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Why Republicans and Democrats are both failing America's Latino voters

U.S. Latino voters feel taken for granted. Is it too late to remedy the problem in time for the 2022 midterms?
Image: Signage for Meta, the parent company of Facebook, in Menlo, Calif., on Nov. 4, 2021.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook, in particular needs to solve its Spanish-language misinformation problem.Jim Wilson / NYT via Redux file

A recent poll reinforced an ongoing theme heading into the 2022 midterms: U.S. Latino voters, who make up the country’s largest ethnic voting bloc, feel that both the Democratic and Republican parties “take them for granted.”

What will both parties actually do to earn the Latino vote?

The poll, from Axios and Ipsos in partnership with Telemundo, also raised an urgent question: What will both parties actually do to earn the Latino vote?

The answer to that is deeply complicated by the battle against online disinformation targeted at voters, particularly Spanish-speaking ones. With Pew Research Center numbers showing that U.S. Latinos use YouTube Instagram and WhatsApp more than any other racial or ethnic demographic group, it’s no surprise that influencing these voters online is part of a political strategy.

Companies like Meta (formerly known as Facebook) failed to address the threat of disinformation in previous election cycles. If the 2021 elections in Virginia and New Jersey are any indication, the disinformation machine is showing no sign of slowing down, with false claims that ranged from President Joe Biden ordering the arrest of parents in Virginia to Spanish-language videos saying the results in New Jersey were rigged.

“Misinformation poses a threat to Hispanics, who are particularly vulnerable due to a greater reliance on social media and messaging platforms,” a September Nielsen study said.

Furthermore, per the Nielsen study, “much of the content, both user-generated and shared, is in Spanish, Spanglish, or colloquial Spanish, challenging conventional fact-checking and content moderation procedures to keep up.”

It’s encouraging to see moves like former Univision White House correspondent Janet Rodríguez joining WhatsApp as an internal communications manager to address Spanish-language misinformation. Rodríguez, an Emmy-winning journalist, understands how media is consumed by the country’s Spanish-speaking population.

A $22 million Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab announced in February by liberal groups Voto Latino and Media Matters seeks to tackle similar disinformation problems. Voto Latino founding President Maria Teresa Kumar, who is also an MSNBC contributor, said the organization is “trying to create models that identify people who may be more prone to political disinformation in an effort to intervene.” The lab is still awaiting launch.

But much more needs to change, and soon. We already know the disinformation playbook has been a successful tool in influencing U.S. Latino voters, especially when it comes to voters who might be leaning Democrat but voting Republican.

Unless we see action, the same playbook will repeat — likely with some dangerous updates.

Covid-19 disinformation issues aside — one 2020 report said Facebook had yet to flag 70 percent of false Spanish-language coronavirus-related posts that were analyzed — there are already indications that it might be too late to remedy the problem. A much-publicized WhatsApp fact-checking program in both Spanish and English initiated by the Poynter Institute during the 2020 presidential election is dormant. Meanwhile, as The New York Times reported in late 2020, “outright disinformation — the deliberate spreading of falsehoods — is coming almost exclusively from conservatives, researchers say, including from a crop of right-wing Spanish-language websites that are designed to look like nonpartisan news outlets.”

Those outlets, and the radio programs that amplify them in large Spanish-speaking markets like Miami, have not gone away. In fact, they are doubling down; the recent critiques of Vice President Kamala Harris on Spanish-language radio stations suggest a coordinated effort.

A 2020 postmortem of U.S. Latinos based on several data points and focus groups confirmed what so many observers of Latino politics already knew regarding Republicans: The “socialism” disinformation push created “a space for defection” that was “concentrated on people getting media from WhatsApp and right-wing outlets, along with those who most believe in social mobility through hard work (aka the American Dream).”

Unless we see action, the same playbook will repeat — likely with some dangerous updates. The election of 35-year-old leftist Gabriel Boric in Chile earlier this month already has Latino and Latina conservatives hoping the South American country does not turn into “Chilezuela,” a reference to the current leftist government of Venezuela. We will surely start seeing terms like “Chilezuela” popping up in WhatsApp messages, letting people know that is what Biden’s America will also become if Congress stays Democratic in 2022. It will be hard to determine who is directly behind such tactics, but it’s fair to say they will to continue unchecked.

So far, there has been a lot of talk of intent to combat disinformation. But it has been limited, and will continue to be, as long as U.S. Latinos continue to be ignored. That could change, but it will take more intention outside of only fact-checking, greater investment and a unified belief that disinformation is a real threat to democracy.

Unless that happens, the same cycles will keep repeating.