WASHINGTON — As protests swept the globe over the police killing of George Floyd, and President Trump told hyped-up tales of radical leftists burning down buildings in American cities, immigrant rights advocate Adrian Reyna received a barrage of angry texts from his mother in Texas.
“You socialist, I hope you’re not out there,” his mother told Reyna, 29, who works for the advocacy organization United We Dream Action.
His parents, immigrants from the Mexican state of Jalisco, had never visited him in Seattle and rarely traveled outside Texas. But that June afternoon his mother also sent him a video of cars exploding on what she said were the streets near the city’s protest zone. After a quick Internet search, Reyna confirmed what he suspected: The video hadn’t been filmed in Seattle, or anywhere in the United States. It was from overseas.
“I have personally lost my parents to the disinformation pandemic,” said Reyna, who cut off communication with them after arguments over the Black Lives Matter movement, politics, and the presidential election. “This is all new. I had never had this problem with my parents until this June.”
As the coronavirus shut down nearly every aspect of regular life, forcing many people to spend more time in front of their screens, experts warned that the climate of fear and uncertainty was ripe for the insidious spread of online disinformation.
Some worried about widespread voter suppression efforts, as malignant actors — both foreign and domestic — were likely to circulate false posts to confuse and dissuade Black and Latino voters from heading to the polls. But few predicted just how fast and how far such content would travel among Spanish-speaking Latino voters — or how effective some of that disinformation would be at stoking racial, ethnic, and partisan divisions.
Now, congressional leaders are requesting that the FBI investigate some of the most harmful material. And a slew of political operatives and advocacy organizations are responding with their own campaigns to counter lies, misleading claims, and conspiracy theories, creating sharable posts, videos, and memes that encourage people to vote, and that provide accurate ballot and polling information and promote solidarity among Black and Latino voters.
“We have gone to reclaim the Web,” said Reyna, who is heading up such an initiative at United We Dream Action. “Defeating disinformation is not only about going around and fact-checking quotes. It is about making sure people have access to good, reliable information.”
With roughly 32 million eligible voters, Latinos for the first time this presidential election are expected to be the largest bloc of voters of color, a diverse electorate that could play pivotal roles in the swing states of Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. But online content has sought to deter people — particularly Black and Latino voters — from voting through content spreading erroneous ballot and polling information, as well as incendiary attacks on Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris.
The disinformation is hard to stop and even harder to trace. There are no federal standards over how tech companies must spot, counter, or take down false information or what they have to report to the public. Twitter, for example, could remove a fake post on its website and the same claim could live on as a screenshot on Instagram or Facebook. That Trump often makes unsubstantiated allegations and amplifies conspiracy theories himself doesn’t help, elections officials and political organizers said.
“Before social media, [voter suppression] might have looked like putting up a flier in a barbershop with the wrong information about when and where to vote,” said Mariana Ruiz Firmat, director of the networking program Kairos, which works on digital campaigns by and for people of color. “Now it looks like the president tweeting about hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19, which you and I know has devastated Black communities.”
Researchers tracking the spread of online disinformation, which is intentionally created to deceive, said it has arrived in three waves since the spring: First in false theories over the origins, symptoms, and cures of the virus; then in fabrications and exaggerated claims of violence at nationwide protests over racism and police violence against Black people; and most recently, in posts meant to cast doubt and confusion over the election.
Some of the spread has been tied to Russian actors, who since at least 2016 have used race and immigration as political wedge issues, impersonating Black and Latino activists online to stir ethnic and racial divides. Other people have acted alone. But political organizers, researchers, and academics also have seen a rise in a more nefarious kind of disinformation connected to authoritarian and right-wing movements in Latin America and across the globe. Often spread through video platforms like YouTube and WhatsApp — a messaging app particularly popular among Latinos — the content seeks to flame anti-immigrant sentiments and racial, ethnic ,and religious animosity among Latinos and other people of color.
“These groups are far more connected than we realize," said Jennifer Piscopo, an associate professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
In countries such Peru, Brazil, and Colombia, conservative groups have gained potency amid a backlash against the political progress of women and the LGBTQ community. More recently, a growing number of their supporters have been linked to QAnon, an online phenomenon that features anti-Semitic tropes and whose adherents believe Trump is trying to save the world from a cabal of Satanists and pedophiles.
