The Washington Post

Fake news is fluent in Spanish, too


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, PérezVerdí­a 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 Spanishlan­guage 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 Spanishlan­guage users for several reasons. For starters, social media sites, including Facebook, do little fact-checking on foreignlan­guage 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 Spanishspe­aking 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 fakenews medium, because as a study of Latinos’ 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 Spanishlan­guage 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 Spanishlan­guage radio stations across the country from Televisaun­ivision. The stations include Miami’s popular Radio Mambí. One of LMN’S main goals: helping Spanishlan­guage 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.

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