During last month’s midterm elections, misinformation and conspiracy theories were circulating among Spanish-speaking communities, especially in South Florida, raising fears that they could discourage some Latinos from voting.
The most widely spread false narrative was about alleged rampant fraud in the 2020 presidential election, according to Tamoa Calzadilla, managing editor of the Spanish-language fact-checking website Factchequeado.com. Misinformation is often similar in English and Spanish, Calzadilla said, but her team identified specific subjects particularly targeted at the Latino population, including falsehoods that the Biden administration is a socialist, communist regime, which Calzadilla noted is sensitive for people who came from Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua because of those countries’ histories. The spread of misinformation and disinformation in Spanish, some of it coming directly from politicians and partisan media outlets, has plagued social media platforms for years and has helped to sow doubt about the integrity of elections in the US.
“It’s something that is fracturing our democratic institutions. It’s affecting our families. It’s dividing our families,” Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a Democrat and chief strategy officer for We Are Más, a consulting firm focused on intercultural communications and countering disinformation, told CNN.
Particularly vulnerable are messages on WhatsApp (now owned by Meta/Facebook), as they are encrypted, so they cannot be moderated.
There have been lies about election fraud, socialism, and communism and distortions about people running for office, Pérez-Verdía said, adding that she also witnessed the spread of misinformation in WhatsApp groups.
On Telegram, there are QAnon channels dedicated to translating conspiracy theories into Spanish that have tens of thousands of followers.
The misinformation posted in these channels is very “sophisticated” with a focus on specific accents and subcultures, Pérez-Verdía said.
Over the past year, election officials have raised to the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) the need to help non-English-speaking communities address the risks of disinformation, according to CISA’s senior election security adviser Kim Wyman.
CISA recently released “Tactics of Disinformation” (www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/tactics-of-disinformation_spanish_508.pdf), an online pamphlet in both Spanish and English. The Spanish Language Disinformation Coalition, a group of civil rights, Latino leadership, and consumer advocacy organizations, urged several social media companies including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to take steps ahead of the 2022 midterms to do more to combat hate and disinformation on their platforms.
“Unless election disinformation is tackled, our community will once again be at risk of those seeking to silence and harm us,” the letter says. Representative Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) said as the Spanish-speaking share of the electorate grows, the “unchecked spread” of Spanish-language misinformation and disinformation on social media “threatens our community’s ability to participate in democracy,” in an October press call with the coalition.
US Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico) joined a handful of senators calling for Elon Musk to address concerns that Spanish-language Twitter users might be targets of disinformation on the platform. The letter gave Musk until December 6 to respond.
The concerns stem from news that Twitter seems to have fired contractors working on content moderation across the platform. On top of that, there seems to have been a spike in racist and harassing tweets on the platform. Now, some senators are calling for more protections for vulnerable users, including Spanish-language Twitter users.
“Disinformation, harassment, and fraud in Spanish was already a prominent issue that wasn’t properly or consistently addressed before Musk took over as CEO of Twitter. Now, amid the abrupt firing of thousands of critical workers, the dangerous lies have only increased,” Senator Luján said in a press release. “Twitter must act urgently to protect all of its users regardless of the language they speak at home or use online.”
Right-Wing Radio Fears
Fox News and other right-wing news outlets have expressed concern that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has cleared Latino Media Network’s purchase of several Spanish-language radio stations across the country, claiming that a “radical political agenda” will influence information provided to Hispanic voters.
Miami’s iconic Spanish-language conservative talk radio station Radio Mambi is one of the 18 stations that Latino Media Network will purchase from TelevisaUnivision, for a reported $60 million. Radio Mambi is linked to the Cuban exile community and offers an anti-communism view.
Popular Latinx actor Jenna Ortega was widely criticized after a video of her trying to speak Spanish during an interview went viral and hit over 10 million views on TikTok. In the video, Ortega struggles to invite people to watch Netflix’s Wednesday in Spanish, which led to some fans arguing that Ortega shouldn’t even be considered Latina if she can’t speak Spanish.
Comments got so out of hand that they were turned off on the viral video. Many claimed Ortega wasn’t Latina because she wasn’t fluent in Spanish, ignoring that Ortega explained that she experienced the very same thing that so many Latinos have gone through with parents wanting to push Spanish to the backburner to mistakenly help children assimilate.