Washington (AFP) – Tom Perez was a guest on a Spanish-language radio show in Las Vegas last year when a caller lodged unfounded complaints from both parties, and urged his Latin listeners not to vote.
Perez, the then Democratic leader, acknowledged that many of the allegations were made by #WalkAway, a group promoted by conservative activist Brandon Stracha, who was arrested for his participation in the attack on the Capitol in January.
Before the November elections, that call was part of a broader movement to lower turnout and spread misinformation about Democrat Joe Biden among Latinos. It was promoted on social media and often through bot accounts.
The effort demonstrated how social media and other technologies can be leveraged to spread disinformation so quickly that those trying to stop it cannot keep up. There were indications of its success in the presidential race, as Donald Trump garnered large numbers of Latin votes in some of the areas that were Democratic strongholds.
Videos and photos have been tampered with. Context quotes are drawn. Conspiracy theories were stoked, including that voting by mail was rigged, that the Black Lives Matter movement had connections to witchcraft, and that Biden was indebted to a group of socialists.
Researchers and political analysts say this influx of false information has intensified since Election Day, fueling Trump’s unfounded claims that the elections were rigged and false stories about the mob that invaded the Capitol.
Recently, it has turned to efforts to undermine vaccination efforts against the Coronavirus.
“The volume and sources of information in the Spanish language are very diverse and this should frighten everyone,” Perez said.
The funding and organizational structure for this effort are unclear, although the messages show loyalty to Trump and opposition to Democrats.
A report published last week highlights that most of the false narratives in the Spanish-speaking community “were translated from English and circulated on prominent platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp.”
The report, prepared by researchers at Stanford University, the University of Washington, social media analytics firm Graphica, and Atlantic Council’s DFRLab, which studies online misinformation around the world, says.
While much of the material comes from national sources, it increasingly originates from Latin American websites.
The disinformation that was originally promoted in English is translated in places like Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, and Nicaragua, and then reaches Hispanic voters in the United States through contacts from family members in those countries. This is often shared via WhatsApp, Facebook, and text threads.
“There is growing concern that this is a large part of the immigrant and first-generation information environment for many Latinos in the United States,” said Dan Restrepo, the former senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council.
Those who launched such campaigns in Latin America often cannot vote in the United States, but they can influence the family that lives in that country.
Maria Teresa Kumar, president of Photo Latino, an organization that promotes Hispanic voices, said that during the American presidential race, the disinformation in Spanish, which has typically Latin American roots, first arrived in Florida and then on to Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
For example, many Brazilian Americans saw a fake video of a Democratic presidential debate when Biden suggested that he would raise $ 20 billion to help Brazil fight deforestation in the Amazon, which made Biden appear ready to send American troops to that country.