Spread of election lies in Florida’s Spanish-speaking communities is ‘fracturing democratic institutions,’ advocates warn

Published: November 5, 2022 4:51 PM EDT
Updated: November 6, 2022 6:03 AM EST
CORAL SPRINGS FL - OCTOBER 24: A general view of a polling location during the first day of early in person voting at the Northwest Regional Library during the 2022 Midterm Election on October 24, 2022 in Coral Springs, Florida. Credit: mpi04/MediaPunch /IPX

With voting already underway in this year’s midterms, election lies and QAnon conspiracy theories are circulating among Spanish-speaking communities, raising alarm bells for advocates that it could discourage Latinos from voting and further divide communities.

The impact of disinformation has been especially acute in south Florida with its large Spanish-speaking community, foreign-born population, and significant political influence. A longtime battleground that’s been moving toward Republicans — former President Donald Trump carried it in 2020 — the state is home to a gubernatorial and Senate contest this year.

Ahead of the midterms, the main false narrative is about alleged widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election, according to Tamoa Calzadilla, managing editor of the Spanish-language fact-checking website Factchequeado.com. (There is no evidence of such fraud.)

Disinformation is often similar in English and Spanish, Calzadilla said, but her team has identified specific subjects particularly targeted at the Latino population, including falsehoods that the Biden administration is a socialist, communist regime, which is sensitive for people who came from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua because of those countries’ histories, she said.

The spread of misinformation and disinformation in Spanish, some of it coming directly from politicians and partisan media outlets, has plagued social media platforms for years and has helped to sow doubt about the integrity of elections in the United States.

“[I]t’s something that is fracturing our democratic institutions. It’s affecting our families. It’s dividing our families,” Evelyn Perez Verdia, a Democrat and chief strategy officer for We Are Más, a consulting firm focused on intercultural communications and countering disinformation, told CNN.

False election-related content online has created “a lot of distrust” among Spanish-speaking voters and voters from other diaspora communities, Verdia said.

Bowing in part to public scrutiny, platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have sought to come up with ways to slow the spread of misinformation about elections over the years. In some cases, platforms remove false claims entirely; in other cases, they label the claims as false and point users to accurate information.

But on WhatsApp, the same kind of labels and fact-checks are not possible. WhatsApp, which was acquired by Facebook (now called Meta), is an encrypted messaging service — meaning no one, not even Meta, is supposed to be able to see the messages users are sending to each other.

Encryption is a key selling point of WhatsApp. In a world of increased surveillance, people want privacy. But that poses a challenge for slowing the spread of misinformation — a challenge WhatsApp’s parent company Meta has said it’s committed to.

Some Democratic Latino activists in South Florida recently described to CNN how their family WhatsApp groups had in recent years become overrun with election misinformation.

Verdia, who has worked with Hispanic, Latino, and diaspora communities in Florida for 20 years, said she’s seen Republicans with who she used to “break bread” radicalized by the spread of false information and “peddle” that information themselves.

There have been lies about election fraud, socialism, communism, and distortions about people running for office, Verdia said, adding that she also witnessed the spread of misinformation on WhatsApp group channels.

Meanwhile, on Telegram, a platform with lax rules that has become a hotbed of conspiracy theories and right-wing hate, QAnon channels dedicated to translating the conspiracy theory into Spanish have tens of thousands of followers.

The misinformation posted in these channels is very “sophisticated” with a focus on specific accents and subcultures, Verdia said, acknowledging that she does not know where the false information originated.

In September, supporters of QAnon celebrated what they saw as Trump’s renewed embrace of the conspiracy theory after Trump shared a meme on social media — a sign to followers of QAnon that they were onto something and that Trump was sympathetic toward them.

What QAnon followers believe varies, but it encapsulates everything from conspiracy theories about a deep state, child-sacrificing cabal to lies about the 2020 presidential election.

“We can try to explain” that Trump lost his cases challenging the 2020 presidential election results, Calzadilla said, but people are “hearing” the spread of disinformation about the “big lie.”

Calzadilla, a former Univision journalist, fled Venezuela about seven years ago with her husband who is also a journalist after it became too dangerous for them to work in the country, she said.

