Hero image of Donald Trump in El Paso after the mass shooting
15th August 2019
Christos Fountas

When words matter: How anti-immigration rhetoric inspired the El Paso attack

Key takeaways

  • Examining over 100,000 articles on the El Paso attack, only 37% associated the attack or attacker to terrorism.
  • Between Saturday, August 3 and Monday, August 5, articles that mentioned Patrick Crusius by name were three times more likely to link the attack to terrorism than those that did not.
  • The media started labelling the attack as an act of terror more frequently after the authorities characterised it as “domestic terrorism”.
  • Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, and the media reporting of it, increased massively during the two months prior to the attack. There was a total increase of 135% from May to July.

Background

Since the beginning of the year to August 2019, there have been 11 mass-shootings in the U.S. costing the lives of 71 people and leaving 92 more injured. Two of these shootings were committed by white supremacists. The first, on April 27, was at Poway synagogue in California, and the most recent one in El Paso, Texas.

Minutes before massacring 23 people in a shopping centre, Patrick Crusius uploaded a manifesto full of hatred. Crusius labelled Latinx people as “invaders”. His aim and motives were clear; to stop the “invaders” and “defend my country”. He believed that immigration was “detrimental to the future of America.”

Crusius’ manifesto has already been compared to, and seemingly mirrors, views of leading right-wing voices like President Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson. These are public-facing people that have used terms from anti-immigration rhetoric, such as “invasion”, “invaders”, “illegal aliens”, “undocumented immigrants” freely in the past. [1]

Figure 1 in report

Figure 1. Compiled by Brandon Friedman, connecting the views of conservative opinion leaders, anti-immigration rhetoric, and Crusius’ manifesto.

Patrick Crusius’ crimes have been called “domestic terrorism” by both local and national authorities in the US. Nevertheless, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Crusius will face charges of terrorism in court. Recently, James Alex Fields Jr., the white supremacist that drove his car into protesters at Charlottesville, was charged with murder and hate crimes, and not as a terrorist. [2]

Below is a statistical analysis of over 100,000 news items published following the attack in El Paso. It examines how often terms like “terrorism” and “terrorist” are used to describe the shooting and Patrick Crusius respectively. It shows that the media’s use of these terms is directly influenced by prominent figures’ usage of them and anti-immigration rhetoric. Further, we show that news items that refer to Crusius by name are more likely to link him, and his act, to terrorism. Finally, we examine how Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric increased in the months leading up to this attack.

Use of the term terrorist

Our previous research has shown that the media doesn’t use language equally when describing acts of terror committed by white supremacists compared to acts committed by Islamists. Accordingly, we expect that when reporting on El Paso the media will have been unlikely to link the attack to terrorism. [3]

Globally, there were 103,464 articles reporting on the attack, from Saturday, August 3, to Monday, August 5. We also compared global media to four more refined reading lists (from news organisations with greater reach) as part of this project (see Appendix). In these four lists there were 9,962 articles mentioning the attack.

Graph showing total coverage of the El Paso attack

Figure 2. Total coverage of the El Paso attack (Full Reading List).

Of these, only 37,829 articles included at least one of the terms “terrorist”, “terrorism”, or “terror”. Respectively in the four reading lists used for the same time period there were 3,995 articles (40%) that used at least one of the terms “terrorist”, “terrorism” or “terror”.

This means that only 37% of the total articles used one of the aforementioned terms. In our prior study, we found that in the aftermath of six different white supremacist terrorist attacks, only 24.6% of coverage used these terms. By comparison, 67.6% of the media coverage following the Christchurch shooting used these terms. Whilst the media’s response to El Paso seems to be an improvement from the norm, it does appear to be a step backwards after Christchurch. [3]

Graph showing number of articles reporting on the attack over time

Figure 3. Number of articles reporting on the attack over time (hourly), each line represents the coverage including and excluding the terms “terrorist”, “terrorism” or “terror”.

Figure 3 compares the number of articles relating the attack to terrorism (the red line) to those that did not (the blue line).

What is apparent from the graph is that there was a delay between the initial reporting on the attack and the moment that the media began to label it as an act of terror. This will be analysed in the following section.

