It’s been a month since Russia invaded Ukraine. And if you’re a Spanish-language user of Facebook, you’re probably being exposed to “news posts” on the platform that may give you a misguided idea about what caused the war.
That’s because social media posts in Spanish have spread rapidly with propaganda and conspiracy theories that blame the United States for the armed conflict and accuse the United States of not telling the world a key fact: that there are American chemical and bioweapon development facilities in Ukraine that were threatening to Russia.
Not surprisingly, the media outlet pushing the biolabs conspiracy theory — already debunked — is RT en Español, the Russian-controlled television network. Its Facebook page in Spanish posted as recently as Thursday morning a clip of Russia’s defense ministry announcing that Russian experts have found new evidence that biological weapons were being developed secretly in Ukrainian labs funded by the United States. It bears repeating: That is false information. And yet the Facebook post remains unflagged as such and continues to rake in high levels of engagement through hundreds of likes, shares, and comments.
Similar Spanish-language posts have been flagged by mis- and disinformation experts to urge Facebook and other tech companies to do more to detect and delete these blatant falsehoods. This isn’t a new issue. Misinformation in Spanish has rapidly spread on social platforms — and often gone unchecked or left up longer than it survives in English — about the COVID-19 vaccines and the 2020 presidential election.
As the Russian invasion unfolded in Ukraine, Facebook and TikTok banned Russian state media in Europe, while YouTube blocked them globally as it became evident that Kremlin-controlled outlets were spreading propaganda. But according to experts, Spanish-language misinformation and conspiracy theories have a longer shelf life than their English counterparts on social media because, by and large, the platforms are not dedicating enough resources and time to fight them. It’s way overdue: Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and Twitter better catch up and take the threat of Spanish-language misinformation seriously.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is on it and requested meetings with Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and Twitter earlier this year to urge them to take more aggressive steps to tackle misinformation in Spanish. Members of the caucus “have also called publicly for online platforms to release information on their effectiveness at detecting the prevalence of violative content separated by language,” wrote caucus members in letters sent to the four tech companies in January. “Everything they do in English should be mimicked in Spanish,” Democratic Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona, a member of the caucus, told Politico.
The false biolabs narrative has become particularly pernicious and resistant to purging. According to a review by Media Matters, in partnership with the Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab, the Russian-owned news agency Sputnik Mundo is also pushing the conspiracy theory on Twitter and Facebook that the United States “was experimenting with bat coronavirus samples in the biological laboratories” that they falsely claim America has in Ukraine.
There’s also evidence that Russia’s propaganda efforts in Spanish began before the war started and that Facebook should be doing more to fight them.
“Before Russia invaded, RT en Español was spreading this idea that the United States was the reason for possible escalation,” said Jacobo Licona, a disinformation researcher at Equis Labs, a Latinx research and polling company. Those misleading posts, he said, “had a very high level of engagement.” As a corrective measure, Facebook said it would try to lower engagement by not recommending those RT en Español posts to users. But Licona told me engagement at RT en Español is even higher than before the invasion. “From January 23 to February 23, there were on average 56,000 daily interactions on the page. But since February 24 to now, the average has nearly doubled to almost 100,000 daily interactions,” Licona said.
The problem with misinformation is that it doesn’t have any borders, Licona said. “Content originated in Latin America often reaches the US Spanish-language community and vice versa.” What’s more, a video with misinformation in English that’s posted on YouTube may not get flagged and removed before a Latin American influencer does their own Spanish version, which eventually makes its way to the Spanish-language-speaking audience in the United States. It’s a vicious cycle. “Spanish-language misinformation is a challenge of hemispheric proportions,” Licona said.
He is right. And whether it is about US elections, the coronavirus vaccine, the Russia-Ukraine war, or even social movements like Black Lives Matter, Spanish-language misinformation cannot remain a blind spot for the tech companies any longer.