For more than a year under pandemic conditions, it didn’t exist.
Today it is among the most widespread ways to frame the policy response to the Covid pandemic:
Illegal border crossings are a principal source of the spread of Covid in the US.
It is a specific and powerful narrative. For obvious reasons, it is also a seductive narrative. And unless you are hiding under a media rock (for which you could be immediately and thoroughly forgiven) you know that it is now everywhere you look. So how did we get from there to here? How did we go from nobody talking about an idea to hundreds of outlets writing about the role of illegal border crossings in the recent growth of the cases associated with the delta variant of Covid-19?
This is a story of the birth of a narrative.
Throughout 2020, public statements and articles of any kind connecting Covid and illegal border crossings were rare. Not unheard of, but rare. To be fair, borders and immigration were certainly a part of the pandemic discussion, but they were largely referenced in context of national travel and transportation policy – which regions were restricted from air travel to the US, which regions were restricting air travel from the US, that kind of thing. Our dataset isn’t a complete set of everything anyone wrote, and no method for identifying connections between linguistic patterns or topics will be foolproof. But we could not classify any article published by a US-based wide-distribution outlet in 2020 as being principally about the argument that “illegal immigration was a principal source of the spread of Covid.”
January and early February of 2021 were a little bit different. A small collection of articles simultaneously wrote about both Covid risks and the physical border with Mexico, but they almost universally belonged to one of three genres:
- Lists of challenges for the new president: A looming border crisis was such a challenge. So was Covid. These are articles in which the two topics shared pride of place on whatever the fancy form of a listicle is called, but did not otherwise relate the two. See an example of this genre here.
- Descriptions of conditions leading to migrant activity: Some articles discussed the expected rise in migrant activity in context of its proximate causes, one of which was the economic and social impact of Covid on governments in Central America. See an example of this genre here.
- Concerns about migrants taking up vaccine availability: Mind you, this genre hails from the halcyon days of 6 months ago when performatively refusing a vaccine had not yet converged into a positive expression of identity. It is hard to imagine an extant Venn-diagram segment of people dying on the “immigrants are taking all our precious vaccines” hill in the national politics of August, but I assure you, it did exist at one time. See an example of this genre here.
There were vanishingly few major public statements by influential individuals or articles from major news or opinion outlets asserting that illegal border crossings were a primary risk of growth in Covid cases. Given that new Covid cases in the U.S. had fallen rather a lot at this point in 2021, we should not expect that there would be any pointing to this topic as a cause of any growth that had already occurred, and indeed there were not. The closest any major statement came to either argument was from Tom Cotton on January 18th, although again, it concerned standard border admissions policy and Senator Cotton’s predictions of a dramatic policy shift that did not occur (or, at least, had not occurred as of August 2021).
So, essentially nothing.
That is, until February 22nd.
Act 1: The Virus
On February 22nd, nineteen GOP members of the House of Representatives, led by Indiana congressman Jim Banks, sent a letter to President Biden laying out concerns that the administration’s illegal immigration and border enforcement policies would result in the spread of Covid. Rather than summarize its arguments, and because no opportunity to look upon the wonder that is Madison Cawthorn’s actual, real-life, no-I-am-not-shitting-you signature should be wasted, I have linked to the letter in full below.
For what it’s worth, I think the administration’s early decisions on border policy have been terrible. I think the signatories (and whatever you call someone who drew what Mr. Cawthorn did on this paper – I mean, seriously, you’re a grown man now, congressman) are 100% correct that the administration should roll some of those decisions back. I even think the reasons provided by the group form a small part of the rationale for doing so.
The principal statements of fact are, for the most part, correct. It is true that illegal border crossings have risen significantly. It is true that the Biden administration has reinstated catch-and-release. It is true that these two factors increase the risk of the spread of Covid in American cities.
However, the birth of a narrative doesn’t require a compellingly argued opinion. It also doesn’t require technically correct facts. It can include both, and sometimes benefits from them, but their existence is by no means required. What a narrative needs to be born is someone who everyone thinks everyone else heard – a common knowledge missionary – to say something that everyone thinks everyone else heard.
We call that a missionary statement. And the missionary statement that was made in this letter wasn’t about the facts of the border. It also wasn’t the opinion expressed about the correct policy response.
The true missionary statement contained in this letter is that illegal immigration will be a principal cause of the spread of Covid in the United States.
Act 2: The Host
When Richard Dawkins first developed the modern concept of the meme, he meant it literally as a quasi-biological process for cultural transmission and propagation. In other words, as a sort of natural selection for ideas, only one that recognized (as in nature) that the capacity for a cultural idea to reproduce is the method through which that selection takes place. It’s the same with narratives, which are simply memes weaponized toward some end or another.
