BOB GARFIELD: This is all On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. It seems that in the end what with the absurdly enduring argument over global warming and the stupefying effect of prime time Fox News, this hour is once again about the struggle for the narrative. If you can command enough media, you can make an impact by simply and loudly disbelieving inconvenient truths. If you are a major media outlet in emotional alignment with a powerful political minority, you can be a locus of alternative reality and an amplifier rage. If you see two–as they say–give voice to the voiceless, you may try satire. But it's risky, as you'll hear. Mexico's new, left-wing president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, takes office this weekend, and there's a crisis waiting for him. Six thousand people are living in a tent city and an overcrowded shelter in Tijuana. Heavy rains and flooding this week added to the challenges they face which already include President Trump's threat to permanently close the border. On both sides of the border, the caravan has served as a catalyst for concern about migration. OTM producer Alana Casanova-Burgess has the story of an attempt to raise the specter of the baseless aversion to the struggling migrants, by spoofing that loathing. That was the intention, anyway. But it's not what happened, not all at.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Oscar Estrada runs a news website in Honduras called El Pulso, or the pulse. A few weeks ago, he was on Facebook when he came across a post from one of the country's tv networks, Channel Six. As of this writing, the post has been shared nearly 50,000 times. It read, 'Watch the ad created by a group of Mexicans against Central American migrants.
OSCAR ESTRADA: On the beginning, I was kind of surprised by what they were saying.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: It started with footage of Trump.
PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP: We will build a great wall along the southern border and Mexico will pay for the wall.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Then a montage of Mexicans saying they refuse to pay for it.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yo no voy a pagar ese muro.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yo no voy a pagar ese muro.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Yo no voy a pagar ese muro
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: because they are the wall.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Porque yo soy ese muro.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yo tambien soy el muro.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yo tambien soy ese muro.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Against the invasion from Central America, they were linking arms, declaring that they would keep the migrants out.
CLIP: Somos el muro.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Somos el muro, we are the wall.
CLIP: Somos el muro. [END CLIP]
OSCAR ESTRADA: I thought it was so strange that it was such a good quality video about such awful thing.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Oscar Estrada is a filmmaker, too, so he knows good production. The video stung. It felt personal.
OSCAR ESTRADA: More than half of my family went to United States in the last 30 years and I know they have very hard experienced there. And I know how it feels to be an immigrant too. And because I know what's happening in the United States and I know what is waiting for them, it's like seeing somebody's going into a trap. You know, then I saw the singing part. And it's the point that realize that it was satire.
CLIP: We are the wall! Somos el muro. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: The video looks like it was made as a response to the so-called caravan of migrants that set out from Honduras on October 13th. And which is now halted at the US-Mexico border, caught between Trump's anti-migrant policies and Trump like rhetoric from some Mexicans.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Demonstrators carried banners reading 'no to the invasion' and 'Mexico first.'.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Many of the sentiments echoed the words of Tijuana's Mayor, Juan Manuel Gastelum, who said in an interview with Milenio television quote, 'sure there are some good people in the caravan but many are bad for the city.' [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: But the video was actually created last year, when a group of artists and activists met in Mexico to brainstorm projects that would bring awareness to what they saw as a serious but hidden problem of xenophobia in Mexico.
MARLENE RAMIREZ-CANCIO: People were not talking about it. It wasn't something that was at the front of the Mexican imaginary at that point.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Marlene Ramirez-Cancio is with the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at New York University, and she's one of the video's creators. They wanted to approach the issue with humor and take a page from the Yes Men–an activist group that famously pranks massive corporations and which collaborated on the video.
MARLENE RAMIREZ-CANCIO: One of the specific uses of satire and parody that we wanted to experiment with is an action that put something out there in a satirical way. Although initially, it is meant to be taken as real and then revealed as not.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: So a classic example of this kind of bait and switch is when, for the 20th anniversary of a terrible pesticide leak in Bhopal, India, the Yes Men set up a fake Dow Chemical's website in 2004 and ended up on the BBC.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Well joining us live from Paris now is Jude Finnesterra. He's a spokesman for Dow chemicals which took over Union Carbide.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I'm very, very happy to announce that for the first time Dow is accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe. We have a $12 billion plan to finally, at long last, fully compensate the victims including--. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: The real Dow Chemical then had to issue a press release hours after the BBC interview, saying, essentially, 'no, we're not doing the right thing.' The trick is that viewers have to think the satire is real, that it's within the bounds of possibility. Someone could believe this.
