September 15, 2019
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In immigration debate, ignore the fake accounts and misinformation

Elise Amendola | AP
Elise Amendola | AP
In this June 13, 2019 photo, Prince Pombo speaks about his family's journey as migrants from Africa, at the Portland Exposition Building in Portland, Maine.

The recent arrival of more than 400 immigrants in Portland forces local, state and federal policy makers to wrestle with some tough realities about housing difficulties and limited public resources.

The new arrivals, many of them asylum seekers from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have been provided housing at an emergency shelter at the Portland Expo. While some have found housing elsewhere, over 250 were still staying at the Expo at the beginning of the week.

Municipal leaders, nonprofits and other members of the community are scrambling to find other housing options for them before an Aug. 15 deadline, after which the Expo will no longer serve as a shelter. The outpouring of private donations and offers to provide housing have been significant and admirable.

But as officials and communities continue a difficult debate about the level and length of public support, it is critical that facts, not speculation, fear, rumor or slander guide an unquestionably complicated conversation about resources and values.

Given the frequent, high-level warnings about campaigns to spread misinformation and promote conflict online, we all need to be on guard against attempts to willfully misinform us — not just in our elections, but also with contentious issues such as this.

We’ve already seen at least one despicable attempt to generate outrage through lies online in the context of Maine’s asylum seeker debate. The Portland Press Herald reported last week on a fake Twitter account created in the name of Prince Pombo Mafumba, a political science professor from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who crossed the U.S. southern border as part of the group of new arrivals and is now seeking asylum here in Maine.

Someone created a fake account in Mafumba’s name, used a photo of him from an earlier news story and began posting intentionally inflammatory things in broken English about immigrant housing, meals and even Ebola.

“I was surprised and shocked and scared,” Mafumba told the Press Herald about his reaction when being informed about the fake account. “I never experienced stuff like this before.”

It may be unclear who created the fake account, but there should be little doubt about the likely intent: to attempt to cast the new group of immigrants as ungrateful, inflexible, potentially diseased, and even incompatible with life here in Maine.

Is there also a faint possibility that someone created this fake account to make it seem like someone else was trying to manufacture anti-immigrant sentiment, in order to generate pro-immigrant pushback? Yes, but that appears much less likely, and no matter how far we go down the rabbit hole, the takeaway is the same: people are trying to sway public opinion from the shadows of the internet, and we cannot put any stock in these demonstrably fake or unverified accounts.

The fake asylum seeker account, now deleted, wasn’t particularly sophisticated and appeared fake even before Mafumba clarified that it wasn’t him. Its absurdity almost wouldn’t warrant mention, except that it represents a dangerous attempt at misinformation and intellectual identity theft. It didn’t amassed a huge amount of followers, but still found its way into political rhetoric.

At least one anti-immigration state politician, even while acknowledging that the account was likely fake, still tried to use it as evidence of ingratitude from the new immigrants in Maine. This was a baffling example of doublespeak that recognized the disingenuous nature of the account while still using its fabrications to push a false narrative.

Maine is and should continue to be a welcoming place for people of all races, religions and cultures. There is room for disagreement on how we continue to respond to this new influx of people and the level to which we support our new neighbors with public resources, whether they are here temporarily or will put down roots. But we should all agree that cynical attempts to use misinformation and lies to shape an already difficult conversation have no place here in our state.

 



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