Day-by-day evolution

Saturday, August 3 (The day of the attack)

On the day of the attack (03/08), only 19% of articles reporting on the attack labelled it as an act of terrorism. This is an average of all the articles from all the reading lists used in this project, that adopted at least one of the terms “terrorism”, “terrorist”, “terror”. In the hours immediately following the attack the media was reluctant to class it as a terrorist act.

In articles that did not name the attacker, this figure dropped as low as 6.9%. On the other hand, in articles that refer to Patrick Crusius by name this percentage jumps up to 31.3%. The reason for this is unclear, but it does suggest that the media were more prepared to connect the attacker to terrorism than the mass shooting itself.

Graph showing coverage of the attack, numbers and percentages of articles labelling it as an act of terrorism (03/08)

Figure 4. Coverage of the attack, numbers and percentages of articles labelling it as an act of terrorism (03/08), divided into the four reading list that were used for this project. Green is marking the highest percentage and red the lowest. 

Sunday, August 4

Sunday marked a turning point in the media to characterising the attack as an act of terrorism.

The media used the terms “terrorist”, “terrorism” or “terror” more than twice as frequently than on Saturday, August 3 (from 19% to 42.8%). Early in the day the authorities announced that they were treating the case as “domestic terrorism” (see figure 3). [4] From this moment onwards the media began to use the aforementioned terms more readily.

As was the case with the Christchurch attack [3], the media followed the example of the authorities in naming the event as an act of terrorism. The attack in El Paso further adds to our conclusion that “influential figures may have the ability to shift the narrative around events and topics.”

Interestingly, we see the same trends continuing as the narrative develops. Even as media classification of the shooting as terrorism increased, media about the attack was still 49.9% more likely to describe it as terrorism when Crusius was named than when he remained nameless (35.8%).

Table showing coverage of the attack, numbers and percentages of articles labelling it as an act of terrorism (04/08)

Figure 5. Coverage of the attack, numbers and percentages of articles labelling it as an act of terrorism (04/08), divided into the four reading lists that were used for this project. Green is the highest percentage and red the lowest. 

Monday, August 5

On Monday, the upward trend continued. More than half (53.2%) of the articles referred to the attack as terrorism. One might attribute this further rise to Trump’s condemnation of white supremacy and racism early on Monday. [5]

Once again, we see that articles that mentioned Crusius by name more readily link the attack to terrorism. Over 65% of articles that name Crusuis linked the attack to terrorism, compared to 41% in articles that did not.

Table showing coverage of the attack, numbers and percentages of articles labelling it as a terrorism act (05/08)

Figure 6. Coverage of the attack, numbers and percentages of articles labelling it as a terrorism act (05/08), divided into the four reading lists that were used for this project. Green is the highest percentage and red the lowest. 

The Trump effect

In the aftermath of the attack, there has been a lot of discussion around whether Trump “fuelled” or “provoked” this attack or the attacker. Many have claimed that his rhetoric and comments on immigration, have encouraged far-right extremism. [6] People have pointed, in particular, to Trump’s response to one of his supporters shouting “shoot them”, in reference to immigrants, during one of his rallies in Florida last May. [7]

We looked at how often both Trump and hostile language about immigrants appeared together in global media. During the last three months, Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, and news reporting on it, has risen dramatically. In June, Trump appeared, in relation to offensive language towards immigrants, in 34,152 articles globally, an increase of 167% from May.

This trend fell slightly, by 11.8%, throughout. Nevertheless, in comparison to April, anti-immigration rhetoric appeared four times more often in July.

Table showing number of articles and figures of increase of articles mentioning Donald Trump and immigration

Figure 7. Number of articles and figures of increase of articles mentioning Donald Trump in association with terms “illegal immigrant(s)” “illegal alien(s)”, “immigrant invasion”, “undocumented immigrant(s)”.

News pieces that linked Trump to anti-immigration rhetoric increased drastically in both June and July (see below – Figure 7). This massive spike in Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric and media coverage of it is clearly depicted in Figure 7.

This graph shows the volume of articles, mentioning Trump alongside one of the following terms: “illegal (im)migrant(s)” “illegal alien(s)”, “(im)migrant(s) invasion”. Throughout the year, a previous significant spike occurred during January – 20,132 articles. By comparison, June and July saw 34,152 and 10,104 articles respectively, a massive increase.

