December 5, 2020
An attendee at a rally for Latina voters in Las Vegas in October. | Melina...

An attendee at a rally for Latina voters in Las Vegas in October. | Melina Mara/Washington Post via Getty Images

Democrats are paying attention after a surprising number of Latino voters in swing states supported Trump.

One of the big surprises of the 2020 election was how even though most Latino voters across the US voted for Joe Biden, in some counties of competitive states like Florida and Texas, a higher-than-expected percentage of Latinos supported Donald Trump. One factor that many believe played a role: online misinformation about the Democratic candidate.

It’s still too early to know exactly why these voters favored Trump, a candidate who made demonizing Latino immigrants a cornerstone of his campaign and administration. For one, Latinos in the US are a diverse group of almost 60 million people who represent more than 15 origin countries and encompass a range of generational, socioeconomic, and religious identities. And we’re still waiting for more complete demographic data on voter turnout.

But Democrats are increasingly worried about the influence of misinformation on social media aimed at Latino voters in the runup to the election. The misleading narratives continue to spread on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as well as in closed chat groups like WhatsApp and Telegram, in addition to the more traditional platforms like television, radio, and talking points coming directly from elected officials.

Several misinformation researchers told Recode that they’re seeing alarming amounts of misinformation about voter fraud and Democratic leaders being shared in Latino social media communities. Biden is a popular target, with misinformation ranging from exaggerated claims that he embraces Fidel Castro-style socialism to more patently false and outlandish ones, for instance that the president-elect supports abortion minutes before a child’s birth or that he orchestrated a caravan of Cuban immigrants to infiltrate the US Southern border and disrupt the election process.

“What I’ve seen during this election looks to be a multifaceted misinformation effort seeking to undermine Biden and Harris’s support amongst the Latino community,” said Sam Woolley, a misinformation and propaganda researcher at the University of Texas Austin. “I think that political groups understand that the Latino vote matters and they are showing they are willing to use any and all informational tactics to get what they want.”

Democratic strategists looking ahead to the 2022 midterm elections are concerned about how this might sway Latino voters in the future. They acknowledge that conservatives in traditional media and the political establishment have pushed false narratives as well, but say that social media misinformation deserves special attention: It appears to be a growing problem, and it can be hard to track and understand.

Timothy Durigan, a security analyst for the Democratic National Committee, said that while Democrats “survived” the threat of misinformation this cycle, there hasn’t been the kind of structural change from social media companies that would prevent such viral misinformation from continuing to spread.

The DNC regularly flags content it believes violates social media policies, and the organization promotes counter-messaging against viral conspiracies. But the volume of misinformation is overwhelming.

“We’re limited in what we’re able to do,” Durigan said.

Some of the misleading messages — like that Biden is a radical socialist — aren’t uniquely aimed at the Latino community; Trump often made this claim during his campaign. But these comparisons take on a new intensity with some immigrants from countries like Cuba or Venezuela who have lived under socialist governments and may be deeply opposed to them.

And they may be more likely to believe a message shared by friends, family members, or people from their cultural community in a WhatsApp or Telegram group rather than an arbitrary mainstream US news outlet; research has found that people believe news articles more when they’re shared by people they trust.

“What we’re worried about moving forward is that many of these groups and influencers aren’t necessarily going to stop sharing misinformation, but will move into platforms like Parler, WhatsApp, and Telegram, which is going to make it much more difficult to monitor,” said Flavia Colangelo, a researcher at GQR, a research firm that advises Democratic campaigns on Spanish-language disinformation.

Politicians and social media researchers are still working on the full post-mortem of what happened in the 2020 election with Latino voters, but they’re already finding clear takeaways about what kinds of viral misinformation spreads, how it gains traction, and what companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter can do to minimize its impact — if they decide to do so.

Misleading narratives on socialism, abortion, and racial tensions

One of the most pervasive themes of the misinformation targeting Spanish-speaking communities in the US during the election is the false idea that Joe Biden is a radical socialist, along the lines of the late Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro or late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Biden has repeatedly disavowed socialism and is in fact criticized by some progressive Democrats for being too centrist. Other misleading narratives attack Democrats’ stances on religious freedom, abortion, and race relations.

The Trump campaign itself has targeted Latino voters with this message, running Spanish-language ads on Facebook, YouTube, and Spanish-language TV stations in states like Florida and Arizona promoting this message of Biden’s “extremism.”

