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Whether it is a viral chain your tío shared on the WhatsApp family group chat, or an article your cousin forwarded espousing a COVID-19 vaccine conspiracy theory, Latinos are all too familiar with the rampant Spanish-language health misinformation that has spread on social media over the past two years. While COVID-19 and vaccine dis- and misinformation is ubiquitous worldwide and in many languages, causing what the World Health Organization labels an infodemic, Spanish-language misinformation has spread particularly easily. This misinformation often leads people to remain unvaccinated or to believe that COVID-19 vaccines—and vaccines in general—aren’t safe. In a 2021 poll conducted by Change Research, almost 40 percent of Latino respondents in the U.S. said that “they have seen material or information that makes them think the COVID-19 vaccine is not safe or effective.” In the same poll, 20 percent said they have received “wrong or harmful information about the vaccine, primarily on Facebook and messaging apps such as SMS, WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram, etc.” Another 2021 study, from Nielsen, found that 28 percent of U.S. news sites where Latinos make up 20 percent of the audience contained “content flagged as mixed, biased, extremely biased, conspiracy, or pseudoscience.”
The rise of Spanish-language health misinformation even led a group of Democratic congress members to send a letter to messaging platforms, including WhatsApp, asking them to detail their efforts to address this issue.
Why does Spanish-language misinformation spread so easily online?
Latino communities across the world heavily use and rely on WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook, and Instagram to communicate and get news and information. According to a 2020 survey by Morning Consult, 47 percent of Hispanic adults have a WhatsApp account compared to 24 percent of adults overall. Of those Hispanic WhatsApp users, 56 percent said social media is their daily source for news.
False information published in Spanish on these platforms often goes unchecked: While English content is frequently fact-checked and vetted by the platforms themselves, Spanish content doesn’t get the same treatment. “There’s clear asymmetries when it comes to the moderation of the content on [platforms],” said Jacobo Licona, disinformation research lead at research nonprofit Equis Labs. “For example, there was one video we saw [on a] conspiracy theory, and the English video got labeled by Facebook as false or misleading, but the exact same video was also being quoted in Spanish, and they did not label it. And it took more than a year to label it. People weren’t even looking at the video anymore by the time they did.”
In a statement to PGN, a spokesperson for Meta, which owns WhatsApp, said, “We’re running our entire strategy on misinformation in Spanish: We remove Spanish-language false claims about COVID-19 and vaccines, and connect people with authoritative information in Spanish through our Voting and COVID-19 Information Centers. We have six fact-checking partners in the U.S. who review and rate Spanish content and WhatsApp partners with Telemundo and TelevisaUnivision on fact-checking services to help connect users with trustworthy information.” Because WhatsApp is an encrypted, private messaging app, Meta says it doesn’t moderate its content. The company instead encourages users to report misinformation to one of the over 50 news and fact-checking organizations that manage tip lines in 29 countries, placing the burden of curbing misinformation on users.
Organizations and people known for spreading disinformation have also exploited current inequities and the Hispanic community’s lack of trust in health care providers caused by past medical racism—including forced and coerced sterilization of Latinas in places like Puerto Rico and California—to trigger fear and doubt about COVID-19 and vaccines.
What are the main themes in COVID-19-related Spanish-language misinformation?
Much Spanish-language COVID-19 misinformation focuses on vaccine safety. Jaime Longoria, manager of research and training at the nonprofit Disinfo Defense League who co-authored a 2021 research paper on vaccine misinformation online in Hispanic communities, said that one of the main topics found in his research was related to “fear over the safety of the vaccines themselves, with a particular focus on sterilization.” He added, “One of the biggest concerns was particularly the sterilization of men [and] women, [and it kept] popping up in a lot of the myths and disinformation that we were seeing.” Other researchers have confirmed this. As the vaccines began rolling out, Licona noticed widespread “false claims of adverse side effects from taking the vaccine, sometimes people claiming that a particular vaccine could lead to death or certain illnesses and diseases.” The Public Good Projects (PGP), the health nonprofit that owns PGN, also researched patterns in Spanish-language vaccine-related misinformation over the past two years and outlined the findings in a forthcoming case study. (Disclosure: This story’s author is also a co-author of the case study.) PGP analysts found that a large portion of online mis- and disinformation in Spanish was related to death, side effects, vaccine effectiveness, and mentions of illnesses like myocarditis.
