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Rep. Castro, Latino groups warn about misinformation targeting Spanish speakers

Joaquin Castro stands behind a podium speaking into a microphone with an American flag behind him.
Lenin Nolly
Sipa USA via Reuters
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro joined a national coalition of Latino groups last week to call on social media companies to do more to combat misinformation in Spanish ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

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U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, has joined a coalition of Latino organizations in their calls for social media platforms to do more to combat dangerous conspiracies and electoral misinformation aimed at Spanish-speaking communities.

The group, named the Spanish Language Disinformation Coalition, says that Spanish speakers are particularly vulnerable because of their heavy use of platforms such as YouTube and WhatsApp, where disinformation on voting has spread in the leadup to the 2022 midterm elections. They cite an ongoing flood of conspiracies and extremist rhetoric that has already prompted violence in Texas and elsewhere.

“We are being lied to and discouraged to exercise our right to vote on a massive scale,” said Brenda Victoria Castillo, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “And people like Mark Zuckerberg are doing very little while they profit.”

Meta, Facebook and WhatsApp’s parent company, and Alphabet, Google and YouTube’s parent company, could not be immediately reached for comment on Thursday.

Research shows social media platforms have been inundated with false information for years — including in the leadup to the 2020 election and at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when racist, anti-vaccine and voter fraud conspiracies ran rampant. Earlier this week, the watchdog group Media Matters for America found that many Spanish-language videos with false information continue to spread on YouTube, despite pledges from the platform to improve monitoring ahead of the midterms.

Researchers say disinformation has been targeted at and particularly salient among Latino communities.

“Latinos are affected by a different misinformation environment than reaches the U.S. population at large, and are often targeted in ways specific to their national backgrounds,” University of Houston researchers wroteearlier this year. “For instance, many of their sources played up worries about socialism (often using the term ‘government handouts’), encouraged racial resentment pitting African Americans against Latinos, or preyed on distrust of authority in the Latino community.”

The stream of falsities has been so consistent that a Spanish fact-checking website, Factchequeado, was launched earlier this year to combat misinformation targeting Hispanic and Latino communities in the U.S. The website’s managing editor, Tamoa Calzadilla, said Thursday that there’s been a significant uptick in “propaganda” in recent months, including conspiracies about the Internal Revenue Service and comparisons of President Joe Biden to communist Latin American dictators.

“You can see photos, pictures, videos, propaganda and TV ads saying that they are the same people — that they are all communists, socialists, dictators,” she said.

Meanwhile, racist and violent rhetoric about Latino communities has also flourished and helped prompt acts of mass violence, including the killing of 23 people at an El Paso Walmart by a gunman who was radicalized in part by online conspiracy theories.

In the wake of the Uvalde school shooting earlier this year, conspiracies about the shooter’s nationality and gender identity were also spread online.

“I’ve been disappointed to see [social media platforms] tolerate lies in Spanish that would never be tolerated in English,” said Castro, who joined the coalition on a Thursday press call. He also noted rhetoric that was used by the Trump campaign in thousands of online advertisements, including those that claimed there was an “invasion” at the southern border.

Castro also noted what he said was a flurry of disinformation about supposed voter fraud, including the debunked film “2000 Mules” that top Texas Republicans have promoted in recent months.

The coalition’s calls come as Texas lawmakers continue to push back against moderation on social media platforms. Last year, the state legislature passed a law that banned major tech companies from removing users over a “viewpoint.” The law, which is currently being fought in court, also requires platforms to make public reports on content or accounts they remove.

The law was part of a broader backlash from conservatives against major tech companies over perceived bias — claims that were exacerbated by Twitter’s decision to ban former President Donald Trump and 70,000 accounts that helped spread dangerous misinformation ahead of the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Disclosure: Facebook, Google and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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