Big Tech and Spanish Language Misinformation

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  • Big Tech Companies Have Enabled Spanish Language Misinformation To Spread Across Social Media, Prompting Outrage From Activists And Lawmakers.
    • Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have made it easy to share dangerous misinformation online, and the issue has only worsened due to the polarized political climate in the United States. While big tech companies have made strides to combat the spread of misinformation, their efforts have fallen short when it comes to Spanish language posts. Recently, activists and politicians have taken notice and called out these companies for their inaction.
  • Ahead of the 2020 election, false information targeting Spanish speakers spread widely across social media platforms, yet the companies did little in response. Many of these posts questioned the reliability of mail-in voting, falsely tied Joe Biden to pedophilia, and pushed the Qanon conspiracy theory.[1]
  • Edie Miller, deputy editor of the misinformation tracking group Logically, said the wave of misinformation ahead of the 2020 election deliberately targeted Spanish-speaking voters in an attempt to influence public opinion in the presidential race. Moreover, Mashable noted that many Spanish language posts attempted to tie Joe Biden to socialism, “a particularly damaging piece of misinformation given socialism’s history in authoritarian Central and South American governments.”[2]
  • False information about the election spread far and wide. An October 2020 study from the international advocacy nonprofit Avaaz found that more than half of Spanish-speaking voters in Florida had seen misinformation on Facebook in the days leading up to the election. The group also found that Spanish language posts promoting electoral misinformation received more than 1.4 million interactions ahead of November 5th. Unfortunately, Facebook and other social media platforms did little to combat the rampant spread of election misinformation.
  • Avaaz found that after the 2020 election, Facebook labeled false claims of election fraud in Spanish less frequently than the same claims in English. Additionally, Facebook did not take down or issue fact-checks on two major Spanish language groups that falsely claimed Trump had won reelection.[3]
  • In addition to misinformation about the 2020 election, social media platforms have also enabled the spread of dangerous false posts about the government’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic and the safety of vaccines. The circulation of these posts gave rise to government mistrust and vaccine hesitancy among Latino communities.
    • A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only 26 percent of Latinos said they would get the vaccine as soon as possible, compared to 40 percent of whites. Both Geraldine Luna, the medical director of Chicago’s Department of Health, and Oscar Soria, a researcher at Avaaz, noted that many Latino frontline workers cited online conspiracy theories as reasons they did not want to get vaccinated.
  • Despite the clear public health consequences of spreading COVID-19 conspiracy theories, Facebook and other social media companies did little to remove Spanish language misinformation from their platforms.
    • An April 2020 study from Avaaz found that Facebook flagged 70 percent of posts with misleading COVID-19 content in English, but only 30 percent of similar posts in Spanish. For example, a video accusing the government of planning the pandemic “spread widely in Italian, Polish, and Spanish for days after Facebook took action on the English version.”
  • Activists and politicians have voiced concerns about the rise of Spanish language misinformation on social media.
    • In March 2021, a coalition of advocacy groups launched “Ya Basta Facebook,” a campaign demanding the tech giant “publicly explain the translation process of the algorithm and content moderation and share the training materials used to review whether content violates existing policy.” In July 2021, two dozen Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Nextdoor requesting details about the companies’ efforts to combat misinformation in Spanish and other languages.[4]
  • Experts Have Proposed Numerous Explanations For Big Tech’s Failure To Combat Spanish Language Misinformation. Clearly, big tech companies are failing to effectively flag Spanish language misinformation online, and experts have proposed numerous explanations for why this problem exists.
    • One explanation is that big tech companies are simply not dedicating enough resources to combat the issue. Jessica González, co-CEO of the advocacy group Free Press said, “there is a gap, quite an enormous gap, in fact, in English and Spanish-language content moderation.” For example, only four of Facebook’s ten fact-checking partners in the United States review content in Spanish.
    • Another explanation for the rampant spread of Spanish-language misinformation is big tech’s failure to hire enough diverse employees. Facebook has a considerable Spanish-speaking user base, with 59 million Spanish speakers in the United States and 70 percent of Latinos reporting that they prefer Facebook over other online platforms. However, as of 2019, just 5 percent of Facebook’s workforce was Latino. The Latino workforce was even lower at Google (3.9 percent) and Twitter (4.9 percent).
    • Jessica González argued that Facebook’s failure to moderate Spanish language content reflected a top-down diversity problem many tech companies face. Moreover, Facebook did not employ a dedicated executive to moderate Spanish language content policy and enforcement. Big tech companies also faced issues with using artificial intelligence to flag misinformation, which often failed to pick up on the nuances of Spanish language content.
    • For example, Jessica Cobian of the Center for American Progress noted that a Spanish post depicting a call to arms was not taken down from Facebook, likely due to a mistranslation of the Spanish word “parense” as “stop” when it meant “stand up” in context. Cobian argued that “despite Facebook’s effort to depict their translation algorithms as progressive, it’s clear to Spanish speakers like ourselves that this post, combined with the photos and contextual rhetoric, is intended to incite violence.”
    • Additionally, there was a higher volume of Spanish language misinformation spread by video than by text, making it more difficult for AI to quickly spot.
    • Finally, social media companies had confusing misinformation policies which they inconsistently enforced across platforms.
    • Jessica González argued, “There has been a slap-dash approach across platforms ... We’re even seeing certain rules that apply to Facebook don’t apply to Instagram or Whatsapp. The rules themselves are confusing, they’re long, and they’re not well enforced.”
  • Social Media Companies Have Made Big Claims About Combatting Spanish Language Misinformation, Yet Have Accomplished Little And Failed To Give Specifics About Their Policies.
    • Recently, big tech companies have been called out for their Spanish language misinformation problem. In response, companies have issued statements and made promises about their reform efforts, all while remaining vague and doing very little to actually address the problem. In fact, at a March 2021 congressional hearing, the CEOS of Facebook, Google, and Twitter did not mention the word “Spanish,” despite widespread concerns about the thriving Spanish language misinformation on their platforms.
    • Facebook has claimed it met with advocacy groups and devoted resources to combat Spanish language misinformation. Some of the company’s stated actions include giving a $1 million grant to an international fact- checking partner, issuing Spanish labels on posts about COVID-19, and adding new Spanish language fact- checking partners.
    • Similarly, the Facebook-owned instant messaging app WhatsApp claimed it invested $1 million in an international fact-checking group and launched a fellowship program aimed at debunking health hoaxes. However, Facebook refused to comment when asked what percentage of its budget was dedicated to Spanish language content moderation.
    • Additionally, nonprofit organizations working on misinformation research accused Facebook of relying on them to flag Spanish language misinformation instead of devoting resources to solve their own problem. A coalition of human rights and Latino advocacy groups sharply criticized the company’s request for help, writing, “Not only does this deplete valuable resources that should be dedicated to directly advocating for and providing services to our community, it is also an exhausting exercise in microaggression pain points of our position and power in the systemically inequitable US tech industry.”
    • While Facebook and WhatsApp offered some specifics about their efforts to combat Spanish language misinformation, other tech giants remained vague. Nextdoor, YouTube, and Twitter all issued statements claiming their platforms’ policies applied to content in all languages but did not indicate how they were specifically combatting rampant misinformation in Spanish.