Inside the “big wave” of disinformation targeting Latinos
Washington Prior to last year’s presidential election, Facebook ads targeting Latino voters described Joe Biden as a communist. During his inauguration, another conspiracy theory spread online and on Spanish-language radio, warning that a brooch worn by Lady Gaga suggested Biden was working with shadowy left-wing figures abroad.
And in the final phase of Virginia’s gubernatorial election, stories in Spanish accused Biden of ordering the arrest of a man during a school board meeting.
None of that was true. But such disinformation presents a growing threat to Democrats, who are concerned about their standing with Latino voters after surprise losses last year in places like southern Florida and Texas’s Rio Grande Valley.
With midterm elections in which control of Congress is at stake, lawmakers, scholars and activists are preparing for another onslaught of lies targeting Spanish-speaking voters. And they say the social media platforms that often host those lies are unprepared.
“For a lot of people, there is a lot of concern that 2022 is going to be another big wave,” said Jay Mintel, executive director of Global American, a think-tank that provides analysis of key issues across the Americas.
This month’s elections may be a preview of what’s to come.
After Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy won the New Jersey gubernatorial race, Spanish-language videos falsely claimed the vote was rigged, even though there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud — a fact the Republican candidate acknowledged and described the results as “legal and fair.”
In Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin successfully campaigned on his promises to defend “parental rights” in the classroom, false headlines have surfaced about a controversial school board meeting.
“Biden Urdino arrests one of his sons by a transgender,” read one of several misleading articles, translating to “Biden orders the arrest of a father whose daughter was raped by a transgender.”
The error was spun out of an altercation during a chaotic school board meeting months earlier in Loudoun County that resulted in the arrest of a father whose daughter was sexually assaulted in the bathroom by another student. The father claimed the suspect was a “gender fluid,” sparking a protest against the school’s policy allowing transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.
In fact, the White House did not participate in the meeting. The man was arrested by the local mayor’s department. It is also not clear how the suspect is identified.
Foto’s president and CEO, Maria Teresa Kumar, said Loudoun County was already the center of a heated political debate about how the history of racism should be taught in schools — another issue that became fuel for disinformation and political attacks on Spanish-language websites this summer. Latino, a non-profit organization that mobilizes Hispanics to get involved in politics.
“It is all about trust in institutions. Trust the government,” said Kumar, whose group works to combat disinformation. “The erosion of that trust will not only carry over to the midterm vote, but only to a general disengagement from your government.”
Diego Groysman, a research analyst with the Cybersecurity Project for Democracy at New York University, said extended facts accusing some Democrats of being socialists or communists could also dominate the online narrative.
During the 2020 election, Groyzmann flagged Facebook ads targeting Latino voters in Texas and Florida and called Biden a “communist.” Advertisements in Florida – where the majority of the Venezuelan population is concentrated in the country – compared Biden to that country’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro.
“It’s clear that there are specific Hispanic communities that are targeted,” said Laura Edelson, principal investigator for the New York University program.
Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a Florida Democratic strategist who monitors Spanish misinformation patterns, says that many online accounts deliberately create “fear in Spanish-speaking communities.”
One conspiracy theory mentioned on talk radio originated from Lady Gaga’s golden bird brooch at Biden’s inauguration. Some who published the claim noted that a similar brooch worn by Claudia Lopez Hernandez, the first openly gay mayor of Bogota, Colombia, indicated that the new president was working with foreign leftists.
“They won’t stop,” said Perez Verdia of the misinformation.
Critics argue that social media companies such as Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, have paid close attention to removing or verifying English-language misinformation over other languages such as Spanish.
Facebook’s private documents, which were leaked by a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower Frances Hogan earlier this year, reflect those concerns. Haugen said the company spends 87% of its disinformation budget on US content — a figure that Meta spokesperson Kevin McAllister said was “out of context”.
An internal Facebook memo, written in March, revealed the company’s ability to detect anti-vaccine rhetoric and that misinformation “basically does not exist” in non-English comments.
Last year, for example, Instagram and Facebook banned “#plandemic,” a hashtag linked to a video full of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. However, users have been spreading false information on the platforms using “#plandemia”, the Spanish version of the hashtag, until just last month.
An analysis last year by Avaaz, a left-leaning advocacy group that tracks online misinformation, found that Facebook failed to report 70% of misinformation in Spanish surrounding COVID-19 compared to just 29% of such information in English.
McAllister said the company is removing false allegations in Spanish about voter fraud, COVID-19 and vaccines. Four news outlets, including the Associated Press, are also investigating Spanish-language lies circulating about American content on Instagram and Facebook.
Meanwhile, researchers at the Global Nonpartisan Disinformation Index have estimated that Google will make $12 million this year from ads on websites that broadcast disinformation about COVID-19 in Spanish. Company spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email that Google “has stopped serving ads on the majority of pages shared in the report.”
“Disinformation campaigns in Spanish are very widespread on social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, etc.”, New York Democratic Representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the party’s most prominent progressive voices, chirp After the November 2 elections.
This explosion is partly fueling the cycle of reactions between the United States and Latin America that is allowing the lies to fester.
Misinformation that starts on US websites is sometimes translated through social media pages in Latin American countries such as Colombia and Venezuela. Inaccurate information is again shared through YouTube videos or messaging apps with Spanish speakers in expat communities such as those in Miami and Houston.
These lies are more likely to reach Latin Americans because they tend to spend more time on sites like YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram, according to an October Nielsen report.
“We see YouTube accounts or radio stations spreading false or misleading information regarding a whole host of things they pick up from fringe US outlets,” Mintel said.
Some are working to fill the void of reliable information in those communities.
The El Timpano news service in Oakland, California delivers a text message of local news in Spanish to nearly 2,000 subscribers each week. Madeleine Blair, who launched El Timpano, said subscribers can respond to questions employees are working to answer.
The news service has answered more than 1,500 questions over the past year, including questions about hoax COVID-19 treatments.
“We really ramped up because it was clear that the communities we were serving were in desperate need of basic public health information, and that information didn’t reach them,” Blair said.
Others urged the government to assume a supervisory role. Federal Trade Commission Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, a Democrat, said the regulator may look at disparities in how big tech companies monitor misinformation in English compared to other languages.
“The first thing I think we need to do is investigate,” Slaughter said during a November hearing with lawmakers.
Associated Press writers Marcos Martinez Chacon in Monterrey, Mexico, April Mulatto in Mexico City, and Marcy Gordon in Washington contributed to this report.
Copyright 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.