MARLENE RAMIREZ-CANCIO: The discomfort created by satire is part of the deal. It can be sort of dangerous. That's not a reason, in my view, to shy away from it. Especially when something is incredibly urgent.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: In the We Are The Wall video, a progression of different characters say what they do to migrants.
MARLENE RAMIREZ-CANCIO: A lot of these things had been called to our attention because of what they called the 'doble moral,' the double standard of Mexicans really hating on Trump and the way that he treats Mexicans in the states. And then turning right around and espousing Trumpian views on Central America. So we saw tweets that were, 'oh we should receive those migrants with a bullet to the head' and horrible things are, you know, a lot of assumptions about women being prostitutes as well.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: One of the characters in the video says they steal your husband, especially the Honduran women. They tied them down with a kid and boom, they get neutralized.
MARLENE RAMIREZ-CANCIO: Or another one says 'I call the police.'
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yo, llamo la policia. Se supone que no los deben de llevar, pero so los llevan.'
MARLENE RAMIREZ-CANCIO: 'They're not supposed to take them away but they do anyway.' Another person would say 'I charge on triple.'
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Si puedo, les cobre el triple
MARLENE RAMIREZ-CANCIO: 'Or I pay them half'.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Les pago la mitad
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: The target isn't just violent racists. It's the people who use soft bigotry to prey on the most vulnerable.
MARLENE RAMIREZ-CANCIO: And so finally, when they pan to the left on this one character who is a passenger in the taxi, he just simply says, 'I don't do anything.'.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yo no hago nada.
MARLENE RAMIREZ-CANCIO: And then one of the main characters comes up to the window and with a thumbs up sign says, 'it doesn't matter.'.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: No importa. Al no hacer nada, tambien eres parta del muro. [END CLIP]
MARLENE RAMIREZ-CANCIO: By not doing anything, you're also a part of the wall. Your silence is one more brick. So that's one of my favorite lines.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: And you're not Mexican.
MARLENE RAMIREZ-CANCIO: I'm not Mexican, I’m Puerto Rican.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: And you don't live in Mexico and yet this line still really hits you.
MARLENE RAMIREZ-CANCIO: Yeah because it applies anywhere. Where you are seeing problems around you. And it might not affect you directly, or you think it doesn't affect you directly, you do nothing to help. You watch people be taken away. You watch people be talked about in certain ways, you say nothing, you do nothing. You're part of the problem.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: So the message is harsh but it ends with a wink. A big one
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Que parte del muro eres tu? Eres tu? Que parte del sueño--[END CLIP]
MARLENE RAMIREZ-CANCIO: I personally thought there's no way people are going to believe this is real. This is, 'we are the world' and some ridiculous song called Eres Tu, from Mocedades, from Spain from the 70s. You know, it's impossible that this is going to be taken a real. But either, the world is crazy or crazier than I thought and this could be real, or maybe some people were not watching it all the way to the end.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: The truth is that the video did not exactly go viral in Mexico when it was released in January. Neither did the big reveal which included a red satire disclaimer on the website and links to groups that help migrants. And that was that. It was over.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: But in October, when the caravan started making its way up from Honduras, The group posted it again on Facebook. And then--
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Esta manana, en Abriendo Brecha.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS:--a Honduran news network saw it.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: El movimiento Mexicano ‘somos el muro’--[END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: And they totally didn't get it.
OSCAR ESTRADA: Very conservative channel, very anti-communist, anti-leftist. Sometimes they become themself a joke. I would compare it with Fox News.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Again Oscar Estrada.
OSCAR ESTRADA: And they were broadcasting they video on the news and commenting, 'it's really outrages about what that Mexicans were doing to Honduras.' But at the same time they were like say, 'look this is the reason why we think that people shouldn't go in this caravan.'.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: The network is one of the outlets in Honduras that has been spreading conspiracy theories about the migrants.
OSCAR ESTRADA: These people are be manipulated by the opposition, the leftist to go into this caravan because the Mexicans don't want us there, and things like that.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Oscar's says it's not rare for news outlets and politicians in Honduras to mistake satire for reality. He's seen Mexico's version of The Onion, El Deforma, cited as a real news outlet in Honduras. The joke gets missed, a lot.
