The Free Internet Project

Disinformation in the 2018 U.S. Midterm Elections: Identifying Misattributed Photos and Visual Propaganda against the October 2018 Migrant Caravan

In the final weeks of the 2018 midterm campaign, the GOP turn-out effort increasingly focused on a caravan of migrant asylum seekers making their way to the United States’ southern border from Honduras.[1] To emphasize the danger posed to the United States, an intense misinformation campaign centered on misattributed images began. Conservative Politicians and right-leaning media pushed out numerous false narratives about the caravan,[2] while right wing Twitter posters circulated numerous misattributed images, copied and described in detail below. There are numerous examples of misattributed image propaganda deployed during this time. Phil Howard of Oxford University's Computational Propaganda Project noted that this event had high salience for peddlers of false news. “Social media is awash with pictures that portray an angry mob heading for the US border. . .This kind of event is easy for junk news outlets to turn into a sensational news story.” [3]

Although previous studies have focused on the different networks and diffusion paths for the spread of targeted propaganda, it is also vital to analyze the methods employed in the propaganda itself. This analysis can reveal avenues for response and prevention. To that end, this post documents and analyzes misattributed photos used in this particular disinformation campaign related to a common propaganda themes concerning demonized[4] enemy groups:[5] violence.[6].

A.     Propaganda Violence: Caravan is Brutally Throwing Rocks at Peace Officers

A main right-wing talking point is that undocumented migrants are lawless thugs. Indeed, President Trump began his presidential campaign announcing that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists.[7] In that same vein, conservative politicians and commentators moved to label the caravan something akin to an existential threat to the United States.[8] President Trump made numerous claims to this effect: tweeting that the caravan included “unknown Middle Easterners”, stating at rallies that the caravan consisted of “bad people”, “not little angels” and “tough, tough people” and ultimately deploying the military to defend the Southern Border from invasion. Visual propagandists did not miss these cues.

To emphasize the violent consequences of the caravan, posts circulated purporting to show bloodied Mexican police officers injured in skirmishes with the migrants. The original posting appeared Oct. 20 from an account run by user Mike Allen. The text accompanying the image reads: “Mexican police are being brutalized by members of this caravan as they attempt to FORCE their way into Mexico – And WE are supposed to believe these are just poor, helpless refugees seeking asylum??? I am 100% behind POTUS deploying our military!” The post was modified by user Jacque Guinan, who slightly tweaked the language and appended two additional images. Other variants swapped the order of the three photos, focusing on the officer wounded on the ground.[9]

Propaganda: Blooded Officer [Shield, Ground, Bloody Lip variants] (2018)


The post was widely distributed in conservative circles, with minor variation to the caption text to emphasize the failure of traditional media to share this image[10] and to liken the migrants to an “invasion.” Wide-spread reference to the migrant caravan as an invasion by conservative commentators and politicians[11] presaged the military action ordered by President Trump.[12]

The post also received significant media exposure[13] when it was reposted by Ginni Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas.[14] Thomas’ variant presupposes a familiarity with the image and its falsely-attributed subject matter. She does not define the scene, noting only that “The media won’t share THIS. . .an invasion”, nor does she outline the appropriate response.

Propaganda: Bloodied Officer [Shield variant] (2018)

In fact, none of the three images relate to this migrant caravan, or indeed, to migrants at all.[15] A reverse image search shows the primary image is from Photojournalist Gustavo Aguado, who took the picture in October 2012 during a Mexican police action evicting protesting students from high schools.[16] Interestingly, the images were part of a wider photo spread of images largely showing bloodied protestors rather than bloodied officers.[17] These other photos were obviously ill-suited for a misinformation campaign emphasizing migrant violence, but it would be worth noting that disrupting actors may use images such as this to create pro-migrant visual propaganda.

