risk of Congolese migrants spreading Ebola in the US. The virus incubates for up to 21 days,9 and the Congolese asylum seekers who arrived in 2019 had been traveling for at least six months by the time they reached the Texas border.10 However, Americans in 2019 remained fearful of Ebola after a brief international outbreak in 201411 that included three Ebola cases in Texas. One Texas case was attributed to a patient who just returned from a trip to Liberia, and two infections occurred in the nurses who treated him. These three individuals did not spread the disease to anyone in Texas. The nurses survived; the patient died.

Back then Trump, still a real estate developer and reality TV star, weighed in on the Ebola outbreak. He tweeted, “​​Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. Treat them, at the highest level, over there. THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!” and “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!”12 Trump’s posts helped to drive a “mass hysteria that enveloped the nation in August 2014,” according to The Hill.13

  • 1 Salvador Hernandez (@SalHernandez), “The We Build The Wall founder Brian Kolfage has been spreading false rumors for weeks that immigrants w Ebola were crossing the border. Infowars picked it up today, and San Antonio had to address it all in a press conference today: ‘Patently false,’” Twitter, June 11, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/YK6J-YVRT; Salvador Hernandez, “Far-Right Figures Are Claiming Immigrants Are Bringing Ebola To The US. Officials Say That's ‘Patently False.,’” BuzzFeed News, June 11, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/QJA2-AUP8.
  • 2 Kellie Moss, Josh Michaud, and Jennifer Kates, “The Current Ebola Outbreak and the U.S. Role: An Explainer,” Kaiser Family Foundation, December 19, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/P9CP-ULSH.
  • 3 “Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern,” World Health Organization, July 17, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/AYJ3-EETM.
  • 4 Cat Cardenas, “Border Patrol Leaves San Antonio to Sort Out Surge of African Migrants,” Texas Monthly, July 2, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/5RZY-VVC6.
  • 5 “300,000 flee flare-up of ethnic violence in north-eastern DR Congo,” UN News, June 18, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/4YH5-WFRL.
  • 6 “Del Rio Sector Arrests of Immigrants from Africa on the Rise,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection, June 5, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/M2D8-7FX6.
  • 7 Priscilla Alvarez, “US-Mexico border crisis: How 2021 compares with the peak of the Trump era in 2019,” CNN, March 24, 2021, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/L3PE-TTMG.
  • 8 Peter Baker, “Trump Declares a National Emergency, and Provokes a Constitutional Clash,” The New York Times, February 15, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/UE4G-PFK4.
  • 9 “Disease or Condition of the Week: Ebola,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 17, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/RFP8-9W8R.
  • 10 Jackie Wang, “On Long Journey Fleeing Violence, Hundreds of African Migrants Come Through San Antonio,” San Antonio Report, June 11, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/F2C3-KRQH.
  • 11 “UN declares Ebola outbreak global ‘international public health emergency,’” UN News, August 8, 2014, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/T6HN-F6XX.
  • 12 Reid Wilson, “How Ebola entered the American consciousness: A Trump tweet,” The Hill, May 8, 2018, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/2NTE-SBB4.
  • 13 Reid Wilson, “Ebola outbreak in Africa spreads fake news in America,” The Hill, June 12, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/5R9C-YXWX.

Caption: A compilation of Trump’s 2014 tweets on Ebola, assembled by The Hill. Archived on Perma.cc, perma.cc/2NTE-SBB4.

In June 2015, when Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, he began his campaign by focusing on the US-Mexico border, promising, “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I'll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border.”1 “Build the wall” became a campaign chant that persisted at rallies well into his presidency. 

When Trump became US president in 2016, there had been no Ebola cases in the country for two years. Still, some Americans remained worried about the potential spread of this deadly disease, which continued to break out occasionally abroad. Rumors of outbreaks in the US have periodically erupted since 2014.2  

This case study documents a 2019 campaign that merged two Trump-era fears: immigration and infectious disease.

Stage 1: Manipulation Campaign Planning and Origins

On Dec. 16, 2018, Brian Kolfage, a US Air Force veteran from Florida, launched a GoFundMe page to raise funds for a wall on the US-Mexico border.3 At the time, the US federal government was about to begin the longest shutdown in US history over Trump’s demand that $5.7 billion be allotted for a border wall. Kolfage’s GoFundMe page was created to circumvent this impasse. Its goal was to raise $1 billion, which would purportedly be donated to the US government to fund the construction of a US-Mexico border wall. 

  • 1 Jane C. Timm, “Fact check: Mexico never paid for it. But what about Trump's other border wall promises?,” NBC News, January 12, 2021, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/TG82-B4A7.
  • 2 Nsikan Akpan, “The very real consequences of fake news stories and why your brain can’t ignore them,” PBS NewsHour, December 5, 2016, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/UZ6N-A2YD.
  • 3 Shannon Van Sant, “More Than $20 Million Crowdsourced For Border Wall Will Be Refunded,” NPR, January 12, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/ESU3-D6TR.

Caption: A screenshot of Kolfage’s GoFundMe page, taken by BuzzFeed News for a January 11, 2019 article. At the time of the screenshot, Kolfage had raised over $20 million. Archived on Perma.cc, perma.cc/T99J-6L3W.

