A folded southwest Texas paper. A conspiracy-spitting Facebook streamer has taken its place. – Texas monthly

At the end of September, rumors erupted on local Del Rio Facebook pages that Haitian migrants on a plane leaving the airport to be repatriated had started to revolt. Karen Gleason, criminal reporter for the 830 times, a local media outlet that escalated last November to fill a news void when the 136-year-old Del Rio News-Herald bent, went to the airport to investigate. There, she found a multitude of law enforcement officers gathered around a single migrant who had passed out. There had been no riot. Gleason decided there was no story to pursue and returned home.

Frank Lopez Jr. saw the same scene and decided to broadcast it instead. Former chairman of the Val Verde County Republican Party and retired Border Patrol agent, Lopez has nearly 22,000 followers nationwide on Facebook, where he broadcasts live under the nickname “US Border Patriot.” He paced the airport fence, filming law enforcement and immigration officials escorting reluctant migrants onto the plane. Even though there was no riot, Lopez aroused anxiety in his viewers. “They train them; they don’t want to go; they resist; they fight; they grow back. . . imagine when they come to your hometown and they don’t like the way things are, ”Lopez said.

Within minutes, it had 38,000 viewers, more than the number of people living in Del Rio. For nearly two hours, he harassed immigration policies that repatriated some Haitian migrants while allowing others to seek asylum in the country. There were no references or authorities cited for context, but hundreds of complimentary comments for his version of the truth poured in. A representative commentator wrote that Lopez “is out there and puts [his] life at stake to show us the truth.

Del Rio, Lopez’s base, briefly became the center of national media attention in September as around 15,000 Haitian migrants gathered under the international bridge there. But after the national reporters, who filled every hotel and room for rent for about three weeks, left town, there were few reporters to tell local stories. Val Verde County, of which Del Rio is the seat, had become one of the more than twenty information deserts in Texas, defined by the University of North Carolina as communities with limited access to news and information. credible and complete information, after the News-Herald folded last year. This left room for Lopez to fill in a lack of information.

Lopez is not unique: In the absence of traditional journalism, many Facebook streamers have become go-to sources of information, especially along the border. But their standards are generally much more lax than those of the traditional media, and their information is often accompanied by a schedule. “The information desert is often filled with misinformation, disinformation and propagandists,” said Jo Lukito, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin. “From a journalistic point of view, it’s tragic to watch.

Lopez, who has been broadcasting from the border since September 2020, traces his rise until the News-Herald, as well as the growing anger of many Republicans over the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. His videos are replete with exaggerated stories about migrant crime and rants against politicians he says are responsible for illegal immigration . He considers himself a citizen journalist, although he can be more accurately described as a social media influencer or propagandist. Months after the incident at the airport, I asked Lopez about his livestream. “I am biased,” he said, “but again, is there any unbiased reporting left out? As for his approach, Lopez is blunt: “I try to keep people informed,” he said, even though his editorial style is “just to throw whatever I see in front of me”.

The mainstream media – which seek to verify information before releasing it – have also attempted to fill Del Rio’s information desert. After the local newspaper closed, Joel Langton, an Air Force public affairs veteran, decided to shift attention from an events website he had created to news coverage, in hiring two reporters from the late Del Rio newspaper. the 830 times, so named because of the area code for Del Rio, is primarily an online news site, but it prints a free weekly tabloid that can be found at two hundred local establishments. One of the challenges it faces is the excessive time its reporters spend hunting down false leads that have spread like wildfire on social media, like the rumor of the airport riot. Lopez, Langton said, “tries to paint a bigger picture of life along the border; that’s his brand. We focus on Del Rio and take care of this community. the Time occasionally skips to nationwide reports covering immigration, but its bread and butter is local news: a disaster on a freight train or a police investigation into the death of a person who fell from an overpass motorway.

Although county officials trust traditional outlets such as the 830 times more to disseminate information, they recognize the greater reach of Lopez. A typical story for the Time reaches a few thousand inhabitants; Lopez, whose near-singular focus on immigration draws national conservatives and who is aided by “reporting” on stories other media deem untrustworthy, regularly draws tens of thousands of viewers from across the country, sometimes a few hundred thousand. Lewis Owens, a Democrat who is a Val Verde County judge in Del Rio, said his office shared important information with the 830 times, local radio stations and occasionally TV news stations in San Antonio, 150 miles away. But he concedes that social media influencers like Lopez are leading the political conversation. “You’ve always had them, but they’re more vocal now,” Owens said. While Owens disagrees with some of Lopez’s views, he calls him and others like him “necessary”: “I can tell you, for the most part, what they are broadcasting. , it is true ; I have no problem with that.

In recent months, Lopez has attempted to stoke fears of an immigrant invasion and what he calls “the destruction of America.” Over 102,000 viewers watched him document several holes in Governor Greg Abbott’s chain-link border wall in Val Verde, which he called “Greg’s Gaps” while calling the governor’s immigration crackdown ineffective. In another video, shot on Thanksgiving, which drew 219,000 spectators, he yelled from outside a humanitarian center that immigrants were being transported inside the country to replace Americans in the class. worker, asserting that “the invasion does not take a vacation. Pause. “In November, he accused aid workers he was filming at a gas station of smuggling migrants for profit, before police were called to the scene to inform him he could face charges of criminal trespassing. (It is not known whether charges will be laid against him.) “Some police officers are unfamiliar with First Amendment rights, press freedom and citizen journalists,” said Lopez on the meeting. “When you report here what do they do? They call in law enforcement on law-abiding citizens.

Lopez’s views, which place him to the very right of conservative Texas officials, have found favor with a geographically large and strongly anti-immigrant audience. Social media audiences tend to rally behind those they are already inclined to believe, allowing fake stories to proliferate. “Once you no longer have to discern whether the information is true or false, you end up believing,” said Jessica Collier, a postdoctoral researcher who studies the polarizing effects of disinformation at the Center for Media Engagement at UT-Austin.

Lopez’s new celebrity launched him into right-wing state politics. He regularly receives invitations from law enforcement groups across Texas for speaking engagements. He is not sure whether he will continue his “citizen reporting” for much longer. On the one hand, he expects his comment to eventually get him banned from Facebook and YouTube. (He’s not concerned about the weekly podcast he co-hosts, called Tacobout It Live, where he discusses border, faith, and politics issues.) On the other hand, he’s looking to use his new one. popularity to run for Congress in the Twenty -third District, which extends just outside of El Paso to west of San Antonio. After stepping down as GOP chairman from Val Verde in December, he is running as an independent in a bid to oust incumbent Republican President Tony Gonzales, whom he says is a secret Democrat.

the 830 times, meanwhile, intends to continue his local reporting even if Lopez moves on. “This city deserves a source of information, and the 830 times tries hard to give them one, ”Langton said. “In the long run, we’ll have a stronger community for that. “

About Shelly Evans

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