Merchants of misinformation target rural Minnesota

Speakers travel the state spinning conspiracy stories about Islam, immigrants and now COVID-19

By: - July 7, 2020 8:00 am

Misinformation has become a seductive commodity, from small gatherings in rural Minnesota to the global reach of the internet. Illustration by Getty Images.

A room at the Redwood Valley High School Community Center filled to about half capacity earlier this year as rural Minnesotans made small talk, munched on store bought cookies and drank astringent coffee as Ron Branstner queued up his slideshow. 

The crowd had come to hear Branstner, dressed in khakis and white sneakers, talk about immigration. The pleasant, Midwestern Nice vibe was quickly dispensed with, as the traveling lecturer launched into a diatribe on the many tentacled conspiracy that is allowing “globalists” and their immigrant allies to take over America. 

The government, Branstner told the audience, “is hoping you’re just kind of dumb, that there’s nobody like me that’s going to tell you the truth.” 

He outlined what he described as a broken immigration system, using a thread of loose facts to construct a story that often veered into misinformation. “If your country is too warm, you can come to the United States,” he said, referring to a climate refugee visa. He cited the “diversity refugee,” which he said was created by the Obama administration to “colorize” the United States. 

Neither visa exists as Branstner described it. Though the United States does offer some refuge for those fleeing natural disasters, and there is a Diversity Visa that was signed into law during the presidency of President George H.W. Bush, Branstner offered the most sensational and one-sided explanation of these programs. 

His evidence that refugees are an expensive burden on the United States was sourced from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigration organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has called a hate group. “These people are pawns in a lucrative game,” Branstner warned the audience, comparing refugee resettlement to slave labor. 

His theories may seem far-out, but people in greater Minnesota are hearing this and ideas like it in auditoriums and community centers across the state. Although the pandemic has reduced the frequency of these in-person presentations, the ideas have migrated online with speakers who offer widely varying levels of legitimacy, chicanery, authenticity and cynical opportunism. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic has fertilized its own new batch of conspiracy aficionados who believe COVID-19 is a plot of so-called globalists.  

Ron Branstner gives presentations in rural Minnesota in which he argues that the immigration system and demographic change imperil rural residents and their communities. In this photo he’s speaking at Redwood Valley High School Community Center earlier this year. Photo by Macklin Caruso/Minnesota Reformer.

For years, many culturally conservative Americans have been dismissing the political establishment and mainstream news media, which are now referred to as “deep state” and “fake news.” Small newspapers and radio stations are dying. And the internet is no help. It bombards people with more news and ideas than they can possibly absorb — much of it false — and there’s no road map to know who to trust. 

Something is bound to fill the vacuum. 

Some rural areas of the state have turned into breeding grounds of misinformation and disinformation — from conspiracy theories to Islamophobia, or a blend of both. 

Speakers like James Gauss, Usama Dakdok and Dale Witherington are feeding and exploiting rural Minnesota’s fears — with some pocketing a small fortune selling merchandise and collecting non-taxable donations. 

Dakdok, for example — a Christian preacher who tours the country warning that Islam “wants 80% of humanity enslaved or exterminated” — made $831,348 in untaxed income from 2014-2018, according to his ministry’s tax filings. 

Branstner seems sincere in his beliefs. Starting in 2006, he was in the “Minutemen Civil Defense Corp” — a sort of citizen patrol on the southern border. He returned to Minnesota and noticed, he said, that the state’s rural demographics were looking “a lot like California.” So he started giving lectures on what he saw as the evils behind the United States immigration system. He has used his regional celebrity to rub elbows and influence local policy makers, appearing at political events alongside state Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, for instance. 

Spinning new webs out of COVID-19 

The stakes of credible information sharing have never been higher. Stopping the COVID-19 pandemic requires that Minnesotans remain well informed. 

Curtis Bowers, a former Idaho state legislator who has toured rural Minnesota warning of a communist plot to strip the United States of its sovereignty, has since created the “Faith, Family & Freedom with Curtis Bowers” podcast. He has used his new platform to warn of the “conspiracy” behind COVID-19.

Though he acknowledges that COVID-19 is a virus, he dismisses it as a ploy by “globalists” to collapse the economy and install a dystopian “Marxist agenda.” 