Within three days of launching the GoFundMe, Kolfage had raised over $9 million.1 Donations from anti-immigrant partisans of Trump’s agenda surpassed $20 million by the second week of Jan. 2019.2 Kolfage then switched the recipient from the federal government to his new newly-created organization, We Build The Wall, Inc. He registered it as a 501(c)(4) organization, the US tax code designation for a non-profit that engages in political lobbying, with Steve Bannon listed as the organization’s advisory board chair.3 As a 501(c)(4), We Build The Wall receives donations without paying taxes on them.4 There are very few reporting requirements, and the identities of donors do not need to be disclosed.5

The government shutdown over Trump’s border wall funding lasted from Dec. 22, 2018 to Jan. 25, 2019.

The change in recipient from the US government to We Build The Wall Inc. prompted GoFundMe to offer donors a choice between getting their money refunded or opting to send the money to We Build the Wall, Inc. On March 9, 2019, Kolfage claimed on Facebook that his new non-profit had raised $23 million to $24 million from nearly 400,000 donors.6

However, construction of Kolfage’s promised border wall faced delays. In public statements, Kolfage used insinuation to deflect blame for the lack of progress. In March, Kolfage said in a radio interview that he was keeping the location of his planned wall secret because he believed the American Civil Liberties Union would sue him if they knew where the construction was planned.7 He missed the promised April 2019 construction date; donors began questioning Kolfage’s plans and promises. 8

Construction on Kolfage’s border wall finally began over Memorial Day weekend in 2019, in Sunland Park, New Mexico. Kolfage claimed local officials had given a verbal “green light,”9 but city officials soon issued a cease-and-desist order to We Build the Wall, Inc. Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea said that the group was in violation of city ordinances limiting wall height to six feet,10 and had failed to obtain building permits11 and complete an environmental survey.12 They had submitted an application for a permit, but it was incomplete. When construction stopped, the group had built about half a mile of wall.13

In response, Kolfage tweeted that “liberals” were “trying to intimidate us!” and encouraged his Twitter followers to continue donating.14  (Kolfage has a history of deploying his supporters to harass those who get in his way.)15 Soon supporters of We Build the Wall Inc. flooded the Sunland Park mayor’s office with angry calls and hateful emails. Perea’s family and city staff received death threats.16 A few days later, Perea, noting that the work was already well underway, allowed the group to proceed with the caveat that it comply with city and state ordinances moving forward. But he suggested to The Texas Tribune and ProPublica that the code violations and coordinated outrage were a publicity stunt “to bring attention to the issue,” because “shortly thereafter, they were able to fundraise millions of dollars for their project.”17

Kolfage claimed victory in a May 30 tweet, tagging numerous media outlets, representatives, and right-wing organizations to ensure they saw the news: “We are back to work building the wall! Here’s new permit! WINNING!@BreitbartNews @foxnation @FoxNews @CBSNews @ABC @NBCNews @OANN @NeilWMcCabe2 @TeamCavuto @DRUDGE @JudgeJeanine @LouDobbs @replouiegohmert @gatewaypundit @gehrig38 @TrumpStudents pic.twitter.com/u7JTfyy09D.”18

On May 30, 2019, amid this public battle over the border wall, a group of asylum seekers from the DRC was detained at the Texas border with Mexico, arrested before their asylum claims were processed.

STAGE 2: Seeding Campaign Across Social Platforms and Web 

The day after the migrants’ arrests, Kolfage used uncorroborated anonymous sources to fuel fears over the Ebola virus as a basis for anti-immigration sentiment. To his 72,000 followers on Twitter, he tweeted a claim that a “DHS insider” had alerted him to nine “confirmed” Ebola cases at the border. It was retweeted 2,000 times.19

  • 1 Abby Hamblin, “GoFundMe campaign to ‘fund the wall’ blows past $9 million in three days,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, December 20, 2018, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/X9SR-2TLY.
  • 2 Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins, “Behind the viral #GoFundTheWall fundraiser, a rising conservative star and a shadowy email harvesting operation,” NBC News, January 11, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/J6DE-ZPPG.
  • 3 “We Build the Wall Team,” We Build the Wall, Inc., accessed November 15, 2021, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/RDL5-AXGL.
  • 4 Beau Hodai, “What Are Steve Bannon, Kris Kobach and Co. Up to at the Arizona-Mexico Border?,” Phoenix New Times, March 30, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/3ENX-VAES.
  • 5 Hodai, “What Are Steve Bannon, Kris Kobach and Co. Up to at the Arizona-Mexico Border?”
  • 6 Hodai.
  • 7 Jordyn Rozensky and Will Sommer, “GoFundMe Border Wall Ordered to Stop Building Because They Didn’t Have the Right Paperwork,” The Daily Beast, May 29, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/4NVF-DKMA.
  • 8 Rozensky and Sommer, “GoFundMe Border Wall Ordered to Stop Building Because They Didn’t Have the Right Paperwork.”
  • 9 Rozensky and Sommer.
  • 10 Rozensky and Sommer.
  • 11 Hodai, “What Are Steve Bannon, Kris Kobach and Co. Up to at the Arizona-Mexico Border?”
  • 12 Rozensky and Sommer, “GoFundMe Border Wall Ordered to Stop Building Because They Didn’t Have the Right Paperwork.”
  • 13 Rozensky and Sommer.
  • 14 Rozensky and Sommer.
  • 15 Jeremy Schwartz And Perla Trevizo, “Veteran, war hero, defendant, troll: Man who raised millions for border wall uses social media to attack his detractors,” The Texas Tribune, September 29, 2020, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/3BT6-3EKG.
  • 16 Kayla Epstein and Michael Brice-Saddler, “A half-mile of crowdfunded border wall is nearly done, even though a city tried to pause it,” The Washington Post, May 31, 2019, https://perma.cc/5NW9-7M8H.
  • 17 Schwartz and Trevizo, “Veteran, war hero, defendant, troll: Man who raised millions for border wall uses social media to attack his detractors.”
  • 18 Epstein and Brice-Saddler.
  • 19 Salvador Hernandez (@SalHernandez), “The We Build The Wall founder Brian Kolfage has been spreading false rumors for weeks that immigrants w Ebola were crossing the border. Infowars picked it up today, and San Antonio had to address it all in a press conference today: ‘Patently false;’” Hernandez, “Far-Right Figures Are Claiming Immigrants Are Bringing Ebola To The US. Officials Say That's ‘Patently False.’”

