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Misinformation About 2020 Election Spread Via WhatsApp, Targeted Spanish-Speaking Voters

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Lee esta historia en español.

The 2020 election will live in history — and misinformation will be part of it. One particular social media platform may have played a big part in swaying Spanish speaking voters.

Leading up to the election, Spanish-speaking voters were the target of a flurry of disinformation and misinformation via WhatsApp, a cross-platform messaging service used by many Spanish speakers in the U.S. and throughout Latin America.

"WhatsApp is a very potent vector for disinformation because it's closed and end to end encrypted, which means that even the platform itself cannot read the messaging that's inside of it," said Jacob Gursky, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Media Engagement.

Gursky said content moderation on WhatsApp is different from content moderation on other. social media platforms, like Twitter or Facebook.

"The people who are talking to you on WhatsApp are not really politicians, they're your local community leaders, they're your friends, they're family," he said.

WhatsApp is owned by Facebook. The company says it has taken measures to limit misinformation of both platforms. But without being able to view encrypted messages, it’s difficult to stop the spread on WhatsApp.

Gursky said many private WhatsApp groups shifted their focus after attracting members.

"It's been clear to us that there have been groups in these communities that started out for one purpose — for example, groups that bring people together so that they can find food banks during the coronavirus. And slowly those food bank groups would become edged to become more and more political."

Gursky gave an example of how disinformation was presented on WhatsApp:

"Videos appearing in these groups that purposefully misrepresent Joe Biden's political stance to have a video in English, some saying that he's progressive, and then they would use the Spanish translation of the word progressive, which has a different meaning in the Spanish language than it does in the English language in terms of how far to the left he's claiming that he is."

César Martinez is an advertising expert who worked with focus groups of Venezuelans living in Florida as part of the Lincoln Project, a group of mostly republican political consultants and advertising specialists who worked to keep Donald Trump from being reelected.

He realized Venezuelans were aggressively targeted through WhatsApp.

"And those messages were like Biden is a socialist, then he’s in cahoots with (President Nicolás) Maduro, and they kept on sending messages," Martinez said, adding that because the app uses a specific number for each individual, it feels more personal.

Many of the WhatsApp messages played on racial tensions between Latino and Black people.

There is a long history of Latino racism against Black people both in the U.S. and throughout Latin America, said Jose Villagran, a lecturer on Latino studies at the University of Wisconsin.

"You know, both of these different regions, historically speaking, had slavery and had, you know, systems of racial hierarchy in Latin America. This is known as the or the caste system where (Black people) were placed at the very bottom. And, you know, Iberian, that is Spanish and Portuguese, white (people) throughout Latin America were placed at the very top with mixed race peoples in between and then indigenous people, even mixed race people, but always with with (Black people) at the very bottom, you know, and to this day, we see a lot of that permeate in Latino cultures in terms of this whiteness being valued and Blackness being shunned."

Not all the disinformation and misinformation came from right wing operators. Sen. Marco Rubio warned via Twitter in late October that threatening messages targeted at potential Trump voters who speak Spanish could have been initiated by foreign governments.

All experts interviewed for this story agree that the majority of the misleading messages appeared to come from the political right.

Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.