The Latinx Community and COVID-Disinformation Campaigns

Are Spanish-speaking people in America more gullible than the rest of the country? A recent story from Univision, the largest Spanish-language television network in the United States, argues that “the Hispanic community in the United States has become the perfect victim of disinformation.” Latinx people are fifty-seven per cent more likely to use social media…

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Are Spanish-speaking people in America more gullible than the rest of the country? A recent story from Univision, the largest Spanish-language television network in the United States, argues that “the Hispanic community in the United States has become the perfect victim of disinformation.” Latinx people are fifty-seven per cent more likely to use social media as a primary source of information about the coronavirus than other groups, according to Nielsen. And young adults in the demographic are more than twice as likely as the general population to use messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. Stephanie Valencia, a former Google staffer and a co-founder of the firm Equis Research, which focusses on polling Latinx voters and conducts analysis on misinformation campaigns, wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that many Spanish-language social-media pages and groups are “cesspools” where disinformation thrives uncontested.

Soon after the efforts to discourage COVID-19 vaccinations began, in late 2020, Latinx people were among the groups more hesitant to get the shots. Researchers from First Draft, a pioneering group that tracks misinformation and disinformation campaigns, tried to find out why, with a working hypothesis that such campaigns played a role. For almost a year, researchers monitored unverified Facebook pages and groups, Twitter and Instagram posts, and Spanish-language discourse on social-media accounts, including on messaging platforms such as Telegram. Their report, which was released in early December of last year, warns that a history of discrimination and medical racism, and a lack of access to health care, may have created “a foundation of doubt and mistrust that allows misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines to flourish on social media.” By that time, though, the national vaccine-hesitancy gap had almost disappeared, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, with fifty-eight per cent of white people and fifty-six per cent of Latinx people having received at least one shot. In fact, in fourteen states and the District of Columbia, the vaccination rate was lower among the white population. (Latinx patients, however, were still dying at a higher rate.) And, according to an earlier K.F.F. poll, unvaccinated Latinx people were not primarily discouraged by lies or scaremongering about the vaccines but by concerns that registering for one could lead to immigration-status problems, or that possible side effects of the shot might cause missed days of work—and pay.

But many observers believe that misinformation is one of the main reasons that Latinx people who are still unvaccinated remain so. In a national poll by Voto Latino published in April, 2021, slightly more than half of all unvaccinated Latinx people believed that the vaccine was unsafe; that figure rose to sixty-seven per cent among those who primarily spoke Spanish. (Thirty-eight per cent of respondents declared that they were vaccinated; at that point, between twelve million and fifteen million Latinx people were unvaccinated nationwide, according to the study.) Almost eighty per cent of all respondents (vaccinated and not) thought that COVID-19 misinformation was a serious or somewhat serious problem. Four months later, Salud America!, an organization at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio that promotes health measures for Latinx children and families, pointed to misinformation as one of the main reasons that sixty per cent of the city’s Latinx population remained unvaccinated.

Campaigns to spread fear or confusion among Spanish-speaking Latinx people on a range of issues ramped up during recent Presidential elections. Univision and Telemundo, the national Spanish-language network owned by NBCUniversal, strengthened their fact-checking departments and their WhatsApp channels to try to counter them. Univision eventually created tools to help Spanish speakers identify false news. Last year, the network launched a special section, Crónicas de la desinformación (Disinformation Chronicles), to educate the Latinx community on how misinformation spreads. “We also started seeing Hispanics become a target of pro-Trump and radical right-wing groups that were sowing fear to discourage them from participating in the census and the elections,” Tamoa Calzadilla, who supervises Univision News’ fact-checking platform elDetector, told me. She added that many of the same groups have been pushing lies and conspiracy theories about the vaccines.

Jaime Longoria, who now works for the Disinfo Defense League, a network that fights disinformation targeting people of color, was one of the authors of the First Draft report, and he said that misinformation campaigns were also traced to groups such as Médicos por la Verdad (Doctors for Truth) and Coalición Mundial Salud y Vida (Health and Life World Coalition), which promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine, chlorine dioxide, or other substances as a cure for COVID-19. According to the report, misinformation in Spanish about the COVID-19 vaccine thrives on social-media feeds, in WhatsApp messages, and in (virtual) church halls. Religious leaders, First Draft researchers say, have “played a pivotal role” in the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. This group includes Christian leaders in Latin America and Europe whose videos and posts are widely viewed in some U.S. Latinx communities, and also local figures with large social-media audiences. Among other things, these leaders have pushed bogus alternative treatments and claimed that the vaccines carry microchips that are inserted in people’s bodies, can change recipients’ DNA, are made from aborted fetuses, or are the work of the Antichrist. At one point, a WhatsApp audio circulated with the message that a cure for COVID had been discovered in Central America: you needed to find a hair inside a Bible, boil it in water, and drink it. A man from the Dominican Republic claimed that he had found such a hair; a video of his testimony had already attracted eighty-four thousand views when it was spotted by the news site Documented, which serves Spanish-speaking migrants in New York via WhatsApp channels, and which recently partnered with Univision’s local station in New York to fact-check claims about COVID-19 on request. The site’s reporters found a spike in online searches for pelo (hair) and Biblia. (Another person tweeted about a Univision news story claiming that people suffering from alcoholism are immune to the virus. This claim was determined to be doubly false: the real Univision never posted any such story.)

Other Spanish-language narratives were, perhaps, easier to disprove but also easier to believe, such as posts warning that children who tested positive would be taken away from their parents. After the systematic family separations of the Trump years, why wouldn’t a migrant family take such a threat seriously? Since the beginning of the pandemic, Maritza Félix, the founder of the WhatsApp-based news service Conecta Arizona, has been hosting daily cafecitos, or early-afternoon conversations, to dispel misinformation. A woman told her that she was afraid of vaccinating her children because she had heard that the government was trying to sterilize an entire generation of Latinx people; that side effect would not be discovered, the woman believed, until they were grown. Despite scientific assurances to the contrary, past claims of forced sterilization in some Latin American countries, such as Peru (and also in the U.S. territory Puerto Rico), make this conspiracy theory plausible in some communities.

The problem with narratives about Latinx gullibility is that they tend to conclude that an “external” intervention is needed to rescue these communities—that they need to be controlled. This is often the case with other communities, too. As Longoria, the co-author of the First Draft report, told me, “A lot of the conversation when it comes to Black, Indigenous, and Latino people and disinformation is very patronizing. These conversations paint the picture that these communities are at the whims of any social-media post they see.”

The First Draft report notes, in its recommendations, that, “to assure an exchange of reliable information,” platforms “must contend with the challenge of balancing privacy and public interest, especially in communities that rely on closed messaging apps as primary modes of communication.” For instance, Longoria said, “these platforms could provide transparent, anonymized data to researchers on community conversations and the type of information that is being exchanged.”

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