Caption: A screenshot of Kolfage’s tweet about “confirmed” Ebola cases, taken by BuzzFeed News. Archived on Perma.cc, perma.cc/49RL-N352.

The tweet became one of the key inflection points for the manipulation campaign that Kolfage had begun on Twitter. This campaign—designed to generate donations, attention, and political support—moved very fast, and its seeding online happened over the course of hours.

In the replies, some skeptical Twitter users probed Kolfage’s claim that migrants were bringing Ebola into the US via the same border he hoped to secure.1 One user commented sarcastically, “Evidence? Yeah, thought so” to which Kolfage replied, “You think evidence would exist? People concerned are leaking it.”2 Crawford Kilian, a Canadian journalist and public health blogger, replied, “Very surprised that the CDC, World Health Organization, and the Mexican and Texas health depts haven't gone on the alert over this.3 Extremely poor practice to keep such cases secret. Are you sure you trust your source?” Kolfage assured in reply: “Very very trusted.”4  

Kilian had noticed Kolfage’s tweet because he followed #Ebola on Twitter. He wrote on his blog: “This is not the first time I've heard the rumour; it's been on and off Twitter for several weeks. It tends to be picked up by people who express support for President Trump and building his wall, and is of course cited as a good reason to finish building the wall.”5

In an early mitigation attempt of the rumor about Ebola, Nick Martin, a writer/editor of The Informant and a senior fellow at the pro-democracy non-profit Western States Center, tweeted a screenshot of Kolfage’s engagement with the responses to his May 31 tweet.6 Martin noted how Kolfage “mocks the idea that evidence of this would exist,”7 referring to the level of intel he claims to have. Despite the mitigation effort online, supporters of Kolfage’s claims continued to spread the rumor about Ebola. Some even replied to Martin’s tweets with Ebola claims.8

A few hours after Kolfage started the rumor, US Customs and Border Protection tweeted a link to a press release and a video about the DRC migrants. The tweet read, “U.S. Border Patrol agents assigned to Del Rio Sector apprehended a large group of 116 individuals—from Angola, Cameroon and Congo—after they illegally crossed the Rio Grande River into the U.S. on Thursday.​​”9 In the replies to the CBP tweet in the days that followed (on June 1,10 3,11  and 412 ), Twitter users mentioned Ebola, connecting the original tweet back to the false rumor that the US-Mexico border represented an Ebola threat.

On June 4, 2019, the first group of Congolese asylum seekers arrived in San Antonio, still in government custody.13 The next day, Kolfage tweeted that his organization was “just informed from a second highly trusted source that of 150 Africans that have recently arrived here at least 10 tested positive for #Ebola. Think what you want, but these are people who know the facts because they work along side it.”14

After several days of pushing such unsubstantiated claims, a breaking news event brought further attention to Kolfage’s rumor mill. On June 6, San Antonio city officials confirmed the arrival of the Congolese asylum seekers to their city, announced 350 more were expected, and asked for French-speaking volunteers.15 In a news segment on KENS5, a San Antonio CBS affiliate, City Manager Dr. Colleen Bridger described how the African asylum seekers’ arrival came “without any warning.”16 The segment did not mention Ebola, and the news focused on the influx of asylum seekers from African countries coming to San Antonio.