OSCAR ESTRADA: To understand satire you have to be able to understand the truth.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: This particular satire wasn't meant for Hondurans, it was meant for Mexicans.
OSCAR ESTRADA: Yes, but we, we thought it was for us. It was meant to be something for Mexico but it was about Hondurans.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: And so this particular video spread quickly. There are over 10,000 comments on one post. A few points out that it's satire and some even come to the defense of Mexicans. 'They helped me when I tried to make the journey to the US. Many of them have big hearts. These people don't represent the whole country.' All of which is true. Many towns in Mexico have come together to help the caravan but many of the commenters also seemed hurt.
ANA FRANCIS MOR: It's cruel. I mean the video, it's cruel. Ana Francis Mor is an actress based in Mexico City.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: And she plays the main character in the video.
ANA FRANCIS MOR: And when you do satire, sometimes you are very sure that you're not crossing the line of violence, that you're not crossing the line to hurt people. But there are some times when you want to risk more when you are talking about origin issues like genocide that is taking place in the south border. You have to take more chances. So I didn't know if it was going to work, if it wasn't too much cruelty.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Now that Ana Francis has seen the reaction to the caravan and the difficult position of thousands of asylum seekers trapped in Tijuana, she says maybe that tone was necessary–because the situation is cruel, too.
ANA FRANCIS MOR: Yes. I mean, the caravan has helped the video make sense.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: In fact, the presence of thousands of visible migrants has brought out more vicious rhetoric. Montserrate Narro is with the Migration Issues Program at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City.
MONTSERRATE NARRO: Por yo no es nada mas, puedo aprovecharme--.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: She says, 'It's no longer. I can take advantage of this person. Now it's I don't want this foreigner here.The message escalated in tone. Now it's more violent.' Montserrate is also with a group called No Somos El Muro– We Are Not The Wall. It's not a reference to the video, she said. It's a response to all the bad press around the migrants. So they're trying to present more positive images to counter that Trump like rhetoric and to highlight solidarity with the migrants across Mexico. She doesn't think satire is the right tool for the problem.
MONTSERRATE NARRO: La tierra ya estaba fertil para discursos de ese tipo.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: The ground was already fertile for that kind of discourse.
MONTSERRATE NARRO: Un video de ese tipo, no se va tomar como una broma. Se va tomar como parte de una postura.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: A video of that kind isn't going to be taken as a joke. It's going to be taken as part of a stance, an affirmation. At a time when even the most extreme views seem within the bounds of acceptable discourse, perhaps the satire was too plausible, too real. About an issue too universal.
OSCAR ESTRADA: Every time we have a big migration of poor people, you find a group of people rejecting them.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Oscar Estrada says there's even a word for it. aporophobia: or fear of poor people. In the Dominican Republic, it's Haitians. In Chile, it's Peruvians.
OSCAR ESTRADA: Or even Costa Rica against the Nicaragua. It's this rejection of people coming to their countries. It's saying the same thing. That they're taking our job. They're criminals. They bring in diseases. And I see it over and over again. And I think this is part of every society. It's just need the right situation to come out.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Maybe, as Montserrate says, 'Satire is the wrong tool for shining a spotlight on our worst inclinations. Because these days those inclinations are always on the verge of getting worse, outpacing our exaggerations. No wonder the message in this case got crossed, taken too seriously in Honduras and ignored in Mexico. Even the silly line in the We Are the Wall video, about on women stealing husbands, provoked a debate in the comments section about which kinds of women were really the best at stealing a spouse. It's hard to imagine a parody that would convey the attitudes of those who would tear gas migrant families at the border. But here's Ronald Colbern, president of the Border Patrol Foundation, this week on Fox and Friends explaining how benign his pepper derived tear gas really is.
RONALD COLBERN: Its natural, you could actually put it on your nachos and eat it. So it’s a good way of deterring people without--[END CLIP]
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: There's a rule of the Internet called Poe's Law which says it's impossible to create an effective parody of extreme views. Because there's no view so extreme that it cannot be mistaken for the real thing. For On the Media, I'm Alana Casanova-Burgess.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Samantha Maldonado. Special thanks this week to Jose Olivares. And our show was edited by…Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: On the Media is supported by the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.