Trying to combat misinformation

Over the past year or so, election officials raised to the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency the need to help non-English speaking communities address the risks of disinformation, according to CISA’s Senior Election Security Adviser Kim Wyman.

“We know that disinformation can come in many forms and languages, which is why we have provided translations of a number of our products on the risk of mis- and disinformation,” she said in a statement to CNN.

CISA recently released “Tactics of Disinformation,” an online pamphlet in both Spanish and English.

However, CISA has not translated its election-specific “Rumor vs. Reality” website, designed to address election security rumors, into Spanish.

The agency, Wyman said, “will continue to amplify local election officials as the primary source for accurate information on how elections are conducted.”

A coalition of civil rights, Latino leadership, and consumer advocacy organizations recently sent a letter to several social media companies, including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, urging them to take steps ahead of the 2022 midterms to do more to combat hate and disinformation on their platforms.

“Disinformation to disenfranchise Latino voters is a risk that can no longer be overlooked,” the letter from the Spanish Language Disinformation Coalition says.

“Unless election disinformation is tackled, our community will once again be at risk of those seeking to silence and harm us,” the letter says, noting that Latinos comprise nearly 20% of the US population.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas, said as the Spanish-speaking share of the electorate grows, the “unchecked spread” of Spanish-language misinformation and disinformation on social media “threatens our community’s ability to participate in democracy,” in an October press call with the coalition.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote to the chief executives of four major social media companies — Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube — to request meetings about misinformation and disinformation targeted at and about Latinos, Castro said.

“We’ve had productive conversations, but executives have not moved fast enough to implement the reforms that will keep social media companies from becoming an even greater threat to democracy in this year’s midterm elections,” Castro said.

Calzadilla called on social media platforms to do a better job at flagging false posts in Spanish.

“Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, YouTube … all the social media platforms are doing their work countering disinformation with fact-checking platforms in English, for example, but in Spanish — it’s not enough,” she said.

A spokesperson for Meta, the parent company for Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, said two-thirds of its US fact-checkers review content in Spanish on Facebook and Instagram.

The company has made improvements to its Spanish misinformation models in the US, which are now working at a level of precision similar to English, according to the spokesperson.

However, when it comes to WhatsApp, Meta doesn’t believe private messaging — in any language — should be monitored on WhatsApp or on any other platform people choose to use for their private communications, Meta spokesperson Dani Lever said in a statement.

“But unlike many of those other platforms, we’ve taken serious steps to address misinformation on WhatsApp by limiting forwards, partnering with fact-checkers to run tip lines in Spanish, and empowering people with tools to access accurate information, including in Spanish,” Lever added.

For example, WhatsApp set forwarding limits and developed privacy settings to help users decide who can add them to groups, according to Lever.

Maria Cornia Vegas, an attorney based in Miami, was recently sent a WhatsApp message from a family member that echoed QAnon-style conspiracy theories about pedophilia and the Democratic party.

Vegas said political misinformation has taken “a personal toll” on the way she interacts with family and friends.

“I’ve tried very hard to not have it be the case,” she said, but sometimes you need to create a “little distance” between people that believe in conspiracy theories.

Vegas, who volunteered for the Biden campaign in 2020, also told CNN that Democrats have to do more to push back against conspiracy theories, saying, “If you stay silent, you concede.”

The Democratic National Committee told CNN that it is tracking misinformation targeted at Hispanic and Latino communities in both English and Spanish and working with social media companies and fact-checkers in English and Spanish to push for action.

Earlier this year, the DNC also announced the launch of Adelante, an outreach program for Latino voters.

“It shouldn’t be incumbent on one political party to ensure voters are getting factual information,” Maca Casado, DNC Hispanic media communications director, said in a statement.

Juan Carlos Planas, a Cuban immigrant and former GOP member of the Florida House of Representatives, said he became a Democrat the week after the November 2020 presidential election, “when I saw that Republicans were in denial about what was a free and fair election.”

Planas, an attorney who now lectures on the electoral system at St. Thomas University in Miami, told CNN he’s lost friends because they were posting “complete and utter” fabrications online.

“I think people have lost the ability to appreciate democracy,” he said. “Democracy is like a marriage. And I don’t think people realize that. If you take your spouse for granted, if you don’t listen, if you don’t pay attention at the end of the day, if you don’t come home and listen to stories, your marriage will end.”