As we observed in the prior section, the first thing a narrative needs in order to reproduce is a missionary, someone who can say something that everyone knows everyone else has heard. The second thing that a narrative needs in order to reproduce is a host. That is, it needs a receptive audience with the reason and capacity to spread the desired framing to others.
The ability to spread a narrative is pretty straightforward. Either you have a megaphone or you don’t. And some megaphones are bigger than others. The reason, however, is a bit more abstract. But don’t worry – both humans and groups of human have a lot of possible reasons to spread a narrative that has been brought into existence by a common knowledge missionary.
Sometimes a nascent narrative spreads more easily because of the sheer volume of discussion of the topics to which it relates. If a narrative has been successfully created about a major event or personality and its framing finds its way into more human eyes and ears, it has more opportunities to reproduce.
Sometimes a narrative spreads more easily because it is connected to Dawkins’ foundational cultural memes. Those memes can be universal ideas like protecting our children, fear of outsiders, and other primal instincts coded into our figurative cultural DNA and sometimes into our literal biological DNA.
Sometimes a narrative spreads because it permits us to express identity. By framing a topic as being about the things we care about, values we hold, or some other thing that is attached to the identity we have chosen, we make our perception of the world a little bit bigger – and also a little bit more about us.
Sometimes a narrative spreads because it allows us to maintain ego integrity. When we have been on the wrong side of facts – and from time to time, all of us will be – a narrative which redirects the framing and interpretation of facts to show that we were right all along if you really think about it is likely to be a very successful one.
Sometimes a narrative spreads because it allows us to advance an argument. A framing that allows one group to cast doubt on the motives, internal consistency or moral standing of a different group in order to score points in a dispute is a well-selected trait.
I’m sure you can think of others.
I’m sure you can also see where this is going: the narrative that illegal immigration is a principal cause of the spread of Covid in the United States benefits from all of these conditions.
We have the virus. We have ready hosts.
Now we need a superspreader event.
Act 3: The Superspreader Event
That event took place on March 3rd and 4th.
On March 3rd, multiple news outlets published reports that the Biden administration’s implementation of catch-and-release policies had resulted in 108 migrants who were in the country illegally testing positive for Covid-19 and then being released. That same day, in an impressive mix of bad timing, bad luck and profound political cluelessness, President Biden made this separate statement in response to new policies in Texas and Mississippi that relaxed statewide mask requirements.
The last thing, the last thing you need is neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything is fine, take off your mask…It’s critical, critical, critical, critical that they follow the science. Wash your hands, hot water. Do it frequently. Wear a mask and stay socially distanced. And I know you all know that I wish the heck some of our elected officials knew it.President Joe Biden – March 3, 2021 (Source: New York Post)
In response, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (who has a top five missionary megaphone for the political right) went on Fox and Friends (probably still the top missionary megaphone platform for the political right) to deliver a savage and effective riposte. Dan Crenshaw, Ted Cruz and other Texas politicians made similar remarks on other platforms.
Two things, Brian. First, it obviously is not the type of thing that the president should be saying. But, second, he kind of said it on the worst day he could have, because the same day he said that in Texas, the Biden administration was releasing illegal immigrants into our communities who had COVID. The Biden administration was spreading COVID in south Texas yesterday because of their lack of constraint of testing and quarantining people who come across the border illegally. The Biden administration was exposing Texans to COVID. That is a Neanderthal type approach to dealing with the COVID situation.Texas Governor Greg Abbott – March 4, 2021 (Source: Fox & Friends)
It was a successful political statement and largely reasonable, if perhaps a bit hyperbolic. From this point forward, however, it also emerged as a primary framing for a much wider range of topics. Most notably, what I want to show you is how it became a primary framing for discussions about state policies with respect to masks and vaccines, including policies governing whether schools, businesses or other institutions would be permitted to implement such policies themselves.
Again, the narrative started from nothing. Below is a network graph constructed from articles about state-level mask mandates, vaccination mandates and interactions with schools and businesses discussing requirements of the same for the period between January 1, 2021 and March 2, 2021. Nodes are individual articles published by wide-distribution, US-based outlets. Articles of the same color or connected by lines use more similar language to one another. Bold-faced nodes are those which include references to immigration or the border crisis. North, south, east and west have no meaning outside of the similarity communicated by distance.
Graph of Covid Immigration Framing for Jan 1 – Mar 2 2021
In the first month after the narrative superspreader event, the quantity of articles increased dramatically. It emerged on the periphery but had also begun to exert small influence on the central language of the topic. That is, the framing was becoming internally coherent enough to form into explicit clusters (see the gray cluster in the north of map), and that influence was spreading outward to a range of disparate sub-topics (see the long-distance connecting lines).
Graph of Covid Immigration Framing for March 2021
Over the next few months, the framing became more central, occupying several of the most connected clusters of language for content covering Covid mask and vaccine policy, and increasingly connecting otherwise distinct sub-topics.
