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As the 2024 election nears, misinformation targeting Latinos gains attention

Spanish speakers are an increasingly important segment of voters. New research examines their exposure to viral lies and conspiracy theories.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Spanish speakers are an increasingly important segment of voters. New research examines their exposure to viral lies and conspiracy theories.

Latino voters will be one of the most decisive demographics in the 2024 presidential election. But many are being bombarded with misleading information about politics.

A new poll from the Digital Democracy Institute of the Americas (DDIA) of 3,000 Latinos across the country found that many were familiar with false claims circulating online.

The online survey, which was conducted in March and April and released Tuesday, found those who were politically engaged and consumed partisan content on social media were the most likely to have previously seen false claims.

Roberta Braga, the founder and executive director of DDIA, said poll respondents performed similarly to the general population when it came to differentiating between accurate content and misinformation.

“There's nothing inherent to Latino communities that makes us less accurate in our ability to identify false content online,” Braga said.

DDIA has been monitoring rumors, misleading narratives and viral falsehoods on social media and on public WhatsApp channels, and used that research to inform which claims to include in the poll.

“We know that Latino communities are engaging with a lot of the similar content that broader communities are engaging with,” Braga said. “A lot of content that comes from far right-wing spaces, for example, gets co-opted and translated and spread by Spanish accounts or Latino-led accounts online.

For example, the poll asked about the claim, “Democrats are failing to secure the U.S. southern border in order to allow undocumented immigrants to vote for them in U.S. elections.” Twenty-two percent of all poll respondents said they agreed with the claim, and of the portion of respondents who had seen the claim before, 41% agreed.

That talking point has been repeated by former President Donald Trump and other Republicans, despite a lack of evidence to support it. It is illegal for noncitizens to vote in federal races, and there are very few documented cases of such attempts in past elections.

The poll also found high levels of uncertainty among respondents, which Braga said could be a healthy sign of skepticism for viral lies, but also could indicate a worrying trend of distrusting information even from reliable sources.

Inequity on social media content moderation

Latinos are more likely to rely on social media for news compared to other demographic groups, according to Pew Research Center.

A research study from New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics that traced the browsing habits of more than 3,300 people found Latinos — both those who are bilingual and those who predominantly speak Spanish — use YouTube for political news far more than non-Hispanic whites. The study also found Latinos consume a large amount of political news on YouTube channels that are not associated with major media outlets and where information is less likely to be verified.

In a statement to NPR, YouTube wrote, “Our elections misinformation policies prohibit certain types of misleading or deceptive content with serious risk of egregious harm, and we rigorously enforce these policies across languages and regions.”

Last year, the platform changed its policies to no longer remove claims that the 2020 election was stolen, citing the concern that such enforcement “could also have the unintended effect of curtailing political speech.”

It is one example of how social media platforms have dialed back efforts to combat false information in recent years. Furthermore, enforcement of those policies has historically been less robust in languages other than in English.

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public released findings this week suggesting that TikTok, Instagram and Facebook are not enforcing some of their own policies to safeguard against election misinformation in Spanish.

English-language searches on all three platforms for words associated with false claims about election integrity, such as “election stolen” or “rigged election” redirect users to a page with credible information about the 2024 election or were restricted.

But when researchers searched for the Spanish-language translation of those terms, the same intervention did not happen.

TikTok and Meta, the parent company for Instagram and Facebook, did not respond to a request for comment about the findings.

Over the last few years, civil society organizations, including Free Press, a nonprofit that pushes for more accountability from technology companies, have pressed for more equitable content moderation in languages beyond English.

According to Meta, the company has increased the amount of content in Spanish that it sends to fact-checkers for review compared to 2020. The company currently has 10 fact-checking partners in the U.S., and of those, five rate and label misleading content in both English and Spanish. Meta partners with fact-checking organizations around the world that check content in 60 languages.

At the same time, the issue of how social media companies handle false and misleading content has become highly politicized as Republican lawmakers have charged that efforts to stop the spread of this kind of content are censorship.

Nora Benavidez, senior counsel and director of digital justice and civil rights for Free Press, said there is still too little transparency across the board from social media companies on their content moderation practices and there is a trend of retreating from earlier promises.

“I'm personally incredibly concerned about the state of play this year vis-a-vis our election integrity efforts on platforms, and frankly, just everyday people's ability to find information that's relevant to them and for us to feel confident that it is credible and true,” Benavidez said.

Free Press polling has found that people who are daily Spanish speakers do not feel they have enough reliable sources of news to make informed voting choices.

After all, news organizations, including ethnic media outlets serving Latino immigrants, are shrinking. Quality information about American politics is harder to come by in Spanish, compared to English.

Combating falsehoods in Spanish

There are some efforts underway to fill the gap, among them, Factchequeado, a nonprofit, Spanish-language fact-checking site that launched in the U.S. two years ago.

Factchequeado has so far recruited 90 media and community organizations in 23 states and Puerto Rico as partners that can use its content at no cost.

On Thursday afternoons, the organization hosts a Zoom call to discuss viral rumors and conspiracy theories spreading on social media with Spanish-language reporters in newsrooms across the country.

Factchequeado reporters recently debunked a false caption that misrepresented a photo of former President Donald Trump at a Florida rally and looked at misleading claims about President Biden’s newest immigration policies.

The site invites readers to use a WhatsApp tip line to request fact-checks of content they are unsure about, including online ads and offers that could be scams.

The group recently launched a Spanish-language course over WhatsApp to help readers learn how to recognize misinformation, including tips for determining if an image was made by artificial intelligence and how to do a reverse image search.

The group’s CEO, Laura Zommer, says there is still a lot of work ahead to address the information crisis facing Spanish speakers in the U.S.

“It's not that we're going to solve it in a year or two,” Zommer said. “It's more like a structural problem in terms of there's a big group of people that is growing, are going to continue growing, and they are not necessarily receiving the same quality of information, not from the government, not from the non-for-profit[s], not from the media.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jude Joffe-Block
[Copyright 2024 NPR]