He warned on a recent podcast that people being vaccinated will be tattooed with invisible dye alongside the COVID-19 vaccine, which can be read with smartphones listing all of your vaccinations. The vaccine, in Bowers’ telling, will contain dust-sized microchips that can scan to show education, career and any additional information the government might need to know about you. 

“You’re being naive if what I said sounds radical in any way shape or form,” he told his listeners at the end of his podcast, before plugging a merchandise sale on his website.

Political scientist: Rural areas are vulnerable to misinformation 

Conspiracy theories are taking root in cities and suburbs, nourished by the fertile disinformation of the internet and the country’s polarized politics. But Tim Lindberg, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota-Morris, said that rural areas present all the right conditions to breed misinformation and conspiracy theories.

They are more insular and traditionally offer fewer opportunities to connect with people of different cultures, Lindberg said.  

Changing demographics in both rural Minnesota and the nation as a whole are adding more fuel to the fire, Lindberg said.  

Minnesota is quickly diversifying. Over the past decade it has seen a 29% growth in residents of color — the ninth highest increase in the United States — according to Minnesota Compass, a non-partisan research project. As of 2018, residents of color comprised 21% of the state’s total population, while 32% of the state’s youngest residents are people of color. Since 1990 alone, the population of persons of color in Minnesota has increased by 320%.

“It can easily bring fears of change,” Lindberg said.

Through 2030, demographers project that 37 of Minnesota’s 87 counties will see a population decline of at least 2%, with most of the state’s population growth reserved for the metro. Redwood County itself is predicted to lose 13.7% of its population in the coming decade, according to Minnesota Compass

In greater Minnesota, nonwhite and Latino populations have concentrated in cities like St. Cloud, Worthington and Rochester, according to research conducted by Kelly Asche of the Center for Rural Policy and Development, a non-partisan rural Minnesota think tank. Though most of rural Minnesota is projected to continue losing population, the counties where these nonwhite populations are concentrating in greater Minnesota are expected to continue seeing population gains. 

Lindberg said stoking fears of racial and ethnic replacement are an overarching campaign strategy for the Republican Party. Refugees make for an easy political scapegoat in the face of struggling rural economies. President Donald Trump — who once called Minnesota’s Somali refugee population a “disaster” — granted state and local jurisdictions the power to halt refugee resettlement in their communities in 2019, stoking a political firestorm around the issue of refugees.  

Indeed, speakers like Branstner, wittingly or not, are just one cog in a massive political machine — a decentralized, fear-based movement sweeping the country. 

“It’s definitely a political movement,” Lindberg said. 

An unlikely co-conspirator: The Blandin do-gooders

That fear campaign was on full display during Branstner’s presentation in Redwood Valley. The central tenet is the so-called Agenda 21. The idea is that the United Nations is stripping local governments of their sovereignty, attempting to institute one-world government. A quick Google search of Agenda 21 will take you down some of the internet’s darkest rabbit holes.

Branstner has managed to localize the conspiracy theory. According to Branstner, all roads lead to the Blandin Foundation — a philanthropic organization based out of Grand Rapids. The Blandin Foundation, Branstner charged, is working with food processing giants like Hormel to import low-skill refugees and immigrants to exploit for cheap labor. 

“This theory is not true. Period. The foundation stands by rural Minnesota community leaders — in vibrant towns throughout rural Minnesota — as they build communities where every resident can meet their needs, work together for the common good, and participate in creating a healthy, resilient future,” Dr. Kathleen Annette, president and CEO of Blandin Foundation, wrote in an email to the Reformer.

Much of Branstner’s source material can be traced back to one man: the late John Tanton, an ophthalmologist from Michigan, who started both FAIR and NumbersUSA. Branstner referred to both in his presentation. 

In a Reformer interview, Branstner said he was unfamiliar with Tanton, though he said NumbersUSA is a “very reputable organization.” The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Tanton as a racist and white nationalist and NumbersUSA as the grassroots arm that makes up “the core of the nativist lobby in America.”

