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The dangerous impact of ‘fake news’ on the lives of Spanish speakers in the United States

Journalists from different origins have come together to trace the origins of fake news and combat the most viral misinformation being circulated in Spanish. These fact-checkers have detected how toxic media especially affects Latino communities in the United States

Fake news
Illustration with headlines about news hoaxes.Arkadiusz Warguła (Getty Images)

Lies usually have greater reach than truths. They spread much faster, a phenomenon that has been exacerbated by globalization. Misinformation spreads more and more quickly across countries and continents through social media and other channels of information. Hoaxes tend to create a lot of media confusion around current events, such as the war on Gaza and the geopolitical tensions between Israel and other countries, the recent elections in Argentina, or the announcement of new immigration laws in the United States. Events that currently have the world in suspense can be twisted by fake news.

From different coordinates across the planet, fact-checkers trace the journey of fake news and create evidence-based content to debunk the most viral hoaxes. These scams usually always revolve around the same themes: politics, armed conflicts, health and human rights.

“The Spanish-speaking community in the United States is especially vulnerable,” explains Tamoa Calzadilla, a Venezuelan journalist and one of the founders of Factchequeado — a platform that tracks the misinformation that most affects Spanish speakers. The organization is fighting back against the toxic media that’s poisoning America, a country that’s a desert of information when it comes to Spanish.

Hispanic citizens represent almost 20% of the U.S. population, “but they’re orphaned by news in their language,” Calzadilla notes. Quality journalism in Spanish is a very scarce commodity and barely has funding. “Translations from English are usually of poor quality… they don’t take into account the way in which Latinos express themselves. And the sections aimed at them are the first to be eliminated when the media suffers from budget cuts,” she explains.

Agents of disinformation churn out content “that undermines democratic institutions, affects human rights, immigration, access to voting, or health care,” Calzadilla emphasizes. This past September, for example, conservative groups and Republican politicians pushed a false narrative in which they claimed that the Democratic Party had proposed allowing abortion — under any circumstances — up to the ninth month of pregnancy. “Something completely false, which was widely spread in Spanish,” Calzadilla clarifies.

In addition to the language factor, many members of the Hispanic community face other barriers to accessing reliable sources of information. “This exposes them to certain dangers, as the pandemic clearly demonstrated,” Calzadilla affirms. The narratives about the safety of the Covid-19 vaccines were among the most widespread and impactful hoaxes that circulated on social media, taking a serious toll on many American citizens. This was explained in 2021 by an analysis from First Draft, a project against online misinformation founded in 2015 by some of the most important data companies, such as Google.

According to this study, misinformation about vaccines brought about serious consequences for Latinos, who were 2.8 times more likely to be hospitalized for Covid-19 and 2.3 times more likely to die from the disease than non-Hispanic whites. Fake news generated widespread confusion and unscientific rumors, such as alternative treatments to cure the infection, “or absurd claims, [alleging] that the vaccines contained microchips, altered DNA, or were made from aborted fetuses and were the work of the Antichrist,” Calzadilla laments.

Pablo Hernández is a journalist. He’s also an academic research coordinator at Maldita, a pioneering Spanish language platform that detects fake news and verifies content. He explains that the pandemic “was a before and after in the viralization of hoaxes. The amount of disinformation posted on social media and messaging applications like WhatsApp — with supposed miraculous remedies to deal with the virus — was tremendous.” When hoaxes influence the making of important decisions, “that can mean life or death,” Calzadilla adds.

In addition to the problems in accessing accurate health information, linguistic obstacles also encourage the spread of other types of hoaxes for Spanish speakers, who make up many diverse communities. “These are citizens who experience very difficult social realities that misinformation narratives take advantage of. We continually observe this with the news about immigration,” the journalist from Factchequeado warns. The platform has teamed up with Maldita to analyze precisely what type of misinformation is harming Latino communities in the United States.

“In a survey we conducted, all journalists who cover issues in Spanish expressed concern about the confusing news that’s spread around immigration policies and processes. This constitutes some of the most dangerous fake news. Not only because this is the type of cumbersome information that usually reaches Spanish speakers, but also because of the fear of deportation that exists [among immigrants],” Hernández says. “It’s very easy to play with fear when the bureaucratic processes surrounding immigration laws are complicated and almost always in English,” Calzadilla adds.