Reverse image searches show the two appended images were taken years before the caravan and are unrelated to migrants. The appended image of a police officer with a bloody lip was taken in February 2011 and relates to clashes between police and teachers demonstrating against President Felipe Calderón in Oaxaca.[18] The image of the officer on the ground is a 2014 photo[19] taken by Cristopher Rogel Bianquet a protest in Chilpancingo regarding 43 missing students.[20]

Source Image (2012)

Source Images (2014; 2011)

On October 29, propagandists used a different photo of Mexican 2014 missing-student protests,[21] with the false caption “Mexican official being dragged by the caravan. Anyone up for open borders??”

Propaganda: Dragged Officer (2018)

Again, a reverse image search shows the image (a Getty Image taken by Pedro Pardo)[22] has nothing to do with migrants in 2018 and in fact captures the height of protestor anger at police in 2014 “after gang suspects confessed to slaughtering 43 missing students and dumping their charcoaled remains in a river.”[23]

Source Image (2014)

Related pieces of visual propaganda were created soon after the election in response to President Trump’s lie that border patrol agents had been “very badly hurt” by rock throwing migrants.[24] The user Trump Train Conductor posted a photo showing a bloodied border patrol officer, suggesting he was injured by members of the caravan.[25]

Propaganda: Bloodied Officer [Eye variant] (2018)

In fact, the photo was taken in 2010,[26] following a skirmish with drug smugglers. A reverse image search shows that the photo has been circulated on conservative sites for years, making annual appearances on Breitbart.[27]

Prior Use (2014)

These examples have a consistent theme and similar propaganda purpose. The salience of the images (brutalized officers) and framing text (this event just occurred and the media does not share it) are obvious. Notably all of the photos used in these posts predated the caravan by several years and feature incidents unrelated to Central American migrants.


At a minimum, readers should reverse image search any image linked to any claim offered about world events. Users can help retard the viral spread of propaganda by refusing to link to the content, by alerting fact-checkers of the post, and by informing copyright holders of image misuse.

[by Dr. Andrew Moshirnia. Portions of this post are incorporated in a forthcoming article to be published in the Seton Hall Law Review.]


[1]     Ashley Parker et al., Trump and Republicans settle on fear and falsehoods as a midterm strategy, Chicago Tribune, Oct. 22, 2018, Numerous commentators pointed out that this strategy backfired. Tyler Moran & Nick Gourevitch, Republicans embraced Trump’s immigration scare tactics and paid a high political price, USA TODAY, Dec. 4, 2018, However, the apparent poor reception of the message should not distract from the importance of documenting the propaganda that conveyed the message. Indeed, the media has been criticized for repeating patently false accusations and statements. See Derek Thompson, Trump’s Lies Are a Virus, and News Organizations Are the Host, The Atlantic, Nov. 19, 2018,

[2]     Natalie Martinez, Study: Right-wing sources dominated migrant caravan coverage on Facebook and YouTube, Media Matters for Am. (Nov. 27, 2018, 10:59 AM),

[3]     Craig Timberg et al., Midterms 2018: ‘Migrant caravan’ fears stoked by conservative activists sharing misleading photo online, Independent, Oct. 25, 2018,

[4]     Enemy demonization has a very particular meaning in the context of propaganda. Jules Boykoff set out four criteria for enemy demonization: 1) the media and state advance frames depicting the enemy in moral terms; 2) the character of the opponent is binary or manichean (good v. evil); 3) the state originates the portrayal; and 4) there is no marked counternarrative from the state. Jules Boykoff, Beyond bullets: the suppression of dissent in the United States 192 (AK Press 2007).

[5]     These themes are apparent in most anti-Semitic propaganda. See, e.g., Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) (Deutsche Filmherstellungs and Vertriebs G.m.b.H. 1940) (the Nazi film typifies the depiction of Jews as parasitic degraders of Aryan culture).

[6]     Atrocity Propaganda is the clearest example of this trope, but wanton crime is also a popular approach.

[7]     Michelle Mark, Trump just referred to one of his most infamous campaign comments: calling Mexicans ‘rapists’, Bus. Insider Austl. (Apr. 6, 2018, 5:50 AM),

[8]     Zak Cheney-Rice, What Happened to the Caravan?, New York Magazine, Nov. 13, 2018,

[9]     Constitutionalist Luke, (@constitutionalist.sf), Instagram, (last visited Jan. 16, 2019) [file on file with author].