Graph of Covid Immigration Framing for April-July 2021
Here in August, we have reached the point where you probably feel like you have been reading – or at least seeing – these articles daily for the last few weeks. That is because you are. That is because nearly an entire hemisphere of state-level Covid policy is now being passed through this framing.
Graph of Covid Immigration Framing for August 2021
Our quantitative measures of narrative attention tell exactly the same story. These nodes have steadily risen in their relative influence on and similarity within the network over this time. Likewise, our measure of narrative cohesion, which is the internal linguistic similarity of articles linking illegal immigration and the border crisis to Covid policy, rose consistently over the period. In short, the individuals, institutions and news outlets using this framing are increasingly using the same language, and that language is increasingly a part of the language being used to discuss state-level Covid policy.
If you buy the conditions for the spread of a narrative we set out in the previous section, none of this should be a surprise.
It is possible for this narrative to spread more quickly in part because a sharp rise in illegal border crossings has caused an increase in the volume of articles, statements and social media activity around a topic to which the narrative is tethered.
It is possible for this narrative to spread more quickly in part because it incorporates a unit of human cultural transmission with massive demonstrated reproductive value: the outsider or foreigner as the source of blame. And yes, fear of a rapidly spreading virus.
It is possible for this narrative to spread more quickly in part because it provides an avenue for a significant portion of the population and narrative missionaries alike to claim absolution of responsibility for personal actions (especially non-vaccination) and policy preferences with a likelihood of increasing spread.
It is possible for this narrative to spread more quickly in part because it provides a rhetorically effective, argument-‘ending’ claim of hypocrisy against those proposing more stringent policies that ‘follow the science’ who also seem to be less motivated to do so when ‘the science’ intersects with another policy priority (e.g. demonstrating a more open and forgiving stance toward illegal border crossings).
It is possible for this narrative to spread more quickly in part because there are features of its structure that are unequivocally true. Thousands upon thousands of illegal border crossings are taking place. That rate is rising and has risen essentially each and every month of 2021. At various points, it has been clear that those populations have demonstrated meaningfully higher infection positivity rates rates than the populations into which they are sometimes being released based on new policies of the Biden administration.
It was possible for this narrative to spread for all of these reasons, and spread it has.
Still, I imagine that many will read the above reasons and say to themselves, “is it really a narrative” if some of the underlying facts associated with its structure are true? Isn’t that just…”truth?”
Look, this is almost always where we lose people.
Some of it is our own damn fault for using the word narrative for the thing we analyze, which in the common usage is a slightly pejorative term that implies a misinterpretation of the facts. Mea culpa. Chris Arnade has told us he thinks myths would be a better term, and of course he is right. Yet even that word carries with it a certain contemporary implication that the underlying thing is disingenuous. Epsilon Theory’s use of narrative as a term does not necessarily mean misinterpretation. It means any packaged interpretation that has legs.
And yet this is also the crux of our work on narrative, so if you take nothing away then I hope you take this: Even when we feel that our opinions are aligned with the facts of a topic – especially then – it is important to recognize when the features of a rapidly spreading framing of the topic are present. I positively loathe the condescending “believe science” mantras of our nudging state health institutions that only apply that moniker to politically desirable scientific conclusions. I believe adopting policies which cause a porous border is an unconscionable failure during ordinary times, and a borderline criminal failure during a global pandemic.
Yet the chief danger of narrative is not that it will lead us to false truth. The chief danger of narrative is that it shuts off our minds to the existence of multiple truths in favor of a single explanation we prefer. Awareness of narrative, on the other hand, allows us to embrace multiple truths at once.
The narrative of illegal border crossings as a principal cause of Covid spread differs from the reality in that the prevalence of the narrative will cause millions of Americans not to consider that unvaccinated, unmasked citizens gathering indoors during periods of expanding cases remain by far the primary source of transmission. And it’s not really close. Even if the number unapprehended and those released after apprehension were a multiple of the 50,000 reported by Axios for the latter group in late July, it would still represent a real but small contribution to viral spread.
The narrative will cause states, cities and businesses to eschew requirements and policies that become prudent as cases rise in their region because the hypocrisy of Federal border policy justifies it.
The narrative will cause individuals who might have otherwise decided in favor of vaccination to feel moral cover not to do so. After all, who are the ones who allowed infected people into their backyard to tell them what to do?
You see, it is never easy to say no to a viral narrative that solves so many of our intellectual problems. But we must. It is the only way our public dialogue can solve for a result instead of solving for ending an argument.
As with any virus, the only way to stop a powerful viral narrative is to bring down its R0.
The only way to do that is through awareness of narratives in the wild – and vigilance toward our own responses to them.