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Elon Musk and right-wing influencers use ‘cannibal’ claims to smear Haitian migrants amid crisis

As Haiti endures a political crisis fomented by widespread violence, right-wing influencers are resurfacing gruesome propaganda videos to advance their immigration agenda.
A person runs past burning tires in Haiti
A person runs past burning tires as people protest against Prime Minister Ariel Henry, demanding his ouster, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Feb. 6.Odelyn Joseph / AP file

As Haiti faces an extreme political and societal crisis amid a wave of intense violence, tech billionaire Elon Musk and right-wing pundits online are weaponizing unverified claims of cannibalism coming out of the conflict to advance a political agenda on immigration.

Musk and conservative influencers have spread the message to millions, smearing Haitian migrants as cannibals as they endure deep uncertainty about the future of their country and family members still there. 

The claims are getting tens of millions of views on the social media platform X, where false or misleading information has spread since Musk bought the app and slashed content moderation. Many of the people spreading the sensational claims are premium subscribers on X, meaning their content can make them money through advertising sales. 

The accusations of widespread cannibalism are based on what experts said was a likely intimidation tactic from select gang members: In some videos, the most prominent examples being at least two years old, alleged members of violent gangs in Haiti appear to bite into human flesh. Experts said these videos are likely part of propaganda campaigns designed to scare rivals and terrorize local Haitians rather than a reflection of common or normalized behavior. One former armed group went by the name “Cannibal Army.”

Some people on X have posted alleged cannibalism videos that are not from Haiti and do not show cannibalism. One viral video is from a Chinese theme park in 2018, according to Malaysian media, but X users have claimed that it’s a recent video from Haiti. Copies of it were still on X as of Thursday.

Ian Miles Cheong, a right-wing commentator, helped to kick off the frenzy last week on X, writing that there were “cannibal gangs in Haiti who abduct and eat people.” 

“Reminder that these people are now illegally entering the US en masse,” he continued, making no distinction between the most notorious Haitian gang members and those trying to flee them. He offered no evidence to support the assertion that cannibals were entering the U.S. en masse. 

Cheong defended his posts in response to questions from NBC News, citing one video appearing to show someone eating part of a leg and noting the name of the “Cannibal Army” gang. 

Another high-profile pundit, right-wing content creator Tim Pool, cited the unverified allegations of Haitian cannibalism as proof that former President Donald Trump was justified in opposing immigration from Haiti. Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as “s---hole countries” during a meeting in 2018, NBC News reported. Pool did not respond to a request for comment or further evidence. 

The wave of cannibalism-related social media posts is insulting to Haitians and Haitian Americans, said Chris Nestor, a moderator of the r/Haiti message board on Reddit and a lawyer in Washington, D.C., whose parents were Haitian immigrants. 

“A whole population is getting blamed for what some psycho gang members are doing,” Nestor said in a phone interview. “It is racist. It is dehumanizing.” 

Nestor, who’s also a U.S. Army reservist, said that the cruelty of the Haitian armed groups, if anything, bolsters the case for accepting Haitian refugees, who he said are innocent. 

The false claims are spreading while Haiti is in the grip of a real emergency. Armed groups that had been fighting each other have now formed an alliance against the government, attacking police stations, airports and prisons — from which they’ve freed thousands of inmates. 

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry is stepping down and hasn’t been able to return to the country after traveling abroad. Haiti’s elected president was assassinated two years ago. 

Killing, hunger and displacement are widespread, according to the U.N. Dead bodies are often left to decompose in the Caribbean heat or else burned because there’s no one to remove the corpses, The Washington Post reported Saturday from the capital, Port-au-Prince. 

The cruelty of Haitian gang leaders is not in dispute, nor is the widespread killing in the country during a yearslong political crisis, but the false claims about widespread cannibalism go much further in trying to paint the whole Caribbean nation as barbarous. 

The State Department has not received any credible reports regarding cannibalism in Haiti, a spokesperson said Tuesday. Doctors Without Borders said they also had seen no evidence of cannibalism in the country, and Human Rights Watch said it had no information on the subject. 

Marlene Daut, a Yale University professor of French and African diaspora studies, said that American and European powers began spreading baseless tales of cannibalism in Haiti around the time the country’s slaves overthrew French colonizers and declared independence in 1804. The effect has been to depict Haiti as irredeemable. 

“It is very disturbing that Elon Musk would repeat these absurdities that do, indeed, have a long history,” she wrote in an email. 

“After the Haitian Revolution, the slaving powers of the Atlantic World (namely, the United States, France, Great Britain) published seemingly endless depictions of the Haitian revolutionaries as ruthless killers,” she wrote. 