Piscopo had her own brush with what she calls these transnational forces when she participated in a short interview this month with a news site in Spain over why women prefer Biden to Trump. A two-minute clip of her comments shared on Twitter was quickly retweeted by accounts peddling QAnon conspiracy theories in Spanish. At first, she thought they were bots. Soon she realized they were real people — and avid supporters of the ousted Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori.
“ ‘Can you believe this stupid woman?’ . . . Why would the Democrats vote for pedophiles?’” Piscopo said, describing some of the attacks. “It was bananas."
Even before QAnon or Trump, disinformation was a challenge for campaigns in Mexican elections. It helped serve as a plank to victory for far-right authoritarian Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, nicknamed the “Tropical Trump.” And it deeply divided Colombians ahead of a vote to ratify a final peace accord between the government and the FARC guerillas. The agreement, which included specific protections for women, LGBTQ members, and indigenous people, narrowly failed in October 2016.
Now antigender, racist, and prejudiced sentiments are filtering into the Latin American diaspora in the United States, often creating generational, ideological warfare between parents and children.
In South Florida in particular, QAnon conspiracy theories about Democratic pedophilia have widely circulated among Latino voters alongside fears that Muslim immigrants are working to create a caliphate in the United States and that George Soros and other Jewish leaders are running a deep global network. Some of the most egregious attacks spread to Spanish-language media, with the newspaper El Nuevo Herald and the radio station Radio Caracol each apologizing for giving space to anti-Black racism and anti-Semitic rants.
Representatives Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida and Joaquin Castro of Texas have since requested that the FBI investigate the origins of the racist and anti-Semitic campaigns. In an op-ed expected to run Wednesday on CNN en Español, Democratic Representatives Ruben Gallego of Arizona and Gregory Meeks of New York planned to call on conservative members of the Colombian government to refrain from openly campaigning for Trump through their personal Facebook pages and WhatsApp and text messages sent to their personal networks in the United States.
“It is just inappropriate,” said Gallego, adding that he’s warned left-wing leaders not to get involved as well. “If these politicians interfere, they stand to lose one way or another.”
Digital activists, immigrant rights groups, and political operatives are ramping up their own efforts to counter the spread of hate and sow trust in the voting process.
The News Literacy Project and Open Mind Legacy project are launching a series of public service announcements to help people identify disinformation and find accurate information. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, a nonpartisan advocacy organization, recently flagged a Facebook page dubbed “Cubanos por el Mundo” for alleging that the Cuban government was working to sabotage Trump’s reelection chances by encouraging a migrant caravan to travel to the US-Mexico border.
But it and other groups say they are straying from fact-checking partisan attacks and focused on combating disinformation about where and how to vote.
“While there are quite a few groups doing that work in English, I started doing it in Spanish, and it is just so overwhelming,” said Lizette Escobedo, civic engagement director at NALEO.
At United We Dream Action, Reyna has compiled a series of colorful memes decked out with emojis, Mexican celebrities, and photos of young Latinos to instill faith in the democratic process. He and others are planning to have a virtual conversation with members about how to talk with their parents about racism, colorism, and some of their most incendiary posts.
Many worry the disinformation will percolate long after the election. Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, 34, a state policy manager who works for United We Dream Action in Washington, D.C., has been struggling with her Brazilian parents in California for months over what she calls their hateful posts. Once passionate leftists who encouraged her to go to school and get a degree, they have plunged into questioning the expertise of doctors and scientists and denying the realities of climate change.
“They are homophobic, Islamophobic — all the phobias you can think of,” she said.
Her mother has gained 50,000 followers on Twitter alone for essentially running “a Bolsonaro fan account," she said. One conspiracy theory she spread was that the actor Leonardo DiCaprio was working with nongovernmental organizations to start fires in the Amazon.
She last spoke with her mother in May.
“ ‘We have very different values,’ " she told her. " ‘I believe in the collective, and you believe that it’s everyone for themselves.’ ”