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"It Was Actually, Very, Very Unhealthy": How Disinformation Attacked Hispanic Voters

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The disinformation is "using religion as an attraction to skew their records and creating a real split between what it means to be what it would be called to be a good Christian or a good Catholic," says Ashley Bryant of Pa & # 39; lante to combat this type of alignment.

Soon progressive groups tried to combat the narrative, arguing that Barrett's nomination for Catholic Hispanics would be bad.

More recently, comments from Joe Biden about making abortion the "law of the land" sparked a siege of coordinated disinformation on several Spanish-language Facebook pages. Repeated pictures and messages on the subject appear in these groups, such as the false claim that Kamala Harris supports abortion until minutes before birth. These coordinated actions on a smaller scale can avoid the attention and control that viral posts or hashtags can get, making them more difficult to monitor and catch.

Hispanic voting security vulnerabilities

Communities where Spanish is the dominant language are particularly vulnerable to a number of unique challenges related to misinformation and disinformation, according to Jacobo Licona, a researcher at Equis Labs. He says that while there is more disinformation in English-speaking Hispanic digital spaces, there is also better surveillance.

"Spanish-language content is often a little more worrying just because it is less accountable," he says. While Facebook sometimes flags this incorrect content in English, it doesn't always flag the same material in Spanish. “They often co-opt (disinformation) and quickly spread it in Spanish. And that often goes uncontrolled compared to some English-language content, ”he says.

Vile actors use social media, radio, and local Spanish-language newspapers to inundate voters with unprecedented disinformation and conspiracy theories. Some Hispanic influencers were also the main distributors of such content this year, particularly with lies about mail-in-voting scams.

WhatsApp group chats are especially popular with immigrant communities because the app doesn't require a US phone number and it offers end-to-end encryption that provides some security. WhatsApp is difficult to monitor and review, however, making it nearly impossible for researchers and activists to monitor disinformation and bad actors. (WhatsApps owner Facebook has restricted message routing to reduce the spread of dangerous information in countries like Brazil and India.)

Similarly, researchers believe the service is an incubator for disinformation that spreads organically into private groups of trusted family members and friends. A recent report by Politico highlighted how a Republican-moderated WhatsApp group wanted to educate Hispanic communities about Covid-19. One post claimed: "Real Catholics cannot be Democrats."

"Official" news

In Florida, where Barrero lives and more than 26% of the population is Hispanic, citizens are used to being inundated with advertisements. It's a swing critical condition and a regular battlefield for both parties.

But this year things have escalated: the presidential campaigns have already exceeded the 2016 advertising budget by $ 100 million. In particular, there was a focus on news in English and Spanish to Spanish Americans about health care, abortion and immigration. The Florida audience is a mix of Cubans, Venezuelans, Mexicans, Haitians, and others, which makes the Hispanic vote more diverse and controversial than the national Hispanic vote, which leans to the left. The Trump campaign is supported by Conservative Cuban Americans, as well as Catholic and Hispanic male voters.

In places like Miami-Dade County, one of the most controversial and politically expensive districts in the country, Cuban Americans are under direct attack from both Trump and Biden. The Trump campaign is based on real fears of communist rule and an attempt to paint Biden as a socialist: a Trump advertising campaign called "Progresista" compared some of Biden's languages ​​with those of Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Gustavo Petro and Nicolas Maduro Ein last Screen shows "Biden = Socialism". The press release for the advertisement called Biden "Anti-Hispanic".

Meanwhile, Facebook groups for Cuban-American citizens have become a hotbed of disinformation and propaganda. Last week Pa’lante followed a post in the group "Cubanos por Donald Trump", in which Biden was photographed on a trip to the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami. The headline "Who wants a commander-in-chief kneeling before foreign leaders?" implied that Biden surrendered to the Haitian government, even though the people in the photo were simply Miami locals dressed in traditional Haitian clothing. The same post was shared across a number of Hispanic groups on Facebook by the same unverified user, asking them to "vote red and in person".

Left-wing causes have meanwhile compared Trump to some of the same dictatorial figures. Priorities USA, the largest Democratic SuperPAC, ran an advertising campaign in Florida comparing it to Latin American "caudillos" or anti-democratic authoritarian strong men.

But it is on the right wing that the influence of bots and misinformation is most visible.

Coordinated campaigns

In mid-July, Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanue spoke beaming about President Trump in the White House. Prominent liberal politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez then backed calls for a boycott of Goya products, followed by a backlash from Republicans like Ted Cruz, who claimed "the left is trying to overturn Hispanic culture".

Social media bots immediately took the opportunity. In three days, Goya was mentioned nearly 125,000 times on social networks, with an emphasis on a few key Hispanic communities.

A bot tracked by Pa’lante commented Goya 6,700 times on Facebook. The bot kept changing its position and language to create outrage in various communities and then to draw attention to Trump's Hispanic Prosperity Initiative.

Pa & # 39; lante noted that this bot was a right-wing actor who strategically sowed divisions among Hispanic voters, a common tactic used to reduce a group's political power.

Some coordinated actors also repeatedly spread the same message in many different groups, which is a more complex challenge than single viral posts, says Licona: “Often times you see posts with identical caption and story shared by multiple sites at once algorithmic boost and greater reach. A post that receives thousands of approvals is effective. What is more problematic and dangerous, however, is that some of these pages are coordinated with one another to reach more feeds and people. "

What's next

Fighting the problem is a challenge. Pa’Lante uses a network of local monitoring groups that are integrated into the communities he monitors and creates precise content that is intended to drown out misinformation and disinformation. It's a fairly effective short-term remedy, although it does nothing to structurally or even quickly fix the problem. In the three short weeks leading up to election day, Pa’Lante expects a steady flow of messages that turn away from conviction and purposely suppress it by spreading messages intended to confuse and intimidate voters.

One example is coordinated messaging on mail-in-voting fraud. Licona sees these messages already addressed to the Hispanic community and warns that while there is legitimate confusion, there is a clear intention to instill distrust of political parties and the system in general in order to stifle voter turnout.

Lying about mail-in polls is a form of active suppression, says Bryant.

It's "a domestic tactic that is just another way of arming digital media against Latinx voters," she says. "It is really a voter suppression tactic, but it is only a threat to our democracy that can genuinely suppress marginalized communities' access to the education they need to be informed and make informed decisions and be citizens . "

Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed the Goya mentions graphic to a bot on Twitter. It has been updated to show that the graphic reflects all mentions of Goya on social networks by bots and people.

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Steven Gregory