  • 1 Brian Kolfage‏ (@BrianKolfage), “a DHS insider exposed to us Congo migrants have made it to the USA with confirmed cases of #ebola. 3 are in custody in Laredo Tx and 6 in Laredo Mexico, and in Juarez next to our wall @WeBuildtheWall is securing our nation! @RyanAFournier @gehrig38 @cnnbrk @CBSNews @NBCNews,” Twitter, May 31, 2019, accessed via Internet Archive, archived on Perma.cc, perma.cc/2PVT-Y7ER.
  • 2 Brian Kolfage‏ (@BrianKolfage), “a DHS insider exposed to us Congo migrants have made it to the USA with confirmed cases of #ebola. 3 are in custody in Laredo Tx and 6 in Laredo Mexico, and in Juarez next to our wall @WeBuildtheWall is securing our nation! @RyanAFournier @gehrig38 @cnnbrk @CBSNews @NBCNews,” Twitter, May 31, 2019, accessed via Internet Archive, archived on Perma.cc, perma.cc/2PVT-Y7ER.
  • 3 Brian Kolfage‏ (@BrianKolfage), “a DHS insider exposed to us Congo migrants have made it to the USA with confirmed cases of #ebola. 3 are in custody in Laredo Tx and 6 in Laredo Mexico, and in Juarez next to our wall @WeBuildtheWall is securing our nation! @RyanAFournier @gehrig38 @cnnbrk @CBSNews @NBCNews.”
  • 4 Brian Kolfage‏ (@BrianKolfage).
  • 5Crawford Kilian, “Ten steps to Ebola on the Mexican border,” H5N1(blog), May 31, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/G527-GZ6C.
  • 6 Nick Martin (@nickmartin), “The founder of We Build The Wall Inc now claims ‘a DHS insider’ told him African migrants with Ebola are in custody in Texas. He also mocks the idea that evidence of this would exist.,” Twitter, May 31, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/T4UA-F9S7.
  • 7 Nick Martin (@nickmartin), “The founder of We Build The Wall Inc now claims ‘a DHS insider’ told him African migrants with Ebola are in custody in Texas. He also mocks the idea that evidence of this would exist.”
  • 8 WeimMom (@WeimMom), “He's right! 1000's from the Congo have/are invading, initial report I heard came from a couple reporters from Mexico!,” Twitter, June 1, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/HT3H-ARYR.
  • 9 CBP (@CBP), “U.S. Border Patrol agents assigned to Del Rio Sector apprehended a large group of 116 individuals—from Angola, Cameroon and Congo—after they illegally crossed the Rio Grande River into the U.S. on Thursday: http://bit.ly/2I6Q0RG,” Twitter, May 31, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/3X6M-9JHW.
  • 10 Markie Monroe (@markmonroe233), “EBOLA Central!,” June 1, 2019, Twitter, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/87TX-YQH2.
  • 11 ...nanatries (@wiserpaula), “Hiw [sic] did thy [sic] travel tht [sic] far with ebola did someone drop them off at crossing,” Twitter, June 3, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/UZ4A-3HJ2.
  • 12 Sherm (@sherm_rock), “People are coming from all around the world to take advantage of our border. They have a large outbreak of Ebola in The Congo they could easily pass that crap along to us. We need to secure our borders and people need to enter legally point blank.,” Twitter, June 4, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/UZ4A-3HJ2.
  • 13 Lekan Oguntoyinbo, “More African migrants are trying to enter US via Mexico,” Quartz Africa, June 23, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/TC8C-KRXG.
  • 14 Hernandez, “Far-Right Figures Are Claiming Immigrants Are Bringing Ebola To The US. Officials Say That's ‘Patently False.’”
  • 15 Jaleesa Irizarry (@JaleesaReports), “BREAKING: City confirms hundreds of migrants from the Congo have arrived in SA. The city is in desperate need for French speaking volunteers. @kens5 #kens5,” Twitter, June 6, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/X48S-HZCN.
  • 16 Jaleesa Irizarry, “'Parle vous français?' City searches for French speakers as hundreds of Congolese asylum-seekers head to SA,” KENS5, June 6, 2019, https://perma.cc/6VA8-UWVX.

Caption: Local KENS5 news headline out of San Antonio confirming the arrival of Congolese asylum seekers to the city on June 4. While this story did not mention Ebola, it was used to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment and promote disinformation. Archived on Perma.cc, perma.cc/6VA8-UWVX.

Kolfage’s tweet was included in news roundups on 8chan’s QResearch board, a central location for QAnon organizing and discussion.1

In right-wing communities on Twitter, 4chan, Gab and Facebook, Kolfage’s tweets falsely connecting Congolese asylum seekers with Ebola spread alongside the real news of Congolese asylum seekers’ arrival in San Antonio. These social media posts effectively seeded the rumor on social media–despite early debunking, Kolfage’s financial incentive to spread fear around migration, and a lack of verification of his claims. 

STAGE 3: Responses by Industry, Activists, Politicians, and Journalists

Kolfage’s campaign kicked off a right-wing press cycle, and media responses began on the day of his tweet about “confirmed” Ebola cases. The far-right websites Independent Sentinel,2 Defiant America,3  and Gateway Pundit4 all published stories about “Ebola concerns” on May 31, 2019.

On June 6, the day that San Antonio city officials confirmed the migrants’ arrival, the right-wing media ecosystem continued spreading Kolfage’s claims from uncorroborated sources. The conspiratorial outlet InfoWars uploaded the first of a series of videos claiming the Congolese asylum seekers had Ebola. These videos included “SPECIAL REPORT: Are African Migrants Carrying Ebola To The United States?” from The Alex Jones Show (June 6);5 “Is The Threat Of Ebola Enough To Close The Border?” from Bowne Report (June 7);6 “Video: Hundreds of Illegal Aliens from Ebola infested Congo arrive in Texas” from The Alex Jones Show (June 9);7 and “UN Funded Wellfare Mules Arrive from Ebola Infested Congo” from The Alex Jones Show (June 9).8

During that four-day period, other partisan publications on the far right joined in on coverage of the Congolese asylum-seekers’ arrival. On June 7, The Gateway Pundit, a right-wing publication, published a post with the headline, “Hundreds of Illegal Aliens From Ebola-Stricken Congo Dumped in the Streets of San Antonio.”9 To date, the post has been shared on Facebook over 33,000 times. It received high engagement on Twitter as well.10

After the wave of press on June 7, users on /pol/, a conspiratorial 4chan community, were posting more frequently about the rumor. By June 8, subreddits /r/conspiracy, r/The_Donald, and r/Clownworldwar were all discussing Ebola in San Antonio (the latter two have since been banned from reddit).11

Twitter users12 posted links to articles about Ebola from Twitchy,13 InfoWars,14 and BizPac Review15 , all far-right sites. On June 8 and 9, The Drudge Report linked to two InfoWars stories spreading the rumor. 16  

But it was a 419-word article from the right-wing online news source Breitbart titled “350 Congolese Migrants Arrive in San Antonio” that didn't mention Ebola which marked another inflection point in Kolfage's campaign about Ebola in Texas.17 The article simply summarized the June 6 KENS5 segment and did not include the Ebola rumor. It was widely circulated compared to the fear-mongering Gateway Pundit article: The Breitbart story had nearly double the number of Facebook shares (62,000).18

Then the Conservative Daily Post, a right-wing publication and known disinformation source,19 reprinted Breitbart’s Congolese immigration story in full with a new headline: “Border Patrol Surprise: Disease-Ridden Congolese Migrants Dumped In San Antonio.”20  It also added a new opening sentence, “Hundreds of Congolese migrants, with who knows what sorts of diseases given that the nation is chock full of Ebola, were unexpectedly dumped in San Antonio.” This statement was not based on original reporting, and it was made without attribution. 