Alternative treatments, including ivermectin and homemade remedies, were another recurring theme. “We saw things ranging from herbal teas [and] drinks with ginger, lemon, salt, baking soda, which on their own are kind of innocuous,” Longoria said. “But there were these other bigger, more concerning trends that we saw with chlorine dioxide solution, which is sort of a bleaching agent that was being popularized mainly in Latin America and was making its way here to the United States as well. That sort of fed into all of the doubts that there are in conventional medicine and painted its own sort of picture of what was effective against the virus.”
But while a lot of misinformation is popularized in Latin America, researchers have found it originates and spreads easily across countries—even ones without a majority of Spanish speakers. In the study conducted by PGP, analysts looked at the geolocations of social media accounts and websites sharing misinformation in Spanish from September 2021 to March 2022. The analysis found that most accounts and websites were located in the U.S. (47.1 percent), Spain (20.6 percent), Argentina (7.4 percent), and the U.K. (4.4 percent).
What impact does misinformation have on Spanish-speaking communities?
While research on how exactly this mis- and disinformation impacts Spanish-speaking communities’ behavior when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines is limited, there is non-demographic-specific research about the impact of social media misinformation on vaccine hesitancy. A 2020 study found that “disinformation campaigns are robustly associated with declines in mean vaccination rates.” The researchers added that “the use of social media to organize offline action is highly associated with an increase in public belief in vaccines being unsafe.” Meanwhile, another study, conducted in Florida in 2021, found that “exposure to misinformation was directly correlated with vaccine hesitancy.”
What should platforms and governments do to counter Spanish-language misinformation?
According to both Licona and Longoria, social media giants should amp up their Spanish-language content moderation—but in a nuanced, intentional, and culturally aware way. “[These platforms] can’t just depend on a large language model. You can’t depend on a machine learning algorithm to be able to understand the nuances in different languages, especially Spanish,” Longoria added. “You have to train it to understand not only slang [but also] the most popular lexicon in each country (as Spanish is so diverse) and cultural language. A lot of posts [we found] were actually employing sarcasm as a way to disseminate messaging that was harmful, and these algorithms weren’t good at picking it up.” Plus, content moderation or monitoring should also be global. “Efforts to monitor Spanish misinformation should not restrict themselves to accounts or sites within Spanish-speaking countries,” Erika Bonnevie, director of research at PGP, said. “This is particularly true given that misinformation easily spreads across borders.”
Social media companies, researchers say, also need to be transparent about how they’re addressing misinformation. With millions of users around the world, researchers and the public should be able to participate in some of the decision-making when it comes to fact-checking and moderation. “The platforms, a lot of the time, keep their rules for how they make decisions away from the public eye so that they can perform uneven enforcement,” Longoria said. “We need to know what the policies are so that we as the public can hold the platforms accountable for when they perform, when they [don’t], when they’re targeting specific communities over others, or when they’re letting specific content stay while they delete other content.”
Already, other illnesses, including monkeypox, are fueling new waves of misinformation. Government and local officials need to be proactive about addressing the deep historical issues that have fueled mistrust in Hispanic communities, partner with local, trusted community members to deliver fact-based messages, and make it easier for Latino communities to access trustworthy health information and vaccination. “A number of folks in the community have other needs that they need met before they take a vaccine—the vaccine isn’t their first priority. The other one is economic, with jobs, childcare; there’s so many barriers, including just access,” Longoria noted. “If you’re solely focusing on conversations online, and whether or not they are mis- and disinformation, you’re not going to see the whole picture.”