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Efforts by social media platforms to clean up dangerous English-language misinformation are not being replicated in other languages, notably Spanish, which can have detrimental and even deadly consequences for the platforms’ users, advocates say.
Election misinformation can spark violence and suppress voter turnout, while COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation can cost lives. But Carmen Scurato, associate legal director and senior counsel for the media and technology justice organization Free Press, told Snopes in a phone interview that advocates began to notice a gap in platform policy enforcement between English and Spanish that became apparent in the run-up to the November 2020 election.
“When we were checking, using Facebook’s own search tools, we found the same content in Spanish, and that content hadn’t been removed,” Scurato said. “We noticed that when content was being removed in English, the same content would stay up on Spanish. We would flag it for the company, and sometimes they would add a label, sometimes they would do nothing. We kept noticing this gap in moderation.”
One year later, Free Press and other watchdogs were vindicated when Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen came forward with documents showing, as she stated before Congress, that Facebook’s measures weren’t being equally implemented:
“Currently they are not keeping Spanish speakers safe at the level they do for English speakers. And that’s unacceptable,” she said.
Here’s how the Los Angeles Times described the landscape of online misinformation in the lead-up to the 2020 election in a November 2021 report:
Across the country, a pipeline of misleading media had been pumping lies and half-truths, in both English and Spanish, into local Latino communities. Sometimes the misinformation mirrored what the rest of the country was seeing: fear-mongering about mail-in ballots and antifa vigilantes, or conspiracy theories about the deep state and COVID-19. Other times it leaned into more Latino-specific concerns, such as comparing candidate Joe Biden to Latin American dictators or claiming that Black Lives Matter activists were using brujería — that is, witchcraft.
According to Pew Research Center, when it comes to social media, people who identify themselves as Hispanic overwhelmingly use YouTube (85%) and Facebook (72%). Spanish speakers make up a sizable portion of the U.S. population. Spanish is the second most-spoken language in the U.S., with an estimated 41 million speakers.
Jacobo Licona, a disinformation researcher for Equis Labs, a polling company that focuses on the Latino community, told Snopes by email that Latinos have a strong tendency to get their news on social media platforms.
“YouTube is a leading source of political news for Latinos, with 64% of registered Latino voters saying they got election information from YouTube,” Licona stated. “Latinos also spend twice as much time on YouTube as non-Latino adults. Relatedly, half of Latinos in the United States use WhatsApp, and Equis has found that Latinos who get their news from WhatsApp are most likely to express concern over socialism.”
A common problem researchers see is cross-pollination of misinformation across platforms. Often, Scurato said, a video containing misinformation in Spanish will be posted on YouTube, then that video will be picked up and posted on Facebook or in WhatsApp chat channels. (WhatsApp is a chat platform owned by Meta, the parent company that owns Facebook and other popular platforms, including Instagram.)
“There’s a point,” Scurato told us, “where they [the platforms] just need to commit to enforcing their own policies and commit to enforcing them across all languages.”
One Facebook post dated April 15, 2021, viewed by Snopes and archived here, spread the debunked conspiracy theory that billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates was using the COVID-19 vaccines to plant microchips in people. The post also imbued the vaccines with apocalyptic religious implications.
“Bill Gates is promoting the antichrist vaccine for all nations to then implement the mandatory vaccination certificate, which means a collection of biometric data from each inhabitant, this through a microchip called ID 2020 that would be the mark of the beast,” the Facebook post read in Spanish.
As of Dec. 13, 2021, the post was still live and contained no label marking it as misinformation.
Kevin McAlister, a spokesperson for Meta (Facebook’s parent company), told Snopes in an email that of the 10 third-party fact-checkers the company contracts with, four fact-check content in Spanish.
Furthermore, the company stated, Spanish is one of the “highest resourced languages” when it comes to content review, as one of the most commonly used languages by its platform users. Meta employs U.S.-based, native Spanish-speaking content reviewers, while its artificial intelligence tools are constantly learning various slang and colloquialisms.
Meta also stated it has ramped up its efforts to combat COVID-19 misinformation in Spanish. That includes state-specific information directed at users with platform settings in Spanish, and giving free ads to public health organizations — like Johns Hopkins University, AARP, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — that direct legitimate pandemic-related health information to Spanish speakers.
Elena Hernandez, a spokesperson for YouTube, told Snopes in an emailed statement:
We work diligently to address misinformation on YouTube across dozens of languages. We enforce our Community Guidelines globally, and our automated systems flag violative videos in multiple languages. More than 20,000 people around the world, including many with Spanish and other non-English language expertise, work to detect, review and remove content that violates our policies. We also reduce recommendations of borderline content in every country we operate. Our efforts in this space are ongoing, we’re always working to update our systems and improve the platform to prevent the spread of harmful misinformation.
But Haugen stated the issue isn’t whether the platforms invest in Spanish-language content moderation; it’s whether they invest enough.
Dr. Ilan Shapiro, medical director for health education and wellness for AltaMed, a health care provider serving Los Angeles and Orange counties, said that he has noticed recent improvement in vaccination rates among his Spanish-speaking patients. Now, he said, most of his patients come to his clinic having already been vaccinated.
He attributes the success to on-the-ground health education efforts by himself and other public health professionals.
“I think that we’re getting enough information to the community, so that they know if something [they see online] actually stinks,” Shapiro told us by phone. His website and social media channels, where he posts as “Dr. Shaps,” are dedicated to educating people, primarily in Spanish, about the pandemic and vaccines.
But it’s hard to keep up with online misinformation, he said, because it’s constantly changing.
“The most important part is to have conversations,” he said. “That’s one of the most important things we need to have.”
Despite the positive trend, the harm may have already been done. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted Latino communities. Reuters reported that election-related or political disinformation that flourished during the 2020 election cycle had the potential to affect the vote and even spark violence.
“It’s definitely neglect,” Scurato said of the platforms’ handling of the crisis, describing it as “willful indifference for the safety of linguistically diverse communities.”
Scurato said she believes there’s an “opportunity” for Congress to draft regulations that “require some high levels of transparency when it comes to this kind of content, and how they are enforcing their policies equitably.”
Lopes, Lunna, et al. “KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor: September 2021.” Kaiser Family Foundation, 28 Sept. 2021, https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/poll-finding/kff-covid-19-vaccine-monitor-september-2021/.
“Perspective | Misinformation Online Is Bad in English. But It’s Far Worse in Spanish.” Washington Post, 28 Oct. 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/10/28/misinformation-spanish-facebook-social-media/.
Contreras, Brian, and Maloy Moore. “What Facebook Knew about Its Latino-Aimed Disinformation Problem.” Los Angeles Times, 16 Nov. 2021, https://www.latimes.com/business/technology/story/2021-11-16/facebook-struggled-with-disinformation-targeted-at-latinos-leaked-documents-show.