Branstner’s Redwood Falls audience seemed fixated on Somalia, even though immigrants and refugees come to Minnesota from all over the world. This past year, Minnesota refugees were more likely to come from Ukraine, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  

In fact, the only refugees to be resettled directly within Redwood County was a family of four in the mid-2000s, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, the agency that oversees refugee resettlement. Fears of refugees persist, however. Audience members cited both St. Cloud and Willmar as examples. 

“That particular group (Somalis) will not assimilate, they will not pledge allegiance to the U.S. Constitution and flag,” said an audience member during talk. Another falsely claimed the government provides refugees with free cars.  

Though he urged a humanitarian tone in his opening statement, Branstner warned that when enough immigrants come to the United States, they will overwhelm local communities and build communities of their own. He pointed to St. Cloud and Dearborn, Mich., as examples of “nation building” — both are cities with large Muslim communties.

During a presentation last year in Willmar — a city with a large Somali-American population — Branstner was his most explicit with the mostly white audience: “They want to replace you,” he warned. “Replace you culturally, because you know the Constitution and family values. They want to get rid of your religious background. Get rid of the ethnic race of Europeans and replace us in an ‘eclectic and diverse city.’” 

The Anti-Defamation League reports that “You will not replace us” is a white supremacist slogan that became popular in 2017.

Redwood County resident Bix Felska said he attended the presentation in search of accurate local information about refugee resettlement, which he had trouble finding elsewhere. He said he was impressed with Branstner’s knowledge about the subject. 

Felska said he has a hard time trusting big news organizations. They tend to side with the Democratic Party, he said. Instead, he prefers to do his own research, “Wherever a guy goes to go find stuff,” he said.

Small town mayors feel the wrath of conspiracy mongers

For Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin, this sort of disinformation isn’t just a nuisance, it’s an actual administrative problem.

“It’s disturbing,” he said. “As a mayor, it’s disturbing that people feel they have to tell these things that aren’t true.”

Calvin, mayor of a city of about 20,000 has been named as another unlikely co-conspirator. He’s been told that “I’m being paid by Muslims to do things, and that’s why I don’t do certain things.” He’s even received calls from as far away as New York and Texas about rumors circulating on the internet that Willmar is a sanctuary city, and that local Muslims are turning a local school into a mosque. As per usual with this sort of disinformation, a dollop of factual accuracy is being used to paint a false picture. The mosque was a former elementary school that was boarded up years ago, the building listed on the private market for some time. 

“It drives a wedge in the community that doesn’t need to be there,” Calvin said.

He estimates that it’s all the byproduct of no more than 300 people from across the region. These Minnesotans, he said, get all “jacked up” about conspiracy theories by the likes of Branstner, who he derided as “a used cars salesman.”

Consequences for the people being targeted

Many white Minnesotans can laugh off the conspiracy tales as hokum, but the rhetoric has real-world ramifications for the communities it targets.

Hamdi Kosar, a Somali-American activist from Willmar, has seen Branstner speak on several occasions. “I couldn’t listen to it,” she said. “Everything he says about refugees is not accurate.” 

She accused him of playing on Christian and Muslim tensions. 

“[His] audience is full of older people living with fear, and I feel bad for them,” she said. “This is a minority, but their voice is loud.” 

She said she has seen a sustained interest in his presentations. “It is going to get worse,” she said. 

“There is going to be a lot of violence and a lot of hate,” she said. “It has a huge impact for the Somali community.” Kosar herself has had to learn to tolerate bigoted comments in her adopted hometown. She was at a Walmart when a man shouted, “Take off that shower curtain,” referring to her hijab.  

She blames perceived economic scarcity for generating fear and hatred towards refugee and immigrant communities. “It’s a systematic issue,” she said. “There is enough for everybody, we are not focusing on the real thing.” 

Kosar said she doesn’t believe hatred drives rural residents. The problem, she said, is bad information. 

Despite the adversity, she remains optimistic. The issue of rural echo-chambers of disinformation can be thwarted, she said, through conversations that put a face to those being demonized by opportunists like Branstner. 

“Try to show them the other side of hate is love,” she said.

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Macklin Caruso
Macklin Caruso

Macklin Caruso is a western Minnesota journalist reporting on pancake socials and Lutheran power structures.