“Socialist Joe Biden has embraced the extremist politics of the left. Don’t let his radical politics be implemented in our grand country. Learn more about his progressive ideas,” reads a translation of one Spanish-language Facebook ad run by the Trump campaign, which ran in the months ahead of the election.

That specific Facebook ad had between 1.6 million and 1.9 million impressions on the platform and cost the Trump campaign over $26,000, according to data compiled about political ads on Facebook from July 1 until November 3 by Laura Edelson, a researcher at the NYU School of Engineering’s Ad Observatory project, which tracks Facebook ads.

On Facebook and YouTube, making a claim like “Biden is an extreme socialist” isn’t a violation of their policies. What the platforms ban is misleading content about voting, as well as content linked to harmful conspiracy theories like QAnon. (After Recode provided examples, YouTube removed a popular Spanish-language channel that was promoting QAnon conspiracies, as well as a political video containing coronavirus misinformation.)

Misinformation spreading in Latino communities wasn’t a problem for Democrats just in the presidential campaign, it cropped up in congressional races, too. Democratic House Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a first-generation Latina who lost her Florida reelection campaign, has publicly blamed a “targeted disinformation campaign to Latinos” as one of the main reasons for her loss.

“Not only did House Republicans benefit at the ballot box from harmful disinformation that targeted Hispanic and Latino voters, but they shamelessly embraced that disinformation as a central pillar in their 2020 campaign strategy,” said Benjamin Block, a digital rapid response director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

And political ads were only one part of these misinformation campaigns. Researchers say a growing network of Spanish-language political news influencers, including Aliesky Rodriguez, Eduardo Menoni, and John Acquaviva, have built devoted followings on social media through US political commentary oriented to a Latino audience — much of it rife with misinformation or misleading narratives.

Such influencers often start on YouTube or Facebook and then carry on the conversation in private WhatsApp and Telegram group chats, many of which have tens of thousands of members who post thousands of messages a day. These private chats are also more difficult for fact-checkers to monitor.

“It’s rare that we see such a sort of emergence of parallel conversations amongst multiple social media groups like WhatsApp, and social media sites in one specific region,” said Woolley.

One prominent Florida-based Cuban-American personality, Alex Otaola, whose YouTube videos rack up hundreds of thousands of views, went so far as to falsely claim that Democrats were going to send a caravan of Cuban immigrants to storm the US border to disrupt the election. He also made a video announcing a “lista roja” (red list) he planned to give to Trump, naming Cubans living in the US who Otaola baselessly asserted were Castro loyalists planning to subvert Trump’s presidency. Less than a month before the election, Otaola landed a visit with Trump, where he delivered the list to the president in person.

A spokesperson for YouTube told Recode that Otaola’s caravan video does not violate its policies.

“As we announced a few months ago, our deceptive practices policy prohibits misleading viewers about how to vote: for example, content aiming to mislead voters about the time, place, means, or eligibility requirements for voting. Expressing views on the outcome of a current election or process of counting votes is allowed under our policy.”

Another prevalent theme in many Spanish-language social media groups is the idea that Biden isn’t a “real” Catholic. As NBC News has reported, one of the lies used to bolster this claim is that Biden is in favor of abortion minutes before a scheduled birth. Even though Latinos identify with various ideologies and religions, a majority — around 55 percent — of Latino Americans identified as Catholic in a 2013 Pew poll.

“When Latinx people see this content, they think, ‘that’s a compatriot, I’m going to trust them,’” said Jaime Longoria, an investigative researcher focusing on Spanish-language disinformation with the research nonprofit First Draft News. “It feels like a huge oversight for me that these platforms have allowed all this misinformation to keep spreading.”

Another tactic these campaigns employ is exploiting racial tensions in Latino communities — in many cases, to align the Black Lives Matter movement with anarchy and anti-Latino prejudice. These tactics ramped up in the summer as images of protests broke out across the country for racial justice this summer in the wake of police killings of Black people. (Biden and other Democrats have largely been supportive of this movement, although Biden has not backed some activists’ calls to defund the police.)

“In my research, one of the first things I noticed is a lot of content online whose sole purpose was to antagonize Latinx people against Black people,” Longoria said.

In one viral video that was posted in several Latino social media communities, a group of Black protesters is seen insulting migrant Latino workers at a construction site in Washington, DC. A caption for the original video, posted on an entertainment blog, read, “Protesters tell Mexican workers to stop stealing your jobs,” according to DCist.

