How pro-Trump Facebook pages turned N.J. Gov. Murphy into a misleading viral meme

Pro-Trump Facebook groups have been sharing a misleading meme of Gov. Murphy as part of a social media campaign that purports to document an exodus from the Democratic Party.

Pro-Trump Facebook pages are spreading a misleading meme that suggests Gov. Murphy cares more about undocumented immigrants than about American citizens, making the New Jersey Democrat a fresh target in a social-media campaign that purports to document stories of former liberals who have renounced their party.

The meme says Murphy endorsed the use of taxpayer money to “send illegal immigrants to college for free” – a mischaracterization of a bill he signed in May that lets some such immigrants qualify for financial aid.

Since emerging last weekend, it has been shared more than 100,000 times, mostly by conservative Facebook pages but also by public figures, including Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Its circulation on social media offers a window into the kind of misleading and sometimes outright false information increasingly shaping American politics and digital culture, especially on hot-button issues like immigration.

“What you see frequently with this hyper-partisan misinforming content is people are trying to exacerbate particular tensions and stoke rage,” said Cameron Hickey, a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. “Rage is what engages people in a lot of cases. It’s really powerful.”

Some peddlers of misinformation explicitly say they’re creating fake content. A satirical Facebook page run by self-described “liberal trolls masquerading as conservatives” posted a meme of a fictitious Democratic congresswoman who it said had “pushed through” legislation that would bar voters older than 60. The page warns that none of its content is real, but the meme still managed to trick enough people that the fact-checking site Snopes officially debunked it this month.

In Pennsylvania, the Young Republicans of Allegheny County recently Photoshopped an image of the Pittsburgh mayor’s chief of staff that showed him holding a placard saying “WalkAway,” indicating that he was leaving the Democratic Party. In the real photo, the placard said “I believe survivors” — a sign of solidarity with rape victims. The Young Republicans wrote on Facebook that the “lighthearted, satirical post was meant in jest.”

Not surprisingly, President Trump, who regularly denounces much of the mainstream news media as “fake news,” is himself a popular target for meme strategists on both sides of the political spectrum. One shared widely this month pointed to Trump’s attacks on the media and declared he had “blood on his hands” after the fatal newsroom shooting at the Annapolis Gazette.

With November’s midterm elections approaching, experts expect such inflammatory posts to proliferate.

An invitation for polarizing commentary

Since their explosion during the 2016 campaign, social-media platforms have pledged to crack down on false news. Even so, platforms like Facebook have struggled to articulate a clear policy on how to handle such provably false things as Holocaust denial.

Murphy, who took office in January, may seem like an odd target. He isn’t on the ballot this year, and none of the Facebook accounts that posted the meme appeared to be especially interested in New Jersey politics.

But it’s easy enough to link Murphy’s embrace of undocumented immigrants to Democrats writ large.

And a meme — a funny or satirical image that can quickly spread online — is the perfect vehicle: easy to consume and share widely. There’s no other context provided or citations for further reading. But there’s ample opportunity for polarizing commentary.

“This is HOW the Left RECRUITS NEW VOTERS!” read one of the Facebook pages that posted the Murphy meme.

Perhaps most striking about the attack on Murphy is that it isn’t a complete fabrication of events or some far-fetched conspiracy theory. It’s more like the kind of hyper-partisan commentary that eschews key facts and context, rockets around the internet, and sometimes lands on your screen.

Without using quotation marks, it attributes this comment to the governor: “We will use taxpayer money to send illegal immigrants to college for free.”

Murphy has never said that — he doesn’t even use the phrase “illegal immigrants” when referring to undocumented persons.

Beneath the photo of Murphy is a stock image of a skeptical-looking man and text that reads, “My wife and I both work full time and still cannot afford to send our own kids to college … What’s wrong with this picture??”

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This post of a misleading meme of Gov. Murphy was shared 16,000 times on Facebook. In total, the meme and other versions of it have been shared more than 100,000 times.
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This stock photo was uploaded to depositphotos.com in 2015.

The meme used the hashtag #WalkAway, a conservative campaign that took off on pro-Trump internet sites in late June after a self-described former liberal posted a Facebook video announcing he had left the Democratic Party and urging others to follow him in embracing conservatism.

The meme refers to a measure Murphy signed into law that amended the existing “DREAM Act” to allow certain undocumented immigrants living in New Jersey to qualify for financial aid to state colleges and universities.

The law, signed by Gov. Chris Christie, allowed such students to qualify for in-state college tuition if they attended a New Jersey high school for at least three years, graduated or earned the equivalent of a diploma, and signed an affidavit stating they had applied to legalize their immigration status. However, Christie vetoed a proposal to also make them eligible for financial aid, writing in his veto message that the provision would “drive enrollment from out-of-state students, at the expense of in-state residents.”

Murphy’s law does not mean that undocumented immigrants will get to go to college “for free” but rather that they are eligible for aid like other New Jersey residents. The fiscal 2019 budget allocates $457 million for higher-education aid.

Dan Bryan, a spokesperson for Murphy, said the governor “believes all New Jersey children, regardless of immigration status, should have equal access to instate financial aid for colleges and universities.”

“Misleading and deceitful memes from the far right will not change that,” he said.

The spread of the meme shows how difficult it can be to trace the source of junk news and the provenance of its amplification.

The earliest version found by the Inquirer and Daily News was posted around 8 a.m. on Saturday, July 21, by a pro-Trump Facebook page called the Citizens Mandate, which has about 56,000 “likes.”

About an hour later, a page called Christians for Trump also posted the meme, which was quickly shared on 10 other Facebook pages affiliated with Christians for Trump. Those pages have a combined 936,000 likes. Christians for Trump says on its page that it was run in 2016 by Liberty T, a South Carolina-based political action committee that has spent tens of thousands of dollars on online advertising, including $50,000 on “evangelical banner ads” in October 2016, records show.

Liberty T’s treasurer didn’t respond to requests for comment.

By Saturday evening, a page called the Federalist Papers, which has 2.4 million likes, posted the image.

Counter to ‘blue wave’

Hickey, the Harvard researcher, said that the meme appeared to have been shared by real users, but that it was difficult to verify all of them. “At the beginning there are real people who made this and posted it to these pages,” he said. “We’re seeing lots of real engagement on Facebook, with real users commenting on it.”

To some promoters, the #WalkAway campaign is a counter to the idea that a “blue wave” will help Democrats take control of Congress in the midterm elections.

It started with a video posted by a New York hairdresser named Brandon Straka in May. The hashtag #WalkAway went viral in late June, as conservatives like Sarah Palin shared Straka’s video, which had 2.3 million views on Facebook as of Friday.

On Tuesday, Straka wrote on Twitter that memes that used stock photos — like the Murphy one — were fake.

“Many people are excited and energized about #WalkAway,” Straka told Snopes, “and in this excitement have created their own materials which are not approved or condoned by the official #WalkAway Campaign.”

Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.