The Haitian revolution that culminated in 1804 was the most successful slave revolt in modern history. It made Haiti the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere after the United States and the first majority-Black nation in the Americas. 

Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has tweeted about alleged Haitian cannibalism several times since Saturday night. 

“Civilization is fragile,” he posted in response to one user who was discussing a gang cannibalism video. 

Musk shared a video from far-right commentator Matt Walsh about “cannibal hordes” of Haitians potentially migrating to the U.S., and as of late Tuesday it had received more than 10 million views. Musk has also boosted some of Cheong’s posts about alleged Haitian cannibalism with replies and likes. Representatives for Musk and Walsh did not respond to requests for comment. 

After NBC News initially published this article, Musk responded in a post on X. He said that he wants to “screen immigrants for potential homicidal tendencies and cannibalism.” In a separate reply to a tweet sharing this article, Musk said “what do you call this?” and shared a video purporting to show cannibalism. X removed the video for violating its guidelines.

Musk’s choice of what to discuss online can have a wide impact. He has one of the largest megaphones on social media, with 176.1 million followers on X, and, as one of the wealthiest people in the world, he meets frequently with heads of state and other political leaders including Trump. 

Elon Musk In Krakow
Elon Musk in Krakow, Poland, on Jan. 22.NurPhoto via AP file

The claims shared by Musk have now traveled across the internet. On Reddit, the moderators of the r/Haiti message board imposed a new rule to limit discussion of cannibalism after what they said was a spike in racist posts that tapped into a long history of discrimination against Haitians. A Reddit spokesperson said the platform was removing some cannibalism-related posts under its content policy but generally leaving up legitimate news articles. 

Dom Lucre, a Tennessee-based poster on X who has become well known for sharing misleading information, tweeted out one of the unverified videos Sunday and described it as “breaking news,” although the video has been online since at least November 2021. X later removed the video but his post had 21 million views as of Tuesday, according to the public view count on X. Lucre in an email declined an interview request. 

Robert Bunker, a counterterrorism researcher and former U.S. Army War College professor, said the videos purporting to show Haitian gang members reminded him of similar videos that drug cartels distributed in Mexico as a form of psychological warfare and intimidation. 

He said the idea behind such videos is: “You’re trying to appear as the people who are crazy, because nobody wants to mess with the crazies.” Anyone accepting the videos at face value is in effect falling for the intimidation tactic, he said. 

NBC News has not been able to verify any of the videos as authentic. Some of the most widely shared videos associated with the claims have been online for two years or longer. 

Two of Britain’s tabloid newspapers played a role in boosting the cannibalism claims. On March 5, the U.S. website of The Express reported that “cannibalism has been witnessed on the streets.” The article cited an unnamed “journalist on the ground” who said “we have seen images of gang leaders eating people they have killed.” 

An affiliated British tabloid, The Star, repeated the claim in an article and in an accompanying headline without adding evidence or verification of the claim. Screenshots of The Star’s headline have now gone viral on X with no context. 

Both tabloids are owned by London-based media company Reach. The company did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The two newspapers are among the least trusted in the U.K., according to a YouGov survey last year. The Star ranked last among 32 media outlets in the survey, with 3% calling it trustworthy, while The Express ranked 25th, with 8% calling it trustworthy. 

The nickname of Haiti’s chief gang leader has contributed to cannibalism speculation and easy punchlines on social media. Jimmy Chérizier, who goes by the alias "Barbecue," is a former police officer and the spokesperson for Haiti’s alliance of major armed groups. 

In 2019, as Chérizier was rising to power, he told The Associated Press that he got the nickname Barbecue as a child because his mother was a street vendor who sold fried chicken — not, as others said at the time, because he was accused of setting people on fire. He has since been sanctioned by the British and Canadian governments for alleged human rights violations. 

Now, some people on social media have re-interpreted the nickname as a reference to cannibalism, despite a lack of evidence. Bunker, the counterterrorism researcher, said he believed Chérizier has little reason to deny the claim now because it adds to his clout. 

Laurent Dubois, a historian at the University of Virginia who specializes in Haiti, said that American society developed a rich fantasy view of Haiti while U.S. forces occupied it between 1915 and 1934. He noted that U.S. forces were accused of committing atrocities during the occupation, prompting a congressional investigation and the need for a cover story to justify the abuses. 

“Most people in the U.S. are not aware of the history of that occupation, but they did inherit many of the stereotypes that were popularized during that period. And whenever Haiti is in the news, many of those images get recirculated and reanimated,” Dubois wrote in an email. 

“There is probably no country in the world that has had more misrepresentations projected onto it than Haiti,” he wrote.