When Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida unexpectedly flew Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard a month ago, many Spanish-language radio hosts and social media personalities defended DeSantis and used familiar anti-immigrant talking points to justify the political stunt. What’s more, many of these Spanish-speaking hosts engaged in blatant misinformation tactics to do so.
In one of several instances compiled by the media watchdog group Media Matters, guests of the Spanish-language radio show Directo Al Punto, which also broadcasts live on Facebook, praised and rationalized DeSantis’ move claiming that the flow of migrants is an “invasion by design.” That’s language associated with the “great replacement” theory, which promotes falsehoods and bigoted tropes, including the notion that policies that welcome immigrants are part of a conspiracy to weaken white political power and culture.
Other Spanish-language shows suggested there is a link between asylum seekers like the Venezuelan migrants and fentanyl trafficking. Freddy Silva, the host of a conservative show called Entre Líneas, said in a July episode that migrant children are used “for prostitution or simply to be taken as mules, also carrying drugs, either inside or outside their clothes or however organized crime finds to pass the drug.”
It is a common right-wing myth repeated in many digital content spaces in Spanish as tracked by Media Matters, and one that has been debunked multiple times. Still, many Americans wrongly believe that the migrants entering the United States to claim asylum are bringing drugs like fentanyl. “[W]hen it comes to getting [fentanyl] into the United States, one thing is clear: it’s not migrants bringing it across in backpacks, it’s mostly US citizens and truckers smuggling it into the country through legal ports of entry,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick wrote in a recent fact-check post for the American Immigration Council’s Immigration Impact blog.
The scapegoating of migrants right before election time is not a new phenomenon. (Migrant caravans, anyone?) What’s particularly alarming now is that blatant misinformation in Spanish, such as the one surrounding the high-profile Martha’s Vineyard political exploit, has been circulating like a virus and gone mostly unchecked in conservative radio shows and social media posts. In a new report, Media Matters identified dozens of videos in Spanish that remain on YouTube promoting misinformation about allegedly fake votes in the 2020 elections. That’s despite explicit YouTube misinformation policies around election integrity. For instance, the channel mexicodezpierto wrongly claims in a video titled “Así fue el FRAUDE ELECTORAL EN USA,” or “This is how electoral fraud took place in the US,” that major historic fraud occurred in Wisconsin and Michigan. It is dated Nov. 4, 2020.
Examples like that one abound on the platform, which is evidence that YouTube is not doing enough to combat the Spanish-language surge of misinformation on users’ channels despite pledges to do so. And it’s not just in Spanish. An enormous swath of the population is getting a free pass from the supposed gate-keepers, who aren’t paying enough attention or dedicating enough resources to patently false and destructive narratives.
Monica Estrada, who is the Spanish-language research manager at Media Matters, said in a statement, “Google and YouTube have repeatedly committed to addressing the election misinformation circulating on YouTube’s platform, with their latest announcement coming last month. However, YouTube’s enforcement of its policies does not appear to be evenly enforced when it comes to Spanish-language videos. With only a month left until the elections, YouTube must take this seriously and dedicate more resources to identifying and removing violative election content regardless of what language it is in.”
The scale of the problem is significant; misinformation is thriving in many languages. A recent New York Times story detailed multilingual efforts by groups like Desifacts, which focuses on the Indian American and South Asian communities; and Viet Fact Check, which fights misinformation around school curriculums, hate crimes, and mail-in ballots that is hyper-targeted to Asian American voters. Tamoa Calzadilla, managing editor at Factchequeado, which serves US Latino communities, told the Texas Tribune earlier this week that there’s been an increase in propaganda recently that includes conspiracies about the Internal Revenue Service and the now ubiquitous comparisons of President Biden to communist dictators in Latin America.
Here’s another reason why more oversight is needed: The Miami Herald reported in August that the Federal Communications Commission, which is the government agency tasked with reviewing “media distortion” on radio, TV, satellite, and cable on a complaint-driven basis, has never investigated a case in Spanish. The Federal Trade Commission, for its part, is working on rules to regulate digital content that advocates believe will better protect consumers from Spanish-language misinformation.
Clearly it’s a tough road ahead. In the latest example of migrant misinformation, the Tech Transparency Project released a new report Friday detailing a visa scam targeting migrants from Central and South America on Facebook and WhatsApp. One Facebook post falsely claimed that the Canadian government is recruiting more than 450,000 migrant workers and giving them work permits, free travel and housing, and access to health care. It sounds eerily familiar to DeSantis’ migrant exploit, which is now the subject of a federal investigation. YouTube, Facebook, and WhatsApp should be similarly held accountable.
Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.