Graph showing volume of articles mentioning Donald Trump and immigrants

Figure 8. Volume of articles mentioning Donald Trump in association with terms “illegal (im)migrant(s)” “illegal alien(s)”, “(im)migrant(s) invasion”.

Conclusions

The media seemed unwilling to label this attack as terrorism, especially before the authorities announced that they were treating it as a case of “domestic terrorism”. This further adds to our belief that prominent figures bear a responsibility in correctly labelling terrorism.

An unexpected finding from this study was that the media are more likely to refer to an attack as “terrorism” in articles in which they use the attackers name. On average, between Saturday, August 3 and Monday, August 5, 48.8% of the articles mentioning Crusius used a term that linked the attack to terrorism. In comparison, articles which did not name Crusius only did this on average 28% of the time.

Our data shows that Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric spiked massively during the last two months. The El Paso manifesto echoed a vocabulary that Trump (amongst other public and political figures) spouted increasingly in June and July. Whilst we cannot directly conclude that Trump triggered this attack, it is worth considering whether it would have occurred without his vocal anti-immigration stance.

References

[1] https://theintercept.com/2019/08/05/el-paso-gunmans-fear-migrant-invasion-echoed-donald-trump-fox-news/

[2] https://theintercept.com/2019/03/23/domestic-terrorism-fbi-prosecutions/

[3] https://www.signal-ai.com/blog/lessons-from-christchurch-how-the-media-finally-acknowledged-far-right-terrorism

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/03/us/el-paso-walmart-shooting.html

[5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-49240310

[6] https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/john-legend-donald-trump-el-paso-shooting-racism_n_5d488b48e4b0ca604e36b7dd?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAFV_KmSQw26yVCUO7GFIk4aBsryQtkGYEyhKqxbHx5rwsNn6eOudHLoex52ruJ4ZKLu4DrJizIhuIRT3_S3E8rcAArRGT_pSFk5kj1YDS3FV2uWUUPbQXKkw6DiNlufV_KdGUSqAhvxJYzhmYcqKvGdN4NI0HuUIW1e4l38I6fHW

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/08/05/when-rally-goer-suggested-shooting-immigrants-may-trump-made-joke/

Appendix

Lean Right Sources:

American Conservative, The
Boston Herald
One America News NetworkThe Fiscal Times
Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)Pittsburgh Post-GazetteThe Orange County
Epoch Times (US edition)Reason MagazineRegister
FOX NewsREASON OnlineThe Telegraph, London
Independent JournalRichmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)Washington Examiner
Investor’s Business DailyThe Daily PressWashington Times
Libertarian RepublicanThe Epoch Times | The Epoch TimesWatchdog.org

Lean Left Sources:

ABC News (USA)MediaiteThe Advocate-Messenger
Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionMiami HeraldThe Atlantic
Austin American-StatesmanMichigan DailyThe Centre View
Boston GlobeMTVThe Commercial Appeal
BustleNBC NewsThe Economist
BuzzFeedNBC News: TodayThe Guardian
CBS NewsNewsweekThe Independent
Chicago Sun-TimesPacific StandardThe New York Times
CNNPhiladelphia InquirerThe Root
Counter CurrentsPoliticoThe Spokesman-Review
Daily News (Bowling Green, Kentucky)PolitifactThe Verge
Daily NorthwesternPublic IntegrityTIME Magazine
Daily TargumSacramento BeeUS News & World Report
Daily Times-Call (Longmont Colorado)San Jose Mercury News (California)Vanity Fair
GristSky-Hi Daily NewsVTDigger
Las Vegas SunState JournalWashington Post
Los Angeles TimesTeen Vogue
Louisville Courier-JournalTexas Observer

Top 50 Global Sources:

