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OPINION

Taking on the scourge of online Spanish-language misinformation

Unchecked distortions on Spanish-language social media — a primary source of news for many Latinos — are twisting the truth about everything from COVID-19 and Ukraine to George Floyd and electoral candidates.

A social media post falsely claiming to show Jill Biden with Fidel Castro is displayed on a smartphone in Weston, Fla., on Oct. 15, 2020. Misinformation proliferates first online and is often shared on WhatsApp, which is particularly popular among Latino immigrants.MARIA ALEJANDRA CARDONA/NYT

A photo on a Spanish-language social media post that falsely claims to show Fidel Castro and Jill Biden was widely shared before the 2020 presidential election. Online Spanish-language posts from anti-vaxxers falsely asserted that a Danish soccer player who had suffered cardiac arrest and collapsed during a game last year had just received the COVID-19 vaccine. And many Spanish-language social media users were spreading posts with the blatant lie that George Floyd was alive and that Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who was convicted for murdering Floyd, was a paid actor.

Examples like those Spanish-language posts abound. And if you think social media platforms are not doing enough to fight misinformation online in English, their efforts are even more lacking in Spanish, according to experts. (For instance, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a study found that Facebook was flagging only 30 percent of misinformation in Spanish, compared to 70 percent in English.)

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Add to that the startling evidence found by researchers that US Hispanics are more likely to share and be the target of misinformation. Nielsen analyzed US news websites where Latinos account for at least 10 percent of the audience and found that 12 percent of those sites had content “that was mixed, biased, extremely biased, conspiracy, or pseudoscience,” the report read. “When we look at sites where Latinos make up 20 percent of the audience or more, that number goes up to 28 percent.” Nielsen also found that Latinos were 57 percent more likely to use social media as a primary source of coronavirus information than non-Hispanics.

All these elements conspire to create the perfect storm for the proliferation of false news in Latino and Spanish-language communities in the United States. Unfortunately, not enough attention has been paid to the crisis, despite the fact that we all have a stake in it. No matter the language, misinformation puts everyone at risk during a pandemic — and even risks prolonging the coronavirus pandemic. It also endangers democracy.

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That’s why the Poynter Institute’s MediaWise en Español seems so promising. The new digital media-literacy initiative aims to help Spanish speakers in the United States spot false or misleading information online.

“As far as we know, this is the first of its kind and that’s why we saw an opportunity,” said Miriam Valverde, the effort’s program manager. (Miriam used to be my intern, and then a freelancer, when I was the editor of a local Spanish-language newspaper more than 10 years ago.) “Our goal with MediaWise en Español is to help Spanish speakers be more vigilant and cautious about the information they see online.”

The free educational effort is simple yet powerful: It consists of an online course about misinformation/disinformation; a shorter version of that course delivered via WhatsApp over 10 days; and a series of explanatory YouTube videos featuring José Díaz-Balart and Julio Vaqueiro, both trusted Latino journalists among US Spanish-language communities.

Telemundo, NBC, and MSNBC's news anchor José Díaz-Balart is an ambassador for MediaWise en Español, a new digital media literacy to fight online misinformation in Spanish. Diaz-Balart hosted a series of educational YouTube videos for the initiative.Courtesy José Díaz-Balart/YouTube

The topics include how algorithms work to influence what users are shown on social media, the importance of reading beyond the headline, and how to spot red flags in online content that could signal disinformation/misinformation (the first is false information intentionally shared with the purpose to mislead, whereas the latter is shared without that intent). In less than a month, the WhatsApp course had more than 7,500 enrolled users, according to Valverde.

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Valverde said they’ve already received heartening feedback from users, such as the person who told them via WhatsApp: “Every day I learn more. . . . I didn’t know the word algorithms. . . . THANK YOU . . . THANK YOU!!!”

The Spanish-language misinformation crisis is also on Congress’s radar. Last week the House Committee on House Administration held a hearing in Miami about the impact of mis- and disinformation on elections in Spanish-language communities. And the congressional Hispanic Caucus has requested meetings with top executives at TikTok, Meta, YouTube, and Twitter to discuss the matter, according to Axios. The urgency is clear. A new report found that news outlets owned by the Russian government launched a disinformation campaign in Spanish last month with the objective to paint Ukraine and the United States as the bad actors among Hispanics in the Russia/Ukraine conflict, according to Foreign Policy. The tide of misinformation may seem overwhelming — coming from all corners. But as pressure builds on social media platforms, they owe their Spanish-language readers the same degree of diligence as they provide to their English-language readers — which, let’s face it, is a pretty low bar.


Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.