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Community advocates work to combat Spanish language misinformation

With social media companies slow to act, Latinx organizers say it’s hard to stem the tide of Spanish-language fake news.
Jack Herrera January 15th, 2021
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The vast and bizarre diversity of conspiracy theories that spread in Spanish during the 2020 election would put a magical realist novelist to shame. In Florida, a buzzing swarm of WhatsApp chain messages warned, falsely, that Joe Biden intended to pass laws banning the Christian church. In South Texas oil fields, local Democrats said the message had spread that Biden planned on banning all oil production—a position that the president-elect has never held. In states across the country, Spanish speakers read Facebook posts that claimed Biden and the Democrats wanted to kill babies; that they supported abortion even after the moment of birth. And the virulent Q-Anon conspiracy theory (which holds that President Donald Trump is waging a secret war against cannibalistic, pedophilic Democrat human traffickers) found traction in Spanish on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and countless other sites. 

Community organizers and activists working in Latinx communities say the vast inundation of falsehoods has made their jobs difficult in new ways. Along the southern Texas border in Zapata County, Cynthia Villarreal, a local Democratic organizer, says that misinformation is part of what cost Biden the election in her county. (In the 2020 election, Biden became the first Democrat to lose the over-90 percent Latinx Zapata County in over 100 years.) Organizing has been hard when there’s such serious debate over basic facts. The spread of false information had also placed strain on Villarreal’s personal relationships— “I have friends and family who think Biden is coming for their guns; that Democrats are baby killers,” she said, soon after the election. Conversations and arguments circled around, got muddled, went nowhere. 

Experts say that while platforms like Facebook (which also owns WhatsApp) and Twitter have built up infrastructure to try to address misinformation in English, companies have often been much slower to clamp down on misinformation in Spanish. For Vanessa Cárdenas, one of the most disheartening parts of addressing the flood of fake news comes from the fact that it draws community organizers away from other, more productive work.

“At this moment when Latinos should be galvanizing together to exert our power and our influence, this is a huge distraction. It takes away time, attention, and resources away from what’s really important,” says Cárdenas, a senior advisor at the League of United Latin American Citizens, the country's oldest Latinx advocacy organization. “It creates a huge distraction, because it’s so dangerous and we can’t ignore it. So we have to run public education campaigns, put out messaging. But that means the other 500 things we need to do don’t get done.” 

One of the most dangerous and heartbreaking examples of this pressure on bandwidth has come during the pandemic. Latinxs have borne a major toll from COVID-19: The community makes up a disproportionate percentage of the essential workforce, and Latinxs have been experiencing rates of hospitalization over four times greater than the general population. Cárdenas says that LULAC has been trying to push for adequate healthcare and attention, but the organization has been distracted by rapidly-spreading misinformation about the vaccine. 

“It’s so problematic to hear people tell you they’re worried the vaccine is going to carry a tracking device,” Cárdenas says. “Our community is already so vulnerable to the disease; so many of our folks are dying, and now we have bad actors who are amplifying all this negative information.” 

Cárdenas feels frustrated that Latinx community leaders and organizations like her own have had to bear the brunt of addressing Spanish language misinformation. She believes that platforms like Facebook need to be doing more. 

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“The question of accountability is so important—at the end of the day, the onus should not be on nonprofit organizations to fix this problem,” she says. “Because it’s not a problem that we created; it’s a problem created by these platforms, and it needs to be addressed on their end.” 

While many social media platforms have taken steps to address Spanish misinformation, experts say much more needs to be done. Besides building up the language fluency, platforms also need to build up a cultural competency: Understanding the power, impact, and danger of Spanish language misinformation means understanding the different cultures of diverse Latinx communities. 

“What’s worrisome is that these messages are so targeted to communities; they know what buttons to push, whether it’s the Cuban American community or whether it’s the Mexican American community, the Guatemalan American community,” Cárdenas says. Venezuelans in Florida were confronted with false information comparing Biden to Nicolás Maduro, the authoritarian leader of Venezuela; Colombians received claims—including from Trump—that Biden had the support of far-left Colombian militants. 

“That means that number of people they have looking at English content versus Spanish content is one factor; but another is that you cannot bring someone from Spain to come review information about Mexican Americans, because even with the language, without the proper context that person is not going to get it,” Cárdenas says. 

Cárdenas says the most productive action Latinxs can take is to push platforms like Facebook and YouTube (owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company) to do more. But, in the meantime, she says that Latinxs need strong community leaders who they can rely on to help them find accurate information.

“I think that local leaders have a huge role to play in this; people who have a connection to the community and who are trusted,” she says. “They’re the ones people need to turn to when they have questions about what’s happening.” 


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