[10]   This is of course unsurprising in light of the fact that the image is fraudulently miscaptioned.

[11]   @realDonaldTrimp, Twitter Oct. 29, 2018, 7:41 AM),

[12]   Dan Evon, Were These Mexican Police Officers Brutalized by Members of a Migrant Caravan?, Snopes (Oct. 22, 2018),

[13]   Craig Timberg et al., How a six-year photo of a bleeding policeman is being used to stoke fears about the migrant caravan, Wash. Post, Oct. 24, 2018,

[14]   Shawn Langlois, Wife of Supreme Court justice spreads fake news about the migrant caravan, MarketWatch

 (Oct. 24, 2018, 2:30 PM), Trevor Hugh Davis, Even Clarence Thomas’ Wife Is Sharing Fake News About the ‘Caravan’, Medium (Oct. 23 2018),

[15]   Dan Evon, Were These Mexican Police Officers Brutalized by Members of a Migrant Caravan?, Snopes (Oct. 22, 2018),

[16]          Confrontation between normalistas and policemen in Michoacán leaves wounded, detained and fires, Emeequis Mag., Oct. 16, 2012, Chris Bell, Fake news follows migrant caravan’s journey north, BBC News (Oct. 24, 2018),

[17]   Photos: eviction and ‘censorship’ to the account of normalists on Twitter, Aristegui Noticias (Oct. 17, 2012, 6:34 AM), (There was an outcry that these photos were being censured from Twitter).

[18]   State government refuses to dismiss Irma Piñeyro, Oaxaca Entrelineas (Feb. 17, 2011), Faces teachers and federal police in Oaxaca during Calderón’s visit, The Network News (Feb. 15, 2011),

[19]   Confrontation leaves several injured in Chilpancingo, El

[20]   Kirk Semple, Missing Mexican Students Suffered a Night of ‘Terror,’ Investigators Say, N.Y. Times, Apr. 24, 2016, Dan Evon, Were These Mexican Police Officers Brutalized by Members of a Migrant Caravan?, Snopes (Oct. 22, 2018),

[21]   Dan Evon, Does This Photograph Show a Police Officer Being Dragged by Caravan Members?, Snopes (Nov.1, 2018),

[22]   Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images, Mexico-Crime-Students-Protest, AFP (Nov. 10, 2014),

[23]   Associated Press & Zoe Szathmary, Violent clashes with Mexican police after protesters shut down airport and demand justice for 43 students who were murdered and incinerated, DailyMail, Nov. 11, 2014,

[24]   Eric Levitz, Trump Falsely Claims That U.S. Agents Were Hurt in Border Clashes, New York Magazine, Nov. 17, 2018, The CBP disclosed that while four officers had been struck by rocks, each officer was wearing protective gear and was unharmed. Kevin McAleenan, Comm’r, U.S. Customers and Border Protection, Statement from Commissioner McAleenan on Incident at San Ysidro Yesterday Afternoon, (Nov. 26, 2018).

[25]   This image was used in other Instagram posts as well. See, e.g., (@the_typical_liberal), Instagram, (last visited Jan. 16, 2019) [file on file with author].

[26]   Jessie Dean Altman, Right-Wing Media Is Using A Years-Old Photo Of A Bloody Border Agent To Justify The Tear Gas Attack, BloomJoy; Saranac Hale Spencer, Bloody Border Patrol Photo is Eight Years Old, (Updated Nov. 29, 2018),

[27]   See Violence Against The Border Patrol: Whose Side Is Obama On?, VDare (June 27, 2014, 4:07 PM), Brandon Darby, Graphic Images Justify Border Patrol’s Use of Deadly Force Against Rock Attacks, Breibart (Apr. 2, 2014), Bob Price, Border Patrol Agent Assaulted During Arrest of Illegal Alien, Breibart (Nov. 2, 2016), Bob Price, Border Patrol Agent Assaulted with Rocks, Breibart (Feb. 8, 2017),

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