Spanish-Language Disinformation Targets Latino Voters, Spreading Fast

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Spanish-Language Disinformation Targets Latino Voters, Spreading Fast
Experts say immigrants are particularly susceptible to voter disinformation but new fact-checking efforts are emerging on Univision and Telemundo.
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Disinformation targeting Latino voters in Spanish is spreading wildly across social media and airwaves. 

"Deliberately false stories highlighting, for instance, New World Order conspiracies, as well as the ways in which the Biden presidency would actually be a Trojan horse for a socialist takeover of American government," said Yamil Velez, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University who's tracking the phenomenon. 

"They're accusing Black Lives Matter of being dominated by voodoo," added Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of political science at Florida International University.

Many Spanish-language conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, are common in English too. But observers are also seeing increasing lies linking Joe Biden or President Trump to different regimes in Latin America.

"When you connect one candidate — doesn't matter if it's Trump or Biden — to a politician who is the reason why you fled the country. Or is the reason why you can't meet with your family. I mean, this is really emotional," said Cristina Tardaguila, associate director of Poynter Institute's International Fact-Checking Network. 

Experts tracking the phenomenon in South Florida and elsewhere worry about its impact on communities that may be particularly susceptible to disinformation.

"You have a community that is still getting a sense of, you know, what credible journalism looks like in a new country," said Velez.

News outlets, intelligence agencies and big tech companies have been devoting enormous resources in recent years to fight conspiracy theories in English. But analysts say disinformation in Spanish has been largely left unchecked. 

"I had friends and family members who were sharing stories that would never, I think, pass the muster of, you know, what you would observe in terms of English language news," said Velez.

"The fact that it would go so mainstream is what bothers me," added Gamarra.

But as the election nears, new fact-checking efforts in Spanish are finally emerging on Univision and Telemundo

Besides doing their own fact-checking, the two major broadcasters have also started translating fact-checking articles from other outlets such as the Washington Post, PolitiFact and USA Today.

All the content they write and translate is then uploaded onto a new WhatsApp chatbot, called FactChat. The free service allows Spanish-speaking users to easily search for fact-checking content.

"We are seeing very big hits on debate nights because we are offering live content, which is pretty cool for something that is on WhatsApp," said Tardaguila who oversees the project. 

Researchers say it's difficult to assess how exactly the surge of Spanish-language disinformation is impacting the election. But they say one thing is clear: it's sowing doubt on a political system that many are still getting used to.

"The concern is not so much that this disinformation changes people's minds in terms of persuading them, but rather that it might encourage doubt and anxiety that might make them less likely to participate," said Velez.

For full election coverage visit Election 2020.