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Latino groups target Spanish-language misinformation ahead of midterm elections

A Spanish language sign reads "your vote is your power" outside the state Capitol in April 2021.
Gabriel C. Pérez
KUT News
A Spanish language sign reads "your vote is your power" outside the state Capitol in April 2021.

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas has joined a group of Latino organizations calling on social media platforms to stop the spread of misinformation targeting Spanish-speaking users. The Spanish Language Disinformation Coalition wrote a letter to leaders at Meta, Twitter and YouTube warning that Spanish speakers are at high risk due to their use of platforms like YouTube and WhatsApp, where election disinformation has spread like wildfire leading up to this year’s midterms.

Cesar Z. Ruiz, a fellow at LatinoJustice who works in the area of voting rights and redistricting, joined Texas Standard to discuss how to combat misinformation in Spanish-speaking circles.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit more about the sort of disinformation, specifically, you and others are trying to combat. What kinds of disinformation have you picked up on? 

Cesar Z. Ruiz: We’ve seen a rash of misinformation and disinformation – some of it in the form of political fake news, human smuggling ads, COVID-19 conspiracies and lies about the COVID-19 vaccines – all of which really undermine confidence and faith, not only in our system of politics, but also our health system in ways that we can protect our communities.

Does it seem like there’s some kind of organized timing behind this? Is this about midterms? Is this mainly because not a lot of people are focused on COVID, for example, right now?

Yeah, a lot of it. And what we’ll see in the upcoming – and what we saw in the 2020 – election was it really coming at a time when folks were gearing up for get-out-the-vote campaigns and really trying to galvanize support within the context of this conversation– yes, right before important elections and midterm elections, where we know that there are high stakes and where there is a benefit to deceiving and harming folks’ access.

Tell us about the Spanish Language Disinformation Coalition. Who’s involved, and what was the catalyst?

The Spanish Language Disinformation Coalition is a group of national groups that really do a lot of work within the community in civic engagement and across the spectrum servicing the Latino community. And the impetus was really seeing the harm that was caused after the 2020 election and what we see even now as we gear up for the midterm elections, where historically, you know, Avaaz reports that at least 70% of Spanish language political misinformation has stayed online compared to 29% of other English language misinformation. I think that’s pretty significant because it shows how slow social media companies are to take down misinformation and then how that information spreads and creates a real risk of harm. So the Spanish Language Disinformation Coalition really sought to create not only a narrative but a force behind the work that we’re doing to make sure that folks are getting accurate and reliable information, are getting the access they need.

What do you specifically want social media platforms to do, and what’s their response been so far? 

We are urging them to act faster, to remove myths and disinformation, to prevent the risk of harm that really comes from inaccurate information being spread. And that really affects not only our democracy, but people’s ability to access basic services and to be able to get the help that they need. But also, we know that there is a rise in hate crimes and real harm that is being done to communities in physical violence, and so we’ve urged social media companies to engage in a process that’s more rigorous and to put more resources behind it.

We haven’t seen much movement, which is disappointing, but that doesn’t mean that we stop. We continue to push and hold folks accountable because we know that there’s not only real risk of harm, but that this harm is being perpetuated and that it’s going to continue unless the resources are put behind it to really end it.

What can individuals who feel like they’re being targeted by disinformation in Spanish language media do to protect themselves?

I think the most important thing is to flag that in the systems that they have and the social media companies. Being thorough, trying to verify information before you spread that information, is another key role. And be reporting it to community-based organizations and allowing us to track it and use resources that we have to spread the right information. And I think the last would be just relying on trusted and accurate sources and not just, you know, clicking on things and then spreading that information on the individual level. There’s a lot that we can do, but those are just some real basic things.

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Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.