Networks of Falsehood

How misinformation goes unchecked on Spanish-language social media
February 23, 2022 by
John Widick
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“¡Dios Te Bendiga!” reads the meme on WhatsApp. “Dios te bendiga” is a phrase meaning “may God bless you” in Spanish, and anyone with Spanish-speaking relatives has probably received a forwarded message like this from their tía or abuela, and the messages often come on WhatsApp. WhatsApp is an encrypted messaging service owned by Meta, which is the new name of Facebook’s parent company as of the end of October 2021. WhatsApp is extremely popular internationally, and is a common way for Spanish speakers throughout the Americas to stay in touch with their relatives across national lines.

A Big Well to Poison

Social media, like Facebook and WhatsApp, is a common source of misinformation for all demographics, but studies have shown that for Spanish speakers in the United States the problem is magnified. For Latinos, social media is used as a primary source of information much more so than it is for English speakers, and that includes news-related content and updates on the Covid-19 Pandemic. WhatsApp, along with Facebook, YouTube, and other regions of unregulated information wilderness, are places where misinformation and disinformation thrive, and there is plenty of evidence to show that it has a greater impact on the Hispanic population than it does on other groups. For years these networks primarily did their job of keeping friends and family in touch. However, myths about the Covid-19 Pandemic have now contaminated this well-maintained infrastructure, previously established as a conduit for familial greetings and well-wishes like the “Dios Te Bendiga” memes, and it has converted them into a hidden network of unchecked rumor and even intentional deception, placed there by bad actors from the outside .

Two-thirds of Latinos in the United States treat YouTube as a primary source of news. That’s according to Equis, an organization dedicated to studying the Latino electorate. They also found that half of Latinos in the US use WhatsApp, which is more than any other racial or ethnic demographic. This is of course worrisome because YouTube creators are barely regulated, and WhatsApp messages are not regulated at all. They are, in fact, encrypted and hidden even from the company, as the app itself declares. Given that networks of family and friends have already spent years sharing content with the app, it was a huge well to poison for those seeking to spread Covid-19 disinformation. According to the The Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab, "almost 4 in 10 Latinx respondents report having seen material or information that makes them think the COVID-19 vaccines are not safe or effective." Facebook, as well, has been shown by observers, as well as its internal communications, to be much less effective at regulating Spanish-language content compared to English. “We’re not good at detecting misinfo in Spanish or lots of other media types… We will still have gaps in detection & enforcement, esp. for Spanish.” That comes from one of Facebook’s internal documents shared by the L.A. Times. Furthermore, Facebook banned the hashtag #Plandemic in 2020, but according to the Associated Press, the Spanish version, #Plandemia, was not banned until nearly a year later.

It’s disheartening to learn that dealing with misinformation presents a separate challenge in each language. It’s a challenge that Meta fails to meet continually according to whistleblower Frances Haugen, because it is costly. On 60 minutes she said “Every time Facebook expands to a new one of these linguistic areas, it costs just as much, if not more, to make the safety systems for that language as it did to make English or French.” She also revealed that 87% of misinformation spending at Facebook is on English-language content, but a mere 9% of the users are English speakers. 

Misinformation as Both a Source and a Symptom

The obvious questions is, what can we do about this? For professionals in the field of health, the issue of misinformation can be seen in the context of health literacy, which can be defined as the depth with which an average person can understand credible medical information. When misinformation floats around in digital spaces, it essentially occupies the space where valid information could have been. While some conspiracy-believers are educated and choose to let go of what they’ve been taught about science and medicine, many were never well-informed to begin with. For such individuals, good health education would have empowered them to resist misinformation. Scientifically-enfranchised citizens can often smell fake information, because they’ve learned how verifiable information is discovered by the scientific community, and they would have likely had opportunities to see their knowledge play out in the real world. In essence, their knowledge would be on a more solid foundation and more difficult to harm.

The question is, of course, how can health professionals do this when they are busy healing? It’s important to look at other fields for an example.

A news service in Oakland, California called El Tímpano is setting an example on a local level, and it has developed an interesting approach. It created a text message service in Spanish which has more than 2,000 subscribers. It shares news on many topics, but what’s really unique is that it allows readers to respond with questions, and Covid-19 hoaxes is one of the subjects about which they frequently answer their readers, according to its founder Madeleine Blair. Voto Latino, which is one of the groups that founded The Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab, created an ad targeting people considered to be “on the fence” about the Covid-19 Vaccine, and found that after seeing the ad viewers were 54 times more likely to search “get the Covid vaccine.”

But can clinics and hospitals engage the public this way? Do they need their own social media departments? The truth is PR has always been a part of healthcare, and there’s no reason it can’t support the public good as well as the institution it represents. If every hospital, clinic, or manufacturer posted useful information on social media, and took the time to have it accurately but efficiently translated, think of how it might help the fight against Covid-19 as well as future health crises worsened by harmful, fake information.

The evolution of social media has been mind-blowing. Who knew that its original purpose of sharing greetings and photos of life events would yield so much ground to political fights and anti-science propaganda? Clearly this crisis of knowledge and credibility is affecting everyone, and any degree of removal from access to verifiable information makes the problem worse. Immigrant communities are already subject to the language barriers that make finding relevant information hard, and now they find the online frameworks that their communities have been using to help one another have been contaminated by messages that bring harm, with little oversight to prevent it. Medical professionals historically would be the calm, knowledgeable voices to combat medical misinformation, but the traditional one-on-one approach is not enough to keep up with the exponential growth rumors have online. Fighting the plague of falsehood is a daunting task, but it’s up to experts and compassionate community members to take up a fight they never thought they would have to. 

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