Feb 8, 2022 - Technology

The Spanish-language misinformation crisis

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Spanish-language misinformation on social media platforms is flourishing, even as tech companies add more moderators, adopt stricter content rules, add context labels and block offending accounts.

Why it matters: Latinos are increasingly turning to social media for news during the pandemic — including important elections where Spanish-language misinformation sometimes sits unchallenged, posing threats to health and democracies.

Driving the news: In light of misinformation that has been spread about COVID-19, vaccinations and the 2020 election, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus requested meetings with leaders of Meta, TikTok, YouTube and Twitter last month to discuss what steps platforms are taking.

  • "Every week that goes by without adequate action by these companies places our communities at greater risk of being exposed to misinformation," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) told Axios in an interview.
  • He said past responses to inquiries from the caucus have been "completely unsatisfactory" and it's time for in-person meetings: "We want to have engagement at the highest levels."
  • The Committee on House Administration held a hearing on Monday, where former Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell said messages perpetuating "the big lie" that Democrats stole the 2020 election and COVID-19 vaccine falsehoods have jumped from social media and messaging groups to more mainstream outlets.

Between the lines: Where platforms are quick to remove misinformation posts in English, some identical posts in Spanish remain online.

  • A Spanish-language video on Facebook falsely claiming that COVID-19 vaccines have microchips and are connected to Bill Gates can still be viewed. An English-language version of the same video was deleted.

The intrigue: An analysis of the 2020 election by the Latino research firm Equis, reviewed by Axios, found that YouTube played a significant role in convincing some Latino voters to support former President Donald Trump in higher percentages than expected by carefully targeting them.

  • Equis' Carlos Odio said many of those targeted Spanish-language videos posted on YouTube purporting to be news analyses coming from Latin America were filled with misinformation.
  • In Congress, where many attempts to address misinformation online through legislation have stalled, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is ready to look at what can be done for what it sees as a uniquely harmful issue to Latino communities, Menendez said.
  • "[The platforms] appear to underestimate the threat that misinformation has to our democracy and to our community most specifically," he said, noting that constituents come to him asking about false posts they saw on Instagram or via WhatsApp messages.

What they're saying: "The platforms have not been transparent about the resources that they're committing to address the challenge of Spanish-language disinformation," Stephanie Valencia of Equis told Axios.

  • Valencia said social media platforms continue to leave uncontested Spanish misinformation about COVID-19 and false claims that President Biden has endorsed socialism. She said some of the misinformation appears to be coming from foreign nations like Colombia.

Mike Madrid, a California Republican strategist and Latino voting trends expert, said the Spanish misinformation makes it difficult for candidates to talk about important issues facing Latinos.

  • "If you have actors who are not looking to be truthful, you open yourself up to an environment where you're not only not having a debate on the same policy issues. You're fighting an enemy who is not even talking about reality."

The other side: Spokespersons from YouTube, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter defended their practices combatting Spanish-language misinformation to Axios.

  • YouTube spokesperson Elena Hernandez told Axios more than 20,000 people globally work on content review, "including many with Spanish language expertise."
  • Facebook spokesperson Kevin McAlister said the platform has four fact-checking partners in the U.S. that review and rate Spanish content, and pointed to various Spanish-language specific efforts from the platform on the 2020 election, voting and COVID-19 and vaccines.
  • Twitter spokesperson Katie Rosborough said Twitter is in communication with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and "actively collaborating with partners to tackle this issue."

Don't forget: A Nielsen report last year found that websites and apps more popular with Latinos in the U.S. than other groups make them more susceptible both to exposure to misinformation and to share it.

What's next: Telemundo is launching an initiative with Poynter and MediaWise that includes a crash course on identifying misleading info sent through WhatsApp.

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Latinos are more exposed to and likely to share misinformation

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