Part of The power and potential of Latino voters, from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
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The distortion begins by using Joe Biden’s own words against him: “I’m going to go down as one of the most progressive presidents in American history,” the then-presidential candidate says at the start of the video. Emblazoned across Biden for those three seconds is a Spanish translation of his statement: “Seré uno de los presidentes más progresistas de la historia Americana.” “Progresistas” — or progressives, in English — remains onscreen.
But the next four people to invoke the word in this 30-second campaign ad for Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection effort were meant to inspire fear: Hugo Chávez, the socialist former leader of Venezuela, his successor Nicolás Maduro, the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and the now-president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro. As the spot closes, the word remains — but now it’s followed by “progresistas=socialista.”
Biden, of course, is no socialist. And this ad, published on YouTube in August 2020, was a sampling of one of the Trump campaign’s most successful political messages aimed at Latino voters. Painting Biden as a radical leftist by invoking the specter of Latin American socialism struck at the immigrant heritage of many voters in South Florida who had fled those countries. But the ad is also an example of a larger phenomenon Latino communities continue to face: the spread of misleading, exaggerated, and false information, online and in traditional media.
Some variation of the Trump socialism ad reached over 1.5 million people on Facebook, fueled WhatsApp group chats, and, inevitably, sparked fact-checks from liberals, activists, and journalists. In 2020, millions of Latinos living in the United States faced a deluge of false political and health information that they often had to vet on their own.
Now, as the 2022 midterm elections pick up, researchers and academics tell me that the problem of false and misleading information in the Latino community is becoming more widespread — and that it’s getting harder to separate misinformation from standard political speech. Democrats, who have blamed misinformation for their party’s recent underperformance with Latino voters, risk further misunderstanding Latino voters by confusing the problem of misinformation with their own lack of strategy. Republicans, meanwhile, have been happy to weaponize misinformation and propagate these very same bogus claims.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, researchers and academics tracked lies, conspiracy theories, and false information as they spread across social media, local and mainstream news sources, and through statements from politicians and influencers. Their conclusion? A wave of misinformation enveloped Latino communities and Spanish-language spaces in 2020, reaching prospective voters and Covid-anxious Americans during a year of crisis, and potentially affected the results of the 2020 election by boosting Trump and Republican candidates.
Many of these researchers tell me they are already seeing new conspiracy theories, claims, and distortions spreading among Latino communities. The latest wave of misinfo, they say, has been fueled by culture war battles about gender identity and abortion, economic fears pegged to inflation and climate policy, voter fraud conspiracy theories, and, more recently, investigations into Trump’s post-election conduct.
“Many millions of Latinos voted for the first time in 2020, and 2022 is going to be the first time that many millions more will vote,” Jerónimo Cortina, a political science professor at the University of Houston, told me. “You have the perfect storm for Latinos to be involved in this whole misinformation aspect, and they represent a new constituency that can be swayed toward one political party.”
Democrats are especially worried, given the signs of weakening Latino support in 2020. But for Democrats in campaign mode, tackling misinformation may be less about policy and regulation, and more about winning the age-old persuasion game of politics.
Misinformation has come to mean a lot of things, but a consensus academic definition is a good place to start: “the sharing of inaccurate and misleading information in an unintentional way,” “Misinformation” is the most all-encompassing term for misleading, hyperpartisan, or incorrect statements.
Intent isn’t required to make something misinformation; some of it spreads organically, through social media memes and satire, misreporting of real news, and polarized and politically charged speech. It is different from “disinformation,” “information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country.” The Trump campaign’s Biden-is-a-socialist ad is an example of how disinformation — or something that’s intentionally wrong or misleading — can turn into misinformation as it spreads through social feeds and becomes something people believe.
The story of misinformation in 2020 can be divided into two general categories: lies and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic, and political misinformation around the 2020 presidential election. False and misleading information about the coronavirus, masking and vaccines, and the severity of Covid-19 continued to spread well into 2021, but researchers told me that these kinds of falsehoods have since died down a bit as the country has moved into a new phase of the pandemic.
Political misinformation is harder to identify and refute because of the intrinsic link between politics, persuasion, and some degree of stretching the truth. Even though it’s provably false, it’s hard to classify political speech like the “Biden is a socialist” line that the Trump campaign used so effectively, partially because that claim suggests a moral judgment about Biden and liberal politics. That kind of claim is harder to disprove to many conservative-minded Latino voters.
