Disinformation Targeting U.S. Latino Communities is Widespread. Here's Why.

By: Laura Zommer | 10/03/2022

Laura Zommer is an ICFJ Knight Fellow. She originally wrote this article for IJNet.

There is disinformation targeted directly at the U.S. Latino population, and it’s our mission to stop it. Will you help us? 

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Hispanic and Latino communities in the U.S. These communities — which make up almost one fifth of the country’s population — have been 1.5 times as likely to contract COVID-19 compared to white, non-Hispanic people, twice as likely to be hospitalized and 1.8 times as likely to die from the virus. 

Did Spanish-language mis- and disinformation about the virus, which circulated largely unchecked, contribute to the high incidence of COVID-19 infection in Latino communities? Did social media play a role? Latino communities tend to use platforms like YouTube, Facebook and WhatsApp to inform themselves more than the average U.S. population, as they often don’t trust or feel represented by traditional media. 

The reality is, we know less about mis- and disinformation targeting Latino communities in the U.S. than we would like to, and there is almost no research on its impacts.    

In launching Factchequeado, an initiative led by Spain’s Maldita.es and Argentina’s Chequeado, to combat mis- and disinformation that affects Latinos living in the U.S., we hope to fill this void. We plan to collect the evidence needed to identify the mis- and disinformation narratives targeting U.S. Latino and Spanish-speaking communities, and analyze their distinctive characteristics. Equally as important, we will uncover how the lies that affect these communities circulate.

How the false information spreads

We understand already that conspiracy theories and inaccurate information — whether that be messages that are false, exaggerated, or taken out of context — originating in the U.S. make their way to Spanish-speaking countries. At the same time, mis- and disinformation produced in countries including Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Spain or Argentina sometimes reach Latinos in the U.S. via their families, friends or contacts on social media and messaging apps like WhatsApp.

As we embark on this work, we’re also keeping the nation’s current political context in mind: we know that public debate, and misleading and false information will only intensify with midterm elections approaching on November 8.

Some false narratives in Spanish are connected to those circulating in English. An example of this is the case of the so-called “Big Lie,” promoted by former U.S. President Donald Trump, about unsubstantiated fraud in the country’s 2020 elections. There is also misleading content in both English and Spanish, especially videos, that exaggerate or misattribute actions to U.S. President Biden, preying on people’s fears that at age 79 he is too old to run for reelection.

Similar patterns occur with the high volume of mis- and disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, which continues to spread more than a year and a half after they were first rolled out. Much of this content highlights unproven and false adverse effects from the vaccines, intended to confuse and frighten people.

Latino adults say they want to be well-informed with credible information; this just isn’t as feasible in Spanish. Latino communities are less protected from mis- and disinformation due to fewer fact-checking efforts in Spanish and less priority placed by Big Tech on flagging false Spanish-language content on their platforms, among other reasons, ICFJ Senior Program Director Cristina Tardáguila warned in an article published in Univision's elDetector last year. 

The higher than average social media use among Latino communities in the U.S., exacerbates their vulnerability to false information. Almost all Hispanic adults (98%) have a smartphone, for instance — 5% more than the average U.S. population, according to a 2020 Nielsen consultancy study. They spend two more hours connected to their phones per week than the average U.S. population, too, and they have been 57% more likely than non-Latino citizens to use social media as a primary source of information about the coronavirus. 

Worryingly, Meta, Google and other social media companies pay much less attention to non-English-language mis- and disinformation circulating on their platforms.

The disinformation narratives

The mis- and disinformation narratives that repeat themselves in Latino communities in the U.S. are often linked to issues of particular concern to this population, in some cases drawing on ties to their countries of origin. We believe this false information will spread even more rampantly as the 2022 midterm elections approach. 

One such narrative is inflation and the increase in gasoline prices. In June 2022, U.S. inflation reached 9.1%, its highest level in 40 years. The phenomenon reminds many Latin American families of the high prices and increase in poverty in their countries of origin. Fear is a central component of the mis- and disinformation around this topic, which circulates without context, and typically omits from its analysis the impact of the war in Ukraine and the pandemic. The information about its causes, and the government's efforts to curb price increases is often misleading, as a result.

Another theme, prevalent on Florida radio, focuses on issues that many Latinos experienced before immigrating to the U.S. from Latin America. These false narratives present President Biden as the head of a government that "seeks to repress" the people and is "socialist or leftist" like the leaders of the countries from which many migrants have fled, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. The government is portrayed as a regime seeking total control, as some radio personalities expressed: "Not socialist, not communist, but controlism.” 

We have fact-checked the assertion that the U.S. is a "repressive State" at Factchequeado. We debunked disinformation, for instance that the IRS was purchasing ammunition to pursue people defaulting on payments; this has, in fact, occurred annually for 100 years, including under the Republican administration of Donald Trump. 

Abortion is another particularly relevant, sensitive theme for Latino communities. A heavily debated issue across Latin America, abortion has been legalized to various degrees in recent years in Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador and Chile, despite open opposition from the Catholic Church. In contrast, this year the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional, nationwide right to an abortion up to the 20th week of pregnancy. 

Following the decision, mis- and disinformation related to abortion began to go viral. We debunked TikTok videos recommending natural herbs for abortion, which can be harmful to one’s health. We also fact-checked false announcements that various community organizations closed their abortion assistance centers, and clarified when social media platforms must share personal data they collect, as well as steps they have taken to address data privacy.

Mis- and disinformation about migrants, changes in immigration policies, aid and paperwork circulate in Latino communities, too. There exist also false claims linking migrants to mass shootings, and a myriad of scams, from cryptocurrency investments and summer vacation rentals, to phishing attempts and fake profiles on dating apps.

The surplus of lies designed to convince or deceive Latinos living in the U.S. is varied. We need to know more about this Spanish-language mis- and disinformation to design and implement effective collaborative strategies to counteract it. If you receive or see suspicious content, send it to Factchequeado via our WhatsApp Chatbot, to help fight the battle.

 

This article was originally published by IJNet in Spanish. It was translated to English by journalist Natalie Van Hoozer.

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