  • 1 “/qresearch/ - Q Research General #8488: E-ish Bake Edition,” 8kun, May 31, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/43MN-MRSN.
  • 2 M. Dowling, “Ebola on the Border? That's the word some are getting,” Independent Sentinel, May 31, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/7F43-EXZ8.
  • 3 Alex Graham, “Ebola Concerns in Texas after Illegals from Congo Cross Border into US,” Defiant America, May 31, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/F2KN-84CQ.
  • 4 Jim Hoft, “​​Breaking: EBOLA CONCERNS in Texas after Illegals from Congo Cross Border into US,” Gateway Pundit, May 31, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/K7N7-EN5M.
  • 5 “SPECIAL REPORT: Are African Migrants Carrying Ebola To The United States?,” The Alex Jines Show on Banned.Video, June 6, 2019, archived on archive.today, https://archive.md/cPzEE.
  • 6 “Is The Threat Of Ebola Enough To Close The Border?,” Browne Report on Banned.Video, June 7, 2019, archived on archive.today, https://archive.md/xE2pq.
  • 7 “Video: Hundreds of Illegal Aliens from Ebola Infested Congo arrive in Texas,” The Alex Jones Show on Banned.Video, June 9, 2019, archived on archive.today, https://archive.ph/lIMWI.
  • 8 “UN Funded Wellfare Mules Arrive from Ebola Infested Congo,” The Alex Jones Show on Banned.Video, June 9, 2019, archived on archive.today, https://archive.ph/w1ONC.
  • 9 Cristina Laila, “Hundreds of Illegal Aliens From Ebola-Stricken Congo Dumped in the Streets of San Antonio,” The Gateway Pundit, June 7, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/AVP8-N8GU.
  • 10 Laila, “Hundreds of Illegal Aliens From Ebola-Stricken Congo Dumped in the Streets of San Antonio.”
  • 11 “Pushshift Reddit Search,” Reddit, accessed on November 15, 2021, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/WKU7-V67D.
  • 12 Search: “ebola san antonio, 6/6/19-6/10/19,” Twitter, accessed on November 15, 2021, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/K7MG-CG44.
  • 13 Greg P., “No big deal, just hundreds of refugees from Congo fleeing Ebola overwhelming San Antonio,” Twitchy, June 8, 2019, archived on Internet Archive, https://web.archive.org/web/20210117064829/https://twitchy.com/gregp-35….
  • 14 Kelen McBreen, “Hundreds Of Illegals From Ebola-Ridden Congo Dumped In Texas, 350 More On The Way,” InfoWars, June 7, 2019, accessed via Internet Archive, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/88X5-RCH5.
  • 15 Frieda Powers, “Refugees from Ebola-stricken Congo dumped off in San Antonio by the hundreds,” Business and Politics Review, June 8, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/LH9U-JSY3.
  • 16 Search: “ebola, 5/31/2019-6/12/2019,” Drudge Report Archives, accessed on November 15, 2021, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/NUL9-BY2Q.
  • 17 Bob Price, “350 Congolese Migrants Arrive in San Antonio,” Breitbart, June 10, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/QD8V-UKN3.
  • 18Price, “350 Congolese Migrants Arrive in San Antonio.”
  • 19 Katie Rogers and Jonah Engel Bromwich, “The Hoaxes, Fake News and We Saw on Election Day,” The New York Times, November 8, 2016, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/ZZ36-XSHZ.
  • 20 G Walrath, “Border Patrol Surprise: Disease-Ridden Congolese Migrants Dumped In San Antonio,” June 10, 2019, The Conservative Daily Post, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/A5G6-NWXN.

Caption: A Breitbart article reporting on the arrival of Congolese asylum seekers to San Antonio in June 2019. There is no mention of Ebola in this article. Archived on Perma.cc, perma.cc/QD8V-UKN3.

Caption: A new title and an additional sentence were added to the Breitbart article, which was otherwise reprinted verbatim, to spread the Ebola rumor. Archived on Perma.cc, perma.cc/A5G6-NWXN.

As BuzzFeed News reporter Salvador Hernandez tweeted while covering the story, “The ebola rumors were being spread by some of the usual conspiracists.”1 That morning, former Ku Klux Klan wizard and congressional member David Duke had tweeted, “San Antonio Under Siege by Refugees from the Congo” along with a picture and link to his website.

