Shortly before entering a Walmart near El Paso on August 3, 2019, a man took to social media to cite a litany of white supremacist and anti-immigrant conspiracy theories as justification for mass murder. As we mark two years since 23 people died in the deadliest attack on the United States’ Latinx community in recent history, we must confront how that tragedy was not just the result of one individual’s actions or lax gun-control laws, but also a consequence of a media ecosystem that incites—and even profits from—hate and violence.
In the two years since the El Paso massacre, social media platforms and news media conglomerates still refuse to acknowledge the depth of their power in enabling the growing number of hate crimes. For these companies, no toll is too high to change an economic model that puts profits over public safety and accepts white supremacy as the cost of doing business.
The proliferation of media peddling bigotry for clicks online has a direct effect on hate-fueled violence offline. The El Paso gunman told investigators that he came to his heinous views about Latinx and immigrant communities through online research. And last year, the FBI confirmed that whitesupremacist terrorists continue to be indoctrinated online, where they can connect with other extremists, learn from earlier attacks, and find resources to act.
Despite the evidence, social media companies like Facebook and Alphabet (which owns YouTube) continue to tolerate users who espouse the Great Replacement theory and other white supremacist myths that inspired the El Paso shooter. In research released a year after the El Paso tragedy, the Tech Transparency Project found that Facebook still platformed 113 white supremacist groups, spreading their messages of hate to a global audience of millions.
While Facebook responded to this research by removing many of these groups, the company still fails to meaningfully invest its immense wealth in finding and removing this content to protect our lives. White supremacists also continue to figure out ways to game YouTube’s promotion algorithms to ensure that their messages of hate reach the widest possible audiences.
But the problem isn’t limited to social media. For decades, countless radio and television personalities have broadcast anti-immigrant lies and other forms of hate on the public airwaves.
Before he passed away last year, Rush Limbaugh spent decades spreading his messages of hate from coast to coast. His influence was almost entirely thanks to consolidated-media conglomerates including Cumulus Media and iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel Communications) that carried Limbaugh’s toxic program over hundreds of local radio stations.
Since its founding, Fox News has devoted its primetime programming to those who slander Latinx people and immigrants. A recent study found that in just a 12-week period, the network stoked fear against migrants and the immigration system in at least 693 segments. Its most-viewed on-air personality, Tucker Carlson, is a frequent proponent of white replacement theory, recently telling his audience that allowing immigrants to vote would “dilute the political power” of Americans.
And these outlets aren’t just demonizing Latinx people and immigrant communities. Free Press’ Media 2070 project has extensively documented the violent legacy of media discrimination targeting Black people in the United States. For-profit media companies are making business decisions that all too often protect a white hierarchy in the United States, while causing Black, Indigenous, and other people of color grave harm.
Facebook continues to take money for ads attacking immigrants. And it recently defended a pre-El Paso massacre decision to accept thousands of Trump campaign ads that referred to the influx of immigrants as an “invasion”—using phrases that were eerily similar to language invoked in the El Paso shooter’s 2,300-word manifesto.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, several local broadcast stations profited handsomely from airing anti-immigrant campaign ads designed to scare white voters to the polls. Millions more was spent to place similar messages in advertising on platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
As deadly hate crimes across the United States have reached their highest level in a decade, ask yourself: How many of these victims would be with us today if commercial media hadn’t embraced white supremacy and its adherents? How many lives pay the cost for media corporations that profit from bigotry and violence?
These media companies’ speech may be constitutionally protected but that doesn’t mean that speech is free to cause harm. And it certainly doesn’t mean that hate speech should enjoy quality placement across broadcast, cable, and the internet. There must be a reckoning where social media and news media are held accountable for the damage they cause by valuing profits over lives. We need political leaders to implement policies that enable responsible practices and systems to break white supremacy’s hold on the media landscape.
Earlier this summer, congressional leaders worked with Media 2070 to urge the Federal Communications Commission to investigate how its policy decisions favor white-owned media businesses and harm communities of color. They called on the agency to “address and redress” this legacy of harm and identify the “affirmative steps” it must take to “break down barriers to just media and telecommunication practices.”
To have media outlets that protect all people, we must acknowledge the failings of commercial models that foment hate for profit. We need to not only repair the harm of hate-for-profit media, but support noncommercial models that serve the news and information needs of immigrants and communities of color, as well.
Building a more robust and equitable public-interest media system is the work of a generation. But it’s work all of us need to begin in earnest. Our lives depend on it.