Fake news speaks many languages, but it’s particularly fond of Spanish
By Lizette Alvarez
Fake news speaks many languages, but it’s particularly fond of Spanish. An epidemic of Spanish-language right-wing disinformation that spiked around the 2020 election on social media platforms, and in some big-city AM radio stations, is revving up again ahead of the fall midterms.
Two years ago, before the 2020 presidential election, Spanish-language videos and news stories smeared Joe Biden as a communist. After the election, disinformation campaigns accused Black Lives Matter of spurring the Jan. 6 insurrection and bolstered the lie that Biden stole the election. Mixed in with all this were warnings that coronavirus vaccines were dangerous.
The false narratives 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 far-right disinformation is snowballing again, with fresh falsehoods spreading on the usual platforms but also on newer platforms, including TikTok, Signal and Telegram.
Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, chief strategy officer for We Are Más, a consulting firm focused on Hispanic and diaspora communications, told me that the texting platform Telegram, in particular, “has become a rabbit hole for QAnon channels in Spanish.”
This is bad news — not just for Democrats and Latino voters, but also for democracy.
It’s hard to know precisely why Donald Trump was able to expand his vote count among Latino voters in 2020, compared with the 2016 election. The pandemic? The economy? Immigration? More conservative social values? But there is little doubt, Pérez-Verdía said, that the steady drumbeat of bogus facts and false narratives, buttressed by incendiary, authentic-looking videos, played an outsize role, especially in Florida and South Texas.
Pérez-Verdía, who monitors Spanish-language social media, said, “The lies work, and continue to work.”
Conspiracy theories, easily debunked false narratives and outrageous lies spread quickly and take hold among Spanish-language users for several reasons. For starters, social media sites, including Facebook, do little fact-checking on foreign-language pages, including ones in Spanish. This is a longtime problem that is only now slowly beginning to get their attention.
Eduardo Gamarra, a professor at Florida International University who researches 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, plenty of it originates in Latin America and often finds a receptive audience among Latinos in Florida who fled leftist regimes.
Recently, Gamarra said, someone sent a video to him that purported to show a brutal shootout in Bolivia that killed several people. Its clear intent was to bludgeon Bolivia’s leftist government. In fact, Gamarra said, the video was of a gang shooting in Puerto Rico from two years ago.
He noted that fake news videos often spread via large group chats among families and friends on WhatsApp, which is hugely popular among Latinos and is encrypted.
“Who do you trust most?” Gamarra said. “Family and friends. If your father sends you a video, you will trust your father. This is what makes us extraordinarily susceptible. We have very strong family ties.”
And video is often the preferred fake-news medium, because as a study of Latino 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 in flagging Spanish-language fake news on their platforms.
The tech giants have vowed to step up. WhatsApp is trying to make it harder to spread bad information from one group chat to another, and YouTube says it is moving faster to take down fake-news videos.
But controlling endless streams of disinformation is a monumental and expensive task; we Latinos need to do our part. Don’t be shy about asking Abuela where she got that information she mentioned on WhatsApp.
The problem is hardly restricted to social media. Old-school media, particularly AM Spanish-language radio, is still an effective megaphone for false narratives, particularly in Miami, where far right-wing hosts have long dominated the airwaves.
That might change soon. Latino Media Network — a new bipartisan group, but led largely by Democrats — announced last month it was buying 18 major Spanish-language radio stations across the country from TelevisaUnivision. The stations include Miami’s popular Radio Mambí. One of LMN’s main goals: helping Spanish-language audiences “navigate the ocean of information that exists in our society.”
The sale set off a firestorm, in part because a firm linked to George Soros, a boogeyman to the far right, is one of LMN’s investors.
One Mambí host, Lourdes Ubieta, has already quit. She told the Miami Herald, “The purchase of Mambí is not to fight against disinformation but to silence conservative voices.” Unfortunately, for too long on Spanish-language Miami radio, conservative voices and disinformation have been almost indistinguishable.