Misinformation, a Silent Threat to Latinos in the U.S.

Misinformation Latinos US BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of nbcnews.com

The Latino community in the U.S. is now considered the most influential voting bloc and the new swing voters, which implies that its political tendency is not immovable. This nature has made our community the victim of massive misinformation campaigns through the web.

As reported by the Associated Press, on the eve of the midterm elections in which control of Congress is at stake, lawmakers, researchers, and activists are bracing for another barrage of falsehoods aimed at Spanish-speaking voters. They say the social media platforms that often host those falsehoods are unprepared.

In just the past few weeks, during the Virginia gubernatorial election, stories written in Spanish accused Biden of ordering the arrest of a man during a school board meeting.

“Biden ordenó arrestar a padre de una joven violada por un trans,” read one of several misleading articles, translating to “Biden ordered the arrest of a father whose daughter was raped by a trans.”

The false truth was spun from an altercation during a chaotic school board meeting held months earlier in Loudoun County, which ended with the arrest of a father whose daughter was sexually assaulted in a bathroom by another student. The parent claimed the suspect was “gender fluid,” sparking the outcry over the school’s policy allowing transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.

In reality, the White House was not involved in the encounter. The man was taken into custody by the local sheriff’s department. It is also unclear how the suspect is identified.

As the Associated Press continues, other false narratives these campaigns disseminate include accusations of some Democrats being socialists or communists, especially in states sensitive to the concept, such as Florida.

Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a Florida Democratic strategist who watches Spanish misinformation patterns, says many online narratives intentionally stoke “fear in the Spanish-speaking communities.”

Facebook’s responsibility

The latest reports and allegations of Facebook’s (now Meta) handling of fake news determined the social media giant’s unwillingness to counter these efforts.

Facebook’s own documents, leaked by ex-Facebook employee turned whistleblower Frances Haugen earlier this year, echoed those concerns. Haugen said the company spends 87% of its misinformation budget on U.S. content — a figure that Meta spokesperson Kevin McAllister said is “out of context.”

An internal Facebook memo, written in March, revealed that the company’s ability to detect anti-vaccine rhetoric and misinformation was “basically nonexistent” in non-English comments.

An analysis last year by Avaaz, a left-wing advocacy group that tracks online misinformation, also found that Facebook failed to flag 70% of Spanish-language misinformation about COVID-19, compared to only 29% of such information in English.

Meanwhile, researchers at the nonpartisan Global Misinformation Index estimate that Google will earn $12 million this year from ads on websites that spread misinformation about COVID-19 in Spanish. Google has “stopped running ads on most of the pages shared in the report,” company spokesman Michael Aciman told the AP in an email.

This information was corroborated by the findings of a new Nielsen report on U.S. Latinos, published last October.

The data and information company analyzed a subset of the top 100 U.S. news sites across the political spectrum, including some Spanish-language sites, where at least 20 percent of their reach came from Latino audiences over the past year. During that period, 28 percent of the content presented to Latinos contained content marked as mixed, biased, extremely biased, conspiracy or pseudoscience.

According to Nielsen, young Hispanics ages 18-34 are more than twice as likely as the general population to use WhatsApp and Telegram. “Misinformation poses a threat to Hispanics, who are particularly vulnerable due to a greater reliance on social media and messaging platforms,” the report reads.

Nielsen and Adverif.ai are working on a digital tool they have created to combat misinformation on social networks. The @factcheck_this tool automatically retrieves fact checks from more than 100 organizations worldwide that are part of the International Fact-Checking Network.

In the meantime, much of the community remains exposed to these campaigns that increase tone as elections approach.