As online coverage continued, the InfoWars network uploaded eleven videos on June 10, all of them speculating about Ebola in San Antonio. The videos included titles like “Full Show – RED ALERT! Texas Ebola Threat, MSM Silent – 06/10/2019” by The Alex Jones Show,“ Watch As A Bus Of Migrants Arrives As Infowars Is On The Scene” by War Room With Owen Shroyer;2 and another video by the Alex Jones Show, “Will U.S. Outbreak Of Ebola Trigger Forced Inoculation?” Right-wing outlet Clover Chronicle also published a story on June 10.3

That day security at a temporary migrant shelter/resource center in San Antonio forcibly removed an InfoWars camera crew member that had entered without permission and filmed inside after being asked not to. InfoWars posted the video of being asked to leave the center, along with another series of videos purporting to show “invaders'' from “Ebola-stricken Congo.” This interaction notified city officials of InfoWars’ antagonistic portrayal of the migrant shelter encounter as well as the extent of their efforts to spread the rumor.

That evening, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, tweeted a link to a KENS5 article that confirmed there were no Ebola cases in Laredo (the location mentioned in Kolfage’s tweet). But Abbott’s tweet was not worded in a way that dispelled the rumor: “The Dept. of State Health Services is monitoring immigration sites to protect against infectious disease. In the meantime, Congress must secure the border & prevent a health threat,” he wrote on June 10.4

  • 1 Salvador Hernandez (@SalHernandez), “The We Build The Wall founder Brian Kolfage has been spreading false rumors for weeks that immigrants w Ebola were crossing the border. Infowars picked it up today, and San Antonio had to address it all in a press conference today: ‘Patently false.’”
  • 2 “Watch As A Bus Of Migrants Arrives As Infowars Is On The Scene,” War Room With Owen Shroyer on Banned.Video, June 10, 2019, archived on archive.today, https://archive.ph/CujZf.
  • 3 “Hundreds Of Migrants Flee Ebola-Stricken Congo For San Antonio, Texas,” The Clover Chronicle, June 10, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/7ATZ-JYNF.
  • 4 Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX), “In addition to border security, my office is working on Health Security. The Dept. of State Health Services is monitoring immigration sites to protect against infectious disease. In the meantime, Congress must secure the border & prevent a health threat.,” Twitter, June 10, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/G68K-ZW28; KENS5 Staff, “City of Laredo dispels Ebola rumor,” KENS5, April 26, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/A8JE-9YKZ.

Caption: A screenshot of a June 10, 2019, tweet from Texas Governor Greg Abbott that encourages securing the border as a public health measure. Archived on Perma.cc, perma.cc/A8JE-9YKZ.

Later that night, Fox News host Laura Ingraham covered the Ebola rumor on her 10:00 pm show, signifying its adoption by mainstream media.1 “Well, they say the incubation period is 21 days for that disease, and that they believe these folks have been outside their country for six to seven months – but, I don't know, why would we even put that to chance?” she asked viewers.2

On June 11, 2019, far-right websites Summit News3 and InfoWars4 both published the same article: “U.S. Cities Overwhelmed With Numbers of Illegal Migrants Arriving From Ebola-Stricken Countries.” This article, which has since been removed from InfoWars, was written by Paul Watson, a right-wing media figure. Watson has 1.1 million Twitter followers. He was banned from Facebook and Instagram a month before this tweet for violating their hate speech policies. 

Questions about what was happening in San Antonio also made it into a San Antonio subreddit, but the post received limited engagement.5

STAGE 4: Mitigation efforts 

Despite early, one-off mitigation attempts by Nick Martin and Crawford Killian, US right-wing media had run with Kolfage’s unfounded claims of Ebola circulating among Congolese asylum seekers in San Antonio. Government officials began trying to debunk the false claims, and national media outlets began to publish critical reporting questioning the claims. 

Officials from the City of San Antonio held a news conference on June 11, 2020.6 San Antonio Interim Assistant City Manager and public health expert Dr. Colleen Bridger emphasized that “Reports of Ebola are unfounded.”7 She said the asylum seekers had completed health screenings, and she explained that they have been traveling outside of the DRC for much longer than Ebola’s 21-day incubation period.8

Dr. Colleen Bridger also addressed claims by InfoWars that the city was attempting a cover-up by saying that the staff at the resource center had asked InfoWars representatives to leave after a “kerfuffle.”9

All on that same day, a spokesperson from Customs and Border Protection told WUSA9 that, “U.S. Customs and Border Protection and public health officials monitor the health of people coming into the U.S. and there have been no encounters of Ebola along the southwest border.”10 WUSA9 reporting focused specifically on debunking The Gateway Pundit’s June 7 article.11

On June 11, the Associated Press published a debunking article that quoted Lara Anton, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services, and Benjamin Haynes, spokesperson for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.12 Anton said, “We do not have any suspected or confirmed cases of Ebola right now in Texas;” Haynes noted that the CDC “is also unaware of any Ebola cases nationwide.”13

Local news outlet KENS5 additionally ran an article titled “Ebola is not a threat to public, San Antonio city officials say.” Both BuzzFeed News14 and San Antonio Express-News15 also covered the press conference and refuted the false claims that Kolfage was still spreading. 