These kinds of politically charged, misleading speech continue to abound on social media, on television, and from public figures in the Latino community. In 2020, falsehoods flowed about divisive political and social issues: fearmongering about Black Lives Matter protests, conspiracy theories about illegal immigration and Biden’s progressive politics, and lies about voter fraud and mail-in voting. They spread to the Latino community through tweets, doctored photos and viral video clips, out-of-context quotes, and radio and YouTube broadcasts, and were shared in encrypted text apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, Facebook groups, and TikTok videos.
Democrats began to take the phenomenon more seriously after Election Day, when vote-counting and validated voter surveys revealed that Republicans had performed much better than expected among Latino voters across the country, especially in South Florida, and in the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas. In South Florida, where Trump ended up significantly improving on his 2016 showing, helping to win the state and flip two majority-Latino Democratic House seats, conspiracy theories and blatant lies had filled the Latino media ecosystem.
Those messages ramped up after Election Day. In December 2021, the Associated Press reported on misleading headlines and fabricated stories that spread in Spanish around the Virginia and New Jersey governor races, while anti-abortion messaging campaigns distorted Biden and Kamala Harris’s positions on abortion after the leak of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer.
Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a longtime Democratic strategist who tracks Spanish misinformation, told me she was one of the first researchers to call out the severity of the problem, including the spread of QAnon conspiracies through text chains on WhatsApp and Telegram.
She’s since watched how those platforms have allowed newer waves of misinformation and conspiracy theories to spread. After the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, for example, Pérez-Verdía saw how rumors that the shooter was transgender or an undocumented immigrant lit up conservative Spanish-language chats on WhatsApp. It followed a theme: The right-wing culture war on gender identity that picked up earlier this year had made it to these Spanish-language internet platforms. And because so many Latino Americans use these forms of communication, these narratives could spread more easily.
“We’re seeing a religious perspective on many social issues, attacks of the LGBTQ community, and focused on specifically the transgender community and transgender children,” she told me.
Of course, many of these narratives aren’t unique to Latino communities. Accusing opponents of being groomers or socialists, or distorting their political or policy views, affects just about every community in an extremely online nation. What has changed is how quickly some of these falsehoods and twisted stories spread through social media. And Latinos in the United States spend a disproportionate amount of time on social media like WhatsApp, Twitter, and YouTube, when compared to other demographic groups in the United States. Worse, the fact-checking, vetting, and content moderation resources that are already stretched thin on English-language platforms aren’t applied with the same rigor in Spanish-language media.
Though using encrypted text apps like WhatsApp and Telegram to spread political information and debate about American politics was relatively new in 2020, now politics is everywhere on these platforms, and so is misinformation. Inga Trauthig, a disinformation researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, told me that she and her team have tracked how election disinformation — including misleading claims about where and how to vote, or how votes are counted, for example — spreads through encrypted messaging apps in diaspora communities. She’s found that it’s Hispanic and Latino Americans who use these platforms the most, and are thus more likely to encounter misleading information.
“In the beginning [of our research], we had much more that people would push back and say, ‘No, this is a group that wasn’t supposed to be for politics, why are we talking about Trump all of a sudden?’” she said. “Because of the news-sharing features, WhatsApp has become more and more of a political platform.”
Trauthig’s team has also found that more misinformation is spreading organically through these feeds among family and friends, small-scale influencers, and grassroots networks.
One additional complication in understanding the political effect of misinformation is the fact that most research and tracking of the spread and effect of misinformation on Latino communities comes from left-leaning academics, liberal strategists, or progressive groups, who may have specific ideological frameworks — and this can affect how they issue recommendations or conduct surveys. Right-leaning media personalities, consultants, and Republican politicians who often spread many of the very misleading narratives watchdogs and journalists are trying to identify, can categorically reject any attempt at improving public discourse because of liberal bias and political gain.
All of these difficulties in defining misinformation, following its spread, and seeing who believes it pose a challenge to researchers and journalists. But it also creates a big problem for the political party that seems to care about it. Democrats risk falling into a trap of blaming misinformation for inadequate campaigning and unpopular political stances.
Carlos Odio, the senior vice president of the Latino-focused Democratic firm Equis Research, says misinformation in Latino communities is often conflated with the Democratic Party’s own missteps in outreach, communications, campaigning, and cultural competence.
“What we don’t want happening is that [‘misinformation’] then crosses over into a purely political argument,” Odio said. “It’s actually a challenge for campaigns and candidates and organizations that get caught up in thinking that they are only losing because of disinformation, or to blame any other kind of failings of communication on the idea that it’s all lies.”
Equis recently released the results of a survey of 2,400 Latino adults, in which researchers looked at the prevalence of a set of false narratives that have taken root in both right-wing and left-leaning communities, and asked Latinos how and where they get their news and political knowledge.
