The COVID-19 disinformation crisis in the Spanish-speaking media


For generations, Latinos have assuaged the longing for those left behind by defying the distance created by migration. Handwritten postcards flew over the walls, faxes overtook buses, and phone calls were cheaper than airplanes. And then, with the tech boom, came a click boom. For years, Latinos have been more likely to own smartphones and spend more time on social media than anyone else. But it’s not just a love story anymore.

The internet has become a double-edged sword for Latinos. It is both saving us and killing us.

At the height of the pandemic, Latinos were 57% more likely to use social media as their primary source of information about COVID-19 than non-Latinos, according to Nielsen. This emotional vulnerability and addiction are exactly what misinformation feeds on, slowly exploiting users’ deepest anxieties. We saw it in the 2020 election, as Latino voters in South Florida were inundated with false messages likening Joe Biden to a communist, militarizing the trauma of those who fled authoritarianism. We’re seeing the same scenario right now: our lifeline of connectivity has turned into a haven of vaccine misinformation. Then it may have cost votes; now disinformation is costing lives.

Less than a year ago, Latinos were dying from COVID-19 at rates greater than their share of the population in 19 states nationwide. Unsurprisingly, a recent Pew study found that at least 50% of Latinos in the United States know someone who has been hospitalized or who has died from the virus. And yet far too many Latinos choose not to get vaccinated.

It has become an instinct to blame the unvaccinated for perpetuating the pandemic. Yet great technology has fostered an environment for Spanish-speaking Latinos to become the perfect victims disinformation online.

We know that misinformation and disinformation is not well monitored when it is in English, but the reality is that it is practically non-existent in Spanish. According to the nonprofit Avaaz, Facebook reports only 30% of misinformation in Spanish, compared to 70% in English. Disinformation in Spanish may remain posted longer than in English before being removed. These seconds, hours and days add up. As Voto Latino found in a survey in April, 40% of Latinos said they had seen content that made them think the vaccine was “not safe or effective.” At that time, the Delta variant accounted for 0.1% of cases in the United States. Today, it accounts for 93% of all new cases.

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