The next day, June 12, the fact-checking site PolitiFact published a fact-check on the campaign Kolfage had begun, which quoted Customs and Border Protection stating that “There have been no encounters of Ebola along the southwest border.”16 PolitiFact pointed to the Conservative Post Daily’s near-copy of Breitbart’s article as the origins of the Ebola misinformation campaign, but did not reference InfoWars’ various videos or Kolfage’s tweets.17

On June 16, a local non-profit newspaper, San Antonio Report, explored the role InfoWars played in spreading Ebola-in-San-Antonio disinformation in an article titled, “The Big Lie: InfoWars Distorts San Antonio’s Care and Feeding of Migrants​​.”18 Reporter Robert Rivard commented on how asylum seekers passing through the city is nothing new; religious, non-profit, and political coalitions had been assisting migrants for months, he wrote. Rivard then described InfoWars’ history of running disinformation campaigns and described how its video coverage told a false story about San Antonio’s response to asylum seekers.19

Breitbart, too, discredited the Ebola rumors that had stemmed in part from its own reporting on the migrant arrivals to Texas. It published Associated Press reporting from Maine, where many asylum seekers headed after San Antonio. The June 16 article included this sentence: “Portland officials tweeted Thursday that rumors some of the migrants are carrying the Ebola virus are ‘patently false,’ and said that as asylum seekers, they are in the United States legally.”20

STAGE 5: Adjustments by campaign operators

Despite these many mitigation efforts, the disinformation about Ebola-infected migrants continued to spread through online right-wing outlets and on social media. 

Many of the videos that InfoWars posted in June promoting the false information are no longer available on the InfoWars website, but all have been republished to Banned.Video, an Alex Jones-affiliated website that hosts videos from his InfoWars network.21 Since Banned.Video went live in September 2019, videos about migrants racked up a combined 200K views. Their republication has allowed for the Ebola rumor to continue to spread.

On June 12, Rush Limbaugh’s show included links to InfoWars’ take on the rumor.22

Three days after the San Antonio news conference, on June 15, 2019, conservative tabloid The Washington Examiner, published an inflammatory article headlined “African migrants pass through San Antonio and swiftly fan out across the country.”23 The story explains how “Roughly 300 Congolese and Angolan citizens who arrived in San Antonio the first week of June after crossing the US-Mexico border days earlier have all briskly departed the city for destinations across the country, some with fuzzy plans based partly on hope,” with a list of asylum seekers' reported next destinations.24 The Examiner piece did not mention Ebola.25

  • 1 Victor Garcia, “Ingraham: Why are we helping illegal immigrants when we can't help ourselves?,” Fox News, June 11, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/DAK7-U9HZ.
  • 2 Jason Campbell, “Officials debunked far-right rumors of Ebola among refugees. Laura Ingraham fearmongered about it the night before.,” Media Matters for America, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/N5ST-YMYG.
  • 3 Paul Joseph Watson, “U.S. Cities Overwhelmed With Numbers of Illegal Migrants Arriving From Ebola-Stricken Countries,” Summit News, June 11, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/JN9M-D7HX.
  • 4 Paul Joseph Watson, “U.S. Cities Overwhelmed With Numbers of Illegal Migrants Arriving From Ebola-Stricken Countries,” InfoWars, June 11, 2019, accessed via Internet Archive, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/W79P-8QAA.
  • 5u/Cowboy_Karl, “Anyone here [sic] about the refugees from the Congo here in SA?,” Reddit, June 11, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/PU47-G4ZK.
  • 6 City of San Antonio - Municipal Government, “Interim Assistant City Manager Dr. Colleen Bridger, MPH., PhD dispells [sic] about public health issues and migrants traveling through San Antonio. Reports of Ebola are unfounded. The Federal Government released these asylum seekers after completing health screenings. In addition, the incubation period for that illness is 21 days. These asylum seekers have been traveling for six to seven months outside of their home countries to seek safety in the United States.,” Facebook, June 11, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/Y3JN-HJU6.
  • 7 City of San Antonio - Municipal Government, “Interim Assistant City Manager Dr. Colleen Bridger, MPH., PhD dispells [sic] misinformation about public health issues and migrants traveling through San Antonio. Reports of Ebola are unfounded. The Federal Government released these asylum seekers after completing health screenings. In addition, the incubation period for that illness is 21 days. These asylum seekers have been traveling for six to seven months outside of their home countries to seek safety in the United States.”
  • 8 City of San Antonio - Municipal Government.
  • 9 Salvador Hernandez, “Far-Right Figures Are Claiming Immigrants Are Bringing Ebola To The US. Officials Say That's ‘Patently False.’”
  • 10 Jason Puckett and David Tregde, “VERIFY: Congolese immigrants did not bring Ebola to the US via the Southern border,” WUSA9, June 11, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/U46Q-LAUU.
  • 11 Puckett and Tregde, “VERIFY: Congolese immigrants did not bring Ebola to the US via the Southern border.”
  • 12 Paul J. Weber, “NOT REAL NEWS: Reports of Ebola cases in Texas unfounded,” The Associated Press, June 11, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/4JN7-78G8.
  • 13 Weber, “NOT REAL NEWS: Reports of Ebola cases in Texas unfounded.”
  • 14 Hernandez, “Far-Right Figures Are Claiming Immigrants Are Bringing Ebola To The US. Officials Say That's ‘Patently False.’”
  • 15 Lauren Caruba, “San Antonio officials seek to dispel 'patently false' Ebola rumors,” San Antonio Express-News, June 11, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/W6VY-U7X4.
  • 16 Louis Jacobson, “​​Are migrants with diseases like Ebola being dumped in San Antonio? No,” PolitiFact, June 12, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/2V4M-ZABU.
  • 17 Jacobson, “​​Are migrants with diseases like Ebola being dumped in San Antonio? No.”
  • 18 Robert Rivard, “The Big Lie: InfoWars Distorts San Antonio's Care and Feeding of Migrants,” San Antonio Report, June 16, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/85XR-NRSD.
  • 19 Rivard, “The Big Lie: InfoWars Distorts San Antonio's Care and Feeding of Migrants.”
  • 20 AP, “Record number of African migrants coming to Mexican border,” Breitbart, June 16, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/D72G-MYWJ.
  • 21 @DFRLab, “Infowars, resurrected: how the conspiracy site evaded a cross-platform ban,” Medium, April 21, 2020, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/2DRP-UNJ5; Note: Facebook, Apple, YouTube, and Spotify removed Alex Jones from their platforms in August 2018. Per Jane Coaston, “YouTube, Facebook, and Apple’s ban on Alex Jones, explained,” Vox, August 6, 2018, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/62XV-6F3W.
  • 22 “Have You Taken a Look at Drudge Lately?,” The Rush Limbaugh Show, June 12, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/CZG9-7D52.
  • 23 Anna Giaritelli, “African migrants pass through San Antonio and swiftly fan out across the country,” The Washington Examiner, June 15, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/S4KZ-ATGV.
  • 24 Giaritelli, “African migrants pass through San Antonio and swiftly fan out across the country.”
  • 25Giaritelli.