It found plenty of Latinos have heard of the most common false narratives that spread in the last two years, and were likely to not believe them. It also uncovered a large persuadable middle who don’t know what to think about this information and are simply uncertain about its accuracy and whether to believe it.
The most widespread, well-known narratives (“President Trump won the 2020 election and Democrats stole it for Joe Biden,” “The Covid-19 vaccine is more dangerous than the Covid-19 virus itself,” and “Donald Trump worked with the Russians to steal the presidency in 2016”) were the most likely to be rejected by people when asked if they were true. Some of the claims that got the most mainstream attention, like the “Biden is a socialist” line that caused the most panic in Florida, had reached only about a quarter of Latinos and was only believed by about 7 percent of all those polled — about the same as those who believed the Earth was flat. That so many people rejected the most popular lines of misinformation suggests some solutions, including the effectiveness of aggressive fact-checking and public challenges.
But the people who were most likely to believe this kind of misinformation were also the most politically engaged respondents — not only were they the most educated, but they were also more likely to have a personal ideology, and be amenable to narratives that aligned with it. That explains why some liberal respondents in the survey were willing to believe false narratives from the left side of the political spectrum: More people were certain that Trump colluded with Russians to steal the 2016 election than the right-wing claim that Trump won the 2020 election, and more people believed that Trump faked his Covid infection than the Biden-socialism claim. Though some conservatives have pointed out some of these examples of “left-wing misinformation,” they tend to criticize media coverage as biased toward liberals, and attempts by social media companies to regulate speech as censorship, rather than associate it with the bigger phenomenon of modern misinformation.
“The belief [in these falsehoods] comes from more college-educated, politically engaged consumers. It’s the people who are already more partisan, who are more willing to believe anything said about the other side,” Odio said. “For everybody else in the middle, it’s more about a question of uncertainty.”
People who encountered false narratives but treated them with skepticism made up at least a quarter of respondents in Equis’s survey. They are people who might not be at risk of believing false information, but for whom false information makes determining truth in politics harder and may lead them to simply not engage with elections. That uncertain middle tends to not be hyperpartisan, skews female, and under the age of 50 — the same profile of the average Latino voter and, it happens, of the swing voter in many battleground states.
But swing voters in the Latino electorate aren’t just deciding between political parties, Odio told me. They’re deciding whether to vote at all. These peripheral voters are “where you are seeing the movement,” he said. “There is an overlap here, a persuadable segment of the Latino vote, and it tends not to be the voters who are getting all the attention, [and] are already very highly engaged. It tends to be the ones who are more neglected.”
The misinformation problem gets back to a central problem of modern American politics: a chronic lack of investment in, culturally competent engagement with, and nuanced understanding of Latino voters. Odio and other researchers told me that combating misinformation, especially the kind of right-wing misinformation that tends to dominate the digital and media space, requires work. Yes, social media companies, think tanks, and journalists should continue to aggressively moderate, fact-check, and debunk lies, and they should provide easier access to better sources of information. But Democrats and political campaigns who claim to care about the future of American democracy and are worried about losing Latino voters should be smarter and more understanding of why some of these political narratives stick. Many of the less outlandish, misleading narratives that are percolating now, about inflation, energy prices, climate policy, abortion, and gender identity, stick because they appeal to a core set of beliefs some Latinos hold and which a standard fact-check from a journalist can’t remedy alone, Flavia Colangelo, a director of Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic research firm, told me.
“When you hear something like ‘Biden wants to make it harder to eat meat,’ or ‘Biden’s climate policies are impacting our gas prices’ — it’s about that core value that it threatens and usually is that of government control or fears of government overreach,” Colangelo said. “We’ve found [what’s] most impactful when we do our method of testing is to really treat and address that wound, rather than chasing after specific attacks and trying to debunk specific things. When the wound is really about what values are important to Hispanics, how can we connect to those instead of just offering alternative facts to a narrative?”
The Trump campaign’s progresista ad offers the same lesson: At a certain level, calling Biden a socialist could hurt his standing among communities that hold generational trauma and painful memories of economic impoverishment or political persecution. But it also appealed to a deeper set of ideological beliefs about the role of government in daily life, the sense of individualism and independence that some of these voters value, and distrust of a political candidate.
There’s still plenty of time for more political misinformation to spread between now and the November midterms. Campaigns are revving up for general elections, and the next presidential election is years away. That also means there’s enough time to address both the policy and political challenges that misinformation creates — and for Democrats worried about the specter of misinformation to do something about it.