The fake stories jumped quickly from screen to screen, metastasizing through WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Now, as the midterm elections loom, social media researchers and Democratic political strategists tell me that far-right misinformation is snowballing again, with new lies spreading across the usual platforms but also on new platforms, including TikTok, Signal and Telegram.
Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, chief strategy officer of We Are Más, a consulting firm focused on Hispanic and Diaspora communications, told me that texting platform Telegram, in particular, “has become a rabbit hole for QAnon Channels in Spanish”.
This is bad news, not only for Democratic and Latino voters, but also for democracy.
It is difficult to know precisely why Donald Trump was able to increase his number of votes among Latino voters in 2020, compared to the 2016 election. The pandemic? The economy? Immigration? More conservative social values? But there’s no doubt, Pérez-Verdía said, that the steady drumbeat of false facts and false narratives, backed up by authentic-looking inflammatory videos, played an outsized role, particularly in Florida and the south texas.
Pérez-Verdía, who monitors social media in Spanish, said: “The lies work and continue to work.
Conspiracy theories, easily debunked false stories, and outrageous lies are spreading fast and taking hold among Spanish-speaking users for several reasons. For starters, social media sites, including Facebook, do little fact-checking on foreign-language pages, including those in Spanish. This is a long-standing issue that is only slowly beginning to catch their attention.
Eduardo Gamarra, a professor at Florida International University who studies disinformation, told me that while much of the fake news that reaches Spanish-speaking Latinos in the United States is translated from English to Spanish , much of it is from Latin America and often finds a receptive audience among Florida Latinos who have fled left-wing regimes.
Recently, Gamarra said, someone sent him a video purporting to show a brutal shooting in Bolivia that killed several people. His clear intention was to bludgeon the Bolivian left government. In fact, Gamarra said, the video was of a gang shooting in Puerto Rico two years ago.
He noted that fake news videos often spread via large family and friend chat groups on WhatsApp, which is hugely popular among Latinos and is encrypted.
“Who do you trust the most?” Gamarra said. “Family and friends. If your dad sends you a video, you’ll trust your dad. That’s what makes us extraordinarily sensitive. We have very strong family ties.
And video is often the preferred medium for fake news, because as a study of Latinos’ media habits in 2019 found, Latinos spend twice as much time on YouTube as non-Latinos.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has made the explosion of fake news a priority, calling out social media chiefs for the poor job they are doing flagging fake news in Spanish on their platforms.
The tech giants have promised to step up. WhatsApp is trying to make it harder for bad information to spread from one group chat to another, and YouTube says it’s moving faster to remove fake videos.
But controlling endless flows of disinformation is a monumental and costly task; we Latinos have to do our part. Feel free to ask Abuela where she got this information she mentioned on WhatsApp.
The problem is not limited to social media. Old-school media, particularly Spanish-language AM radio, is still an effective megaphone for false narratives, especially in Miami, where far-right hosts have long dominated the airwaves.
That could soon change. Latino Media Network—a new bipartisan group, but led largely by Democrats – announced last month that it was buying 18 major Spanish-language radio stations across the country from TelevisaUnivision. Stations include Miami’s popular Radio Mambi. One of the main objectives of LMN: to help the Spanish-speaking public to “navigate in the ocean of information that exists in our society”.
The sale sparked a storm, in part because a company linked to far-right boogeyman George Soros is one of LMN’s investors.
A Mambí host, Lourdes Ubieta, has already quit. She told the Miami Herald, “The purchase of Mambi is not to fight misinformation but to silence conservative voices.” Unfortunately, for too long on Miami Spanish-language radio, conservative voices and misinformation have been nearly indistinguishable.