Another video seemingly aimed at pitting Latinos against Black people showed a Black woman disrupting a Latino child’s birthday party. The woman disrupting the party was falsely linked to the Black Lives Matter movement in a caption posted by the Facebook page “Infodemik.” Facebook flagged the video as false after an investigation by its third-party fact-checkers, but one instance of the video alone has some 180,000 shares and 77,000 comments on the platform.

These kinds of tactics can have a real impact on their targeted audience. Saiph Savage, who researches misinformation at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Civic Tech Lab, said there is a “data void” in the Latino community for Spanish-language news about US politics. There are only two major Spanish-language broadcast news networks in the US: Univision and Telemundo. This leaves room for media operations — not just on the internet, but also via local radio channels and newspapers — to spread less-accurate reporting, Savage said.

And increasingly, some members of the Latino community feel that the major Spanish-language networks are biased against conservatives, perpetuated in part, Savage and Longoria said, by viral conspiracy theories spread online — including the unproven accusation that star Univision anchor Jorge Ramos is working on behalf of the Democratic Party.

Looking ahead to 2022, Democrats are worried

Though the 2020 election is over, misinformation about it continues to spread on social media. Some Latino American online influencers are promoting conspiracy theories about voter fraud — many in line with widely debunked claims Trump has been making — comparing unproven corruption in the US election to countries such as Venezuela and Cuba.

In a YouTube live video posted last week with over 40,000 views, three popular Latino social media influencers warned viewers about a California woman claiming that her dog was sent a mail-in ballot, as an example of mass voter fraud — despite the fact that the anecdote has been widely discredited.

“You don’t even see this in the tyrannical, communist dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro,” said Eduardo Menoni, a popular Venezuelan social media personality who now lives in Colombia, according to his Facebook page, in the video.

As Democrats face a weaker House majority than anticipated, which could erode further in 2022, they worry about the continued threat of misinformation like this influencing a key voting bloc.

Party officials from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the DNC are calling on social companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to do a better job moderating their platforms.

“The DCCC took on the threat of organic disinformation, but that work cannot fall on the shoulders of campaigns and party committees alone,” said Block, who heads up the DCCC’s disinformation research efforts. “Social media companies must step up to the plate and combat organic disinformation to protect voters who use their platforms.”

The DNC’s Durigan told Recode that Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging software, which Latinos use more compared to any other ethnic or racial group in the US, is a particular area of concern for the party.

“That product is kind of inherently problematic,” Durigan said. “They have marketed pretty aggressively their encrypted communication software with capability for fairly large group conversation and easy forwarding.”

A spokesperson for Facebook said that the company takes Spanish-language misinformation seriously. Ahead of the 2020 election, the company added two new US-fact-checking partners who review content in Spanish on Facebook and Instagram. It also put a Spanish-language version of a chatbot in WhatsApp to answer people’s questions about the election, as well as a Spanish-language version of its voting information center on Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook also limits people from spreading a message to five people or groups at a time in order to limit the spread of viral misinformation, and in April it took further steps to limit viral claims to only being forwarded to one chat or group at a time. But several Democratic operatives said that new policies still don’t go far enough, and that the company should be doing more to limit and fact-check viral false claims within the app.

But as social media companies face pressure from Democrats to do more about viral Spanish-language misinformation, Republicans continue to accuse tech companies of censoring conservative views when they more aggressively enforce their rules around political misinformation. This puts companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in a political tug-of-war over how legislators on opposite sides of the aisle think they should be running their companies.

At the same time, the Democratic Party has been called on to take accountability for its own failings to combat false narratives. Several party operatives told Recode that in order to combat viral disinformation on social media, the party also needs to increase its efforts to reach Latino voters on the ground, specifically in states such as Florida and Texas. In Arizona, Democrats effectively worked with local Latino progressive groups to do grassroots door-to-door outreach, which Colangelo believes helped minimize the impact of viral misinformation to some extent.

“Countering disinformation online requires offline trust-building,” Colangelo said. “It’s introducing the candidate early and saying, ‘Here’s the Democratic Party, here’s what we stand for, here’s what we’ve done for your community, and here’s what we plan to do next.’ So when someone comes in and says, ‘this candidate is a socialist and they’re going to raise your taxes’ — voters already know that’s not true.”

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