This past May, her organization worked tirelessly to debunk a video that was circulating on all social media sites. It was warning about how Latinos in Florida were supposedly abandoning the state due to new immigration laws. “The video was from a previous year and, in reality, it showed citizens fleeing from Hurricane Ian,” the Venezuelan explains. She offers another example: “There’s lots of misinformation being created about the highly controversial reform of the immigration law in Texas, which targets undocumented immigrants. It doesn’t affect other states — such as California — but [fake news] is being spread about how it affects the immigration status of Latinos who live [beyond Texas].”

“This type of fake news reaches them through applications that they use on a daily basis to communicate with their families,” Hernández says. It’s through these apps that they find out about current events, he adds. According to research by Factchequeado, Hispanic Americans not only spend more time on social media than other groups, but they’re more than twice as likely to use messaging applications such as Telegram and WhatsApp. “In fact, [WhatsApp] is the favorite network [for Latinos] to communicate and get information,” Calzadilla points out. “It’s an application through which it’s very easy to sneak in fake news, especially for those who live in a country that they’re not originally from. [WhatsApp] offers a free way to communicate with those they left behind [in their countries of origin], so as to not lose their roots. The circumstances make them very vulnerable to misinformation.” She warns that a key factor for fake news to acquire virality is when it appeals to the emotional component.

“During the pandemic, we were all watching the news, with emotions running high. Above all, because there was no reliable information to turn to, not even from leading organizations, such as the WHO. So, any content that came from someone you trusted — a friend, a cousin, — was very credible,” explains the researcher from Maldita. This organization has identified certain patterns behind the hoaxes that reach the entire world. “One objective of misinformation is to generate emotional responses, to make the recipient react immediately, without stopping to think if what they’re sharing is a lie or the truth.”

Fake news also takes advantage of manipulating a narrative that’s already part of the international context. “When global interest is directed at a specific event, misinformation moves more quickly. As a result of the war in Ukraine, we realized that, if the media focuses on one issue, misinformation skyrockets!” Hernández says.

When the Russian invasion began in February 2022 and news about the war began to spread virally, the team at Maldita decided to launch Ukrainefacts, a tool to debunk all the false content that was circulating on social media. This included images from the past, from other conflicts, from events not related to war, and even clips taken from video games. “The same hoaxes appeared in different countries with very little difference in time,” the journalist says. If each piece of disinformation generally takes weeks to jump from one country to another, in the case of Ukraine, disinformation was going viral in different parts of the world simultaneously, circulating in as many as 17 countries at the same time.

“While techniques and dynamics are repeated to spread the same hoax in different places, it’s very difficult to do a global analysis of the same [piece of] disinformation, because it acquires local characteristics in each country,” Hernández notes. What is proven, he says, “is that if an influencer or public figure spreads this disinformation, the impact throughout the world is tremendous.” This occurred in 2020, when Donald Trump — then the president — came out to defend the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 symptoms. “This was despite the fact that the health authorities didn’t endorse it,” Calzadilla sighs. “When someone with so much influence and authority publicly supports that type of information, it only makes the problem multiply and become much more dangerous,” the Maldita journalist emphasizes.

This has also occurred under the current administration. On October 11, 2023, the White House had to come out to retract a statement from Joe Biden, in which he falsely claimed to have seen a video of Israeli babies beheaded by Hamas. Politicians and analysts from around the world made statements about it from their personal social media accounts, but no one has ever been able to prove the existence of these events.

“Following the trail of news like this — with so much emotional impact and global influence — is very complicated. Many times, the same hoax is replicated word for word in different places… but we need to homogenize the databases [put together by] the different fact-checkers in many countries and look for [commonalities] to have a complete vision,” Hernández explains. His goal is to ultimately create a kind of map of disinformation. At the moment, his platform already has different allies in Latin America and the United States, such as Factchequeado. From this collaboration between Spanish and Latin American fact-checkers, various initiatives — such as LatamChequea — have emerged, bringing together 32 media outlets from 15 countries.

“In a panorama like that of the United States — which continues to be devoid of information in Spanish — it’s essential that more and more journalists join together to fight against hoaxes,” Calzadilla affirms. The Venezuelan journalist recalls that “the lives of citizens are governed by the policies of the countries where they reside. They’re limited by a very particular context. But hoaxes — which do so much damage — have no borders.”

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