US Lawmakers React against Online Spanish Misinformation

US Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico), alongside US Representative Tony Cárdenas (D-California 29), led 20 colleagues in sending letters to the heads of WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal to express serious concerns about the rise of Spanish-language mis/disinformation targeted on these group messaging applications and posed specific questions about what steps, if any, these companies are taking to prevent or address the spread of Spanish-language mis/disinformation. The lawmakers suggested that group messaging applications can address the spread of Spanish-language mis/disinformation without compromising user privacy or the integrity of private encrypted communication “by increasing access to reliable fact-checking across languages, hiring and adequately investing in staff who have the necessary cultural context, and implementing other tools to slow the spread of viral mis/disinformation.” They emphasized that “the spread of content that promotes mis/disinformation, undermines public health efforts, and instills distrust in our democratic institutions must become a top priority…”

“The unchecked spread of Spanish-language mis/disinformation will only further erode our democracy and lead to dangerous long-term consequences that can affect the security and well-being of America’s fastest growing demographic—the Latino community,” said Senator Menendez. “As members of Congress, we have a serious responsibility to ensure that big tech companies and group messaging applications are taking the necessary steps to insulate our democracy and democratic institutions from bad actors hell-bent on destroying our great American experiment. This is a challenge we must confront head-on and I am more committed than ever to working with these companies, as well as holding them accountable when needed, to ensure we can mitigate the spread of mis/disinformation.”

“With millions of users on their platforms, it’s crucial that messaging apps treat Spanish misinformation and disinformation with urgency. Unless they address this problem, dangerous lies and conspiracies will continue to go unchecked—fueling distrust in safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines and undermining our elections,” said Senator Luján, chair of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband. “Latinos depend on these apps to communicate with their loved ones and communities, and it’s time for these companies to prioritize putting an end to Spanish misinformation and disinformation. I look forward to working with my colleagues and these companies to make this a reality.”

“Spanish-language disinformation is running rampant on social media, including on encrypted messaging apps,” said Representative Cárdenas. “Time and again, we’ve seen the continuous spread of flat-out lies that undermine trust in our democracy and public health. It is painfully clear technology companies need to increase their resources to successfully monitor and stop the spread of disinformation on their platforms. I look forward to working with each of these companies to fight back against this disinformation, put an emphasis on content moderation, and protect our community from dishonesty and division.” The letter claims that “Spanish-language mis/disinformation played a significant and concerning role in the 2020 presidential election and COVID-19 vaccination effort. POLITICO, for example, found that ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Spanish-speaking residents of South Florida faced a barrage of mis/disinformation through their WhatsApp chats in an attempt to influence their electoral choices (Rodriguez and Caputo, “‘This Is F—ing Crazy’: Florida Latinos swamped by wild conspiracy theories,” POLITICO, Sept. 14, 2020, www.politico.com/news/2020/09/14/florida-latinos-disinformation-413923). In regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, a study by First Draft, a project dedicated to fighting mis/disinformation online that includes organizations like Facebook and Twitter, found that WhatsApp is a popular platform for those who wish to foster and spread mis/disinformation—and such mis/disinformation leads many Latino users into extreme, conspiratorial anti-vaccine online spaces.”

A poll (https://votolatino.org/media/press-releases/polloncovid) conducted by Change Research on behalf of the Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab found that 66% of respondents whose primary language spoken at home is Spanish received wrong or harmful information about the COVID-19 vaccine through messaging apps.

The lawmakers expressed concerns about how group messaging platforms like Telegram are attractive platforms for those seeking to rapidly spread mis/disinformation to mass audiences because some allow as many as 200,000 individuals in a group, with limited oversight. They also pointed out how it is estimated that by 2023 almost 71% of the US Latino population will be WhatsApp users and how young Latinos in particular are twice as likely to use platforms like WhatsApp compared to the general population. This leaves young Spanish speakers exposed to an even higher rate of mis/disinformation compared to the general population.

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