“It’s been really, really bad”: How Latinx voters are being targeted by disinformationon October 12, 2020 at 9:00 am

The disinformation is “using religion as a pull to distort her record, drawing a real divisiveness between what it means to be, as you would call it, a good Christian or a good Catholic,” says Ashley Bryant of Pa’Lante, a watchdog group monitoring how Latinx voters are being targeted.

Soon progressive groups were trying to combat the narrative, arguing that Barrett’s nomination would be bad for Catholic Latinos.

More recently comments by Joe Biden about making abortion the “law of the land” triggered a siege of coordinated disinformation across a number of Spanish language Facebook pages. Repetitive imagery and messaging on the subject are appearing across these groups, such as the false claim that Kamala Harris supports abortion up to minutes before birth. These smaller-scale coordinated actions can avoid the attention and scrutiny that might be given to viral posts or hashtags, making them harder to monitor and catch.

Vulnerabilities of the Latinx vote

Communities where Spanish is the dominant language are particularly vulnerable to a unique set of mis- and disinformation challenges, according to Jacobo Licona, a researcher at Equis Labs. He says that while there may be more disinformation in English-speaking Latino digital spaces, there is also better monitoring.

“Spanish language content is oftentimes a little bit more concerning just because there’s less accountability,” he says. While Facebook will sometimes flag mis- and disinformation in English, the same content in Spanish won’t always get flagged. “They often co-opt [disinformation] and spread it quickly in Spanish. And that oftentimes goes unchecked compared to some of the English language content.”

Nefarious actors have been using social media, radio and local Spanish-language newspapers to inundate voters with unprecedented levels of disinformation and conspiracy theories. Some Hispanic influencers have also been key spreaders of mis- and disinformation this year, especially with lies about mail-in-voting fraud.

WhatsApp group chats are particularly popular among immigrant communities as the app doesn’t require a US phone number and end-to-end encryption provides some security. But WhatsApp is hard to monitor and fact check, making it nearly impossible for researchers and activists to monitor disinformation and bad actors. (Whatsapp’s owner, Facebook, has put limits on message forwarding to try reducing the spread of dangerous information in countries like Brazil and India.)

Similarly, researchers believe that the service is an incubator for organically-spread disinformation, where private groups of family and friends share content and trust it. A recent report by Politico highlighted how a Republican-moderated WhatsApp group meant to inform Hispanic communities on Covid included a post that claimed “Real Catholics can’t be Democrats.”

“Official” Messaging

In Florida, where Barrero lives and the population is more than 26% Hispanic, citizens are used to being inundated with ads. It’s a critical swing state, and a regular battleground for both parties.

But things have escalated this year, with the presidential campaigns already outspending 2016’s advertising budgets by $100 million. In particular there has been a focus on messaging to Latino Americans about healthcare, abortion and immigration in both English and Spanish. The audience in Florida includes a mix of Cubans, Venezuelans, Mexicans, and Haitians, and others, making the Latinx vote more diverse and contested than the national, left-leaning, Latinx vote. The Trump campaign has some support among conservative Cuban Americans, as well as with Catholic Hispanics and male Latino voters.

In places like Miami-Dade county, one of the most contested and politically expensive districts in the country, Cuban Americans are being targeted directly by both Trump and Biden. The Trump campaign is feasting on genuine fears of communist rule and attempting to paint Biden as a socialist: A Trump ad campaign called “Progresista” compared some of Biden’s language to that of Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Gustavo Petro, and Nicolas Maduro with a final screen that displays “Biden = Socialism.” The press release for the advertisement called Biden “anti-Hispanic”.

Meanwhile, Facebook groups for Cuban Americans have been a hotbed of disinformation and propaganda. Last week, Pa’Lante was following a post in the group “Cubanos por Donald Trump” in which Biden was photographed on a trip to Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami. The post implied that Biden was capitulating to the Haitian government with a caption “Who wants a Commander in Chief that kneels before foreign leaders?” even though the people in the photograph were simply Miami locals dressed in traditional Haitian attire. The same post has been shared in a number of Latinx groups on Facebook by the same unverified user, urging them to “vote red and in person.”

Leftist causes, meanwhile, have compared Trump’s power grabbing to some of the same dictatorial figures. Priorities USA, the largest Democratic Super PAC, ran an ad campaign in Florida likening Trump to Latin American “caudillos”, or anti-democratic authoritarian strong men.

But it’s the right wing where the influence of bots and misinformation spreading is most visible.

Coordinated campaigns

In the middle of July Robert Unanue, the CEO of Goya Foods, spoke glowingly of President Trump at the White House. Prominent liberal politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez subsequently supported calls for a boycott of Goya products, only to be met by a blowback from Republicans like Ted Cruz, who claimed “the Left is trying to cancel Hispanic culture“.

Social media bots immediately began feasting on the opportunity. One bot tracked by Pa’Lante commented 6,700 times on Facebook and almost 125,000 times on Twitter across some key Latinx communities.

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Pa’Lante tracked the Twitter activity of one bot mentioning Goya. Hispanic communities were key targets.

The bot constantly changed its position and language in an effort to create outrage in different communities and then turn attention to Trump’s Hispanic Prosperity Initiative.

Pa’Lante determined this bot was a right-wing actor strategically sowing division among Latinx voters, a common tactic used to reduce a group’s political power.

Some coordinated actors will also spread the same message repeatedly in many different groups, creating a complex obstacle compared to single viral posts, says Licona. “Oftentimes you’ll see posts with an identical caption and an identical story shared by multiple pages at the same time, which gives it an algorithmic boost and more reach. A post that gets thousands of shares is impactful, but what is more problematic and dangerous is that some of these pages are coordinating with each other to reach more feeds and people.”

What’s next

Combating the problem is challenging. Pa’Lante employs a network of local watchdog groups plugged into the communities it monitors, and creates accurate content that is meant to drown out mis- and disinformation. It’s a fairly effective short-term remedy, though it does nothing to fix the problem structurally or even quickly. In the three short weeks until election day, Pa’Lante is expecting a steady deluge of messages that shift away from persuasion and move into intentional suppression by spreading messages that intend to confuse and intimidate voters.

The coordinated messaging around mail-in-voting fraud is an example. Licona is already seeing these messages directed to the Hispanic community, and cautions that while there is legitimate confusion, there is a clear intention to create distrust of both political parties and of the system in general in order to depress voter turnout.

Lies about mail-in voting are a form of active suppression, says Bryant.

It’s “a domestic tactic that is just another way of weaponizing digital media against Latinx voters,” she says. “It truly is a voter suppression tactic, but also just simply a threat to our democracy, really being able to suppress the access of marginalized communities, the education that they need to be informed and make informed decisions and be civic participators.”

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