ABC NewsInformationReuters
AxiosInternational BusinessRussia Today
Barron’sTimesSky News
BBCIrish TimesSouth China Morning Post
BloombergJerusalem PostSputnik
Boston GlobeJyllands PostenSydney Morning Herald
Business InsiderLe MondeThe Daily Telegraph
BusinessWeekLos Angeles TimesThe Economist
CBS NewsMelbourne AgeThe Guardian
China DailyMIT Technology ReviewThe Independent
CNBCMSNBCThe Observer
Financial TimesNatureThe Times
ForbesNBC NewsThe Wall Street Journal
Global CapitalNew ScientistTIME
HandelsblattNew York TimesUSA Today
Harvard Business ReviewPBSWashington Post
HuffPostPoliticoXinhua News

US Tier One Sources:

ABC News
ABC News (USA)
Albuquerque Journal
American Banker
AP Associated Press
Arizona Daily Star
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Auburn Reporter
Austin American-Statesman
BankNxt
Barron’s
Billings Gazette
Bloomberg
Bloomberg Alerts
Bloomberg BNA
Bloomberg Business
Bloomberg Businessweek
Bloomberg Government
Bloomberg Latam
Bloomberg Law – Big Law Business
Bloomberg New Energy Finance
Bloomberg Sports News
Bloomberg TV
Bloomberg View
Bloomberg: Surveillance Show
Boston Globe
Boston Herald
Boston.com
Business Insider US
Business Wire
CBS Evening News
CBS News
Charleston Gazette
Charlotte Observer
Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Tribune
Chron.com
Cincinnati Business Courier (Ohio)
CNBC
CNN
CNN International
CNN Money
CNN Transcripts
CNN Wire
Crain’s Chicago Business
Dallas Morning News
Debtwire
Defense Industry Daily
Denver – The Huffington Post
Denver Post
Detroit Free Press
Dow Jones
Dow Jones Daily Bankruptcy Review
Dow Jones DBR Small Cap Alert
Dow Jones Financial Information Services
Dow Jones Industrial Stocks (DJIA)
Dow Jones Institutional News
ESPN
Field & Stream
Florida Trend
Forbes
Forbes.com
Fort Worth Business Press (TX)
Fortune
Fortune
Fox Business
FOX News
Fox News Latino
FOXNews.com
Global Custodian
Good4Utah.com
Grand Forks Herald (North Dakota)
Hannibal Courier-Post
Herald-Times (Bloomington, Indiana)
Hospi Medica
Hot Springs Sentinel-Record
Houston Chronicle
Huffington Post
Huffington Post (USA)
HuffPost
IDC
International New York Times
Lab Medica
Las Vegas Review Journal
Las Vegas Sun
latimes.com – Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles – The Huffington Post
Los Angeles Times
Mattermark
Miami Herald
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Mississippi River Clean-Up
Morningstar.com
MSN Video USA
MSNBC
MySanAntonio
NBC News
NBC Sports
NBR.com
New York – The Huffington Post
New York Daily News
New York Post
New York Post (NY)
New York Times
New York Times (Abstracts) (NY)
Northern Wyoming Daily News
Orlando Sentinel
Philadelphia Daily News
Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia Inquirer (PA)
Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News, The (PA)
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Tribune Review
Politico
Red Herring
Reuters
Sacramento Bee
San Francisco Business Times
San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco Examiner
Saugus Advertiser (Massachusetts)
Seattle Times
Silicon Valley Business Journal (California)
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Sonoma West Times and News
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Technology – Los Angeles Times
Technology Blog on The Huffington Post
The Alestle: Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville
The Atlanta Technology Journal
The Beaumont Enterprise (Texas)
The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts)
The Boston Globe
The Dallas Morning News: Blogs
The Detroit News (Michigan)
The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)
The Hill
The Hillsdale Daily News (Michigan)
The Houston Chronicle
The Huffington Post
The Kansas City Star
The New York Times
The Newtown Bee (Connecticut)
The Nightly Business Report
The Wall Street Journal
TheStreet.com
TIME
Time
TIME Magazine
Times – Picayune (New Orleans)
Times Herald (Port Huron, Michigan)
TMC Net
U.S. Fed News
USA Today
VisitPhilly.com
Wall Street Journal
Washington Business Journal
Washington Post
Washington Times
Wired
WIRED (USA)
WWD
Yahoo! Finance USA
ZDNet

Image source: President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump meet with law enforcement personnel Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, at the El Paso Emergency Operations Center in El Paso, Texas (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks).