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How the NationaButterfly Center Became the Center of Online Lies


MISSION, Texas — For nearly two decades, the National Butterfly Center has provided a place of wonder along the banks of the Rio Grande, attracting curious visitors and nature enthusiasts from around the country to watch delicate creatures like the xami hairstreak float over flowers and alight on logs.

Among those who trade in outlandish right-wing conspiracies online, though, the center is said to be something else: a cover for human smuggling, sex trafficking and the exploitation of children. The lies have spread so widely in recent years that the center is now receiving visitors with no interest in butterflies at all.

Last month, a Republican congressional candidate from Virginia came to the center looking for a site of human smugglers and had a physical altercation with its director. Days later, a man from an upstart media organization associated with Steve Bannon recorded a video outside the center’s gates, claiming “credible threats of the cartels trafficking children through the butterfly center.” To make his point, he held up a tiny shoe.

On Wednesday, as butterflies fluttered across winter-browned grasses, frenzied staff members packed files, fielded messages from saddened supporters and hung a sign on the gate: “Closed until further notice.” Nearby, a newly installed police guard tower flashed red and blue.

In a country where many believe that Satan-worshiping pedophiles run the government and the resurrection of John F. Kennedy Jr. will restore a Trump presidency, the butterfly center has become the latest unlikely victim of wild misinformation and outright lies spreading rapidly online. It has become a borderland version of Comet Ping Pong, the Washington pizzeria that became the center of the baseless Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which claimed that Democrats were running a child sex trafficking ring in the restaurant. That lie spread so far that it prompted a North Carolina man to drive to the pizzeria and fire an assault rifle inside .

Becoming the focus of this type of attention has terrified and infuriated the staff at the butterfly center, some of whom have taken steps to protect themselves online and at work.

“The kind of activity, the kind of chatter going on — these are the kinds of things that happen before other horrible events where people ended up dying,” said Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, the president of the nonprofit North American Butterfly Association, which runs the butterfly center in Mission.

He feared that someone who believed the lies could resort to violence, and cited the mass killer who targeted Hispanic shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, amid a similarly heated debate over border security.

“We know it’s a dangerous lie,” said Dr. Glassberg, 74, a lifelong lover of butterflies who also developed the process of DNA fingerprinting. “People say you’re raping babies, then unhinged people come out of the woodwork.”

When people began showing up at the butterfly center, the nonprofit decided…


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