Caption: A screenshot of KENS5 reporter Jaleesa Irizarry’s tweet on where asylum seekers went after San Antonio. Credit: TaSC, archived on Perma.cc, perma.cc/EB9Z-BQL4.

Yet it was this story that, on June 15, 2019, led the cycle to redeploy, replicating a cycle that began with a false embellishment of a fact-based Breitbart story: The far-right news website Gateway Pundit reprinted most of the Examiner article verbatim, with an even more inflammatory new headline, “Hundreds of Illegal Aliens From Ebola-Stricken Congo Who Arrived in San Antonio Last Week Quickly Fan Out Across Country.”1 It also added an inaccurate, fear-mongering conclusion: “Nothing is being done to stop the invasion,” wrote the Gateway Pundit, “and the illegals coming from the Ebola-ravaged areas of Africa aren’t even screened for diseases.” 

No Ebola cases were reported in the US in 2019, or since. 

In August 2020, federal authorities in New York charged Kolfage, alongside Bannon, with defrauding the donors of We Build the Wall, Inc. The indictment alleges Kolfage used $350,000 of donated funds for “home renovations, payments toward a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments and credit card debt.”2  Kolfage was also indicted in Florida for allegedly failing to report personal income raised via We Build the Wall, Inc., to the Internal Revenue Service.3

Kolfage has turned against GoFundMe, the crowdsourcing platform that gave his organization its start. On Bannon’s podcast, “War Room: Pandemic,” Kolfage told his supporters “Don’t go to GoFundMe anymore, screw them, go straight to our website.”4 GoFundMe removed Kolfage’s newest fundraiser, one meant to “raise money for people hurt by the Black Lives Matter movement.”5

Unrelated to the Ebola rumor, Kolfage has since been suspended from Twitter (his last archived tweet is from October 2020).6 A series of Stop the Steal Facebook pages connected to him and to Steve Bannon were also removed in November 2020 (his other pages had been removed from Facebook in October 2018 for “inauthentic behavior” and “ad farms”).7 8  Kolfage is currently fundraising to pay for his legal fees. He has collected over $60,000 by the time of writing.9  

Steve Bannon was pardoned by President Donald Trump for the federal offenses. Kolfage's trial in New York has been postponed due to the pandemic.10

  • 1 Cristina Laila, “Hundreds of Illegal Aliens From Ebola-Stricken Congo Who Arrived in San Antonio Last Week Quickly Fan Out Across Country,” The Gateway Pundit, June 15, 2019, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/JPC2-ZRK5.
  • 2"United States of America v. Brian G. Kolfage," United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, July 6, 2021, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/HZS6-R29L; "United States of America v Brian Kolfage, Stephen Bannon, Andrew Badolato, and Timothy Shea, United States District Count Southern District of New York, accessed December 1, 2021, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/94A3-6RWA.
  • 3"United States of America v. Brian G. Kolfage."
  • 4 Williams, Winter, and Li, “Ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon charged with defrauding donors to 'Build the Wall' campaign.”
  • 5Williams, Winter, and Li.
  • 6 Schwartz and Trevizo, “Veteran, war hero, defendant, troll: Man who raised millions for border wall uses social media to attack his detractors.”
  • 7Schwartz and Trevizo.
  • 8 Adi Robertson, “Facebook removes election pages tied to Steve Bannon,” The Verge, November 11, 2020, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/3KVY-TYP6.
  • 9 “Fight 4 The Kolfage's,” fight4kolfage.com, accessed on November 15, 2021, archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/JAF5-3UTJ.
  • 10 “Judge Postpones Trial in We Build the Wall Fraud Case for Nearly Half a Year,” Law and Crime, accessed on Nov 30, 2021,archived on Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/Q2R5-8RDT

Caption: A screenshot of the Fight 4 The Kolfage’s donation page taken on November 15, 2021. Archived on Perma.cc, perma.cc/JAF5-3UTJ.

Conclusion:

This case exemplifies an asymmetric information ecosystem in which right-wing media amplified a campaign while center-left outlets debunked it. Fear and xenophobia allowed an opportunistic actor and a willing right-wing media ecosystem to spread false and discriminatory narratives about migrants. The rumors were completely fabricated, but they brought attention, funding, and political support to the US-Mexico border wall—and money to Brian Kolfage. The wall constructed is about one mile long.

 

 

 

This article has been updated to accurately convey Trump's budget request for the border wall.

Cite this case study

Jennifer Nilsen, " Ebola and the US Border: Spreading Virus Rumors to Build the Wall," The Media Manipulation Case Book, August 10, 2022, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/ebola-and-us-border-spreading-virus-rumors-build-wall.