AUSTIN (KXAN) — Bad or misleading information on social media is nothing new, but researchers worry it’s having a bigger effect on Spanish-speaking Latino communities in Texas and the rest of the country.
First, a quick refresher on misinformation vs. disinformation — misinformation is false or inaccurate info. Disinformation is false or inaccurate info deliberately created and/or deliberately spread (just remember the “d” for “deliberate”).
KXAN spoke with Jacobo Licona, a disinformation researcher with the Equis Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for Latino communities.
“I would say that Latinos are definitely not more susceptible to disinformation than other groups,” Licona said. “I think one big difference is that there are fewer spaces for Latinos, specifically in Spanish, to go get news and information.”
To understand his point, stop for a moment and think of all the reputable news sources available in English in the U.S., whether they be network news organizations, cable news channels or major newspapers and magazines.
In Spanish, the options are far fewer.
“And so [Spanish speakers] often go to social media to get news and information,” Licona said. “And while there’s a lot of good information on social media, there’s oftentimes also maybe more problematic content that might be disinformation.”
Another issue, he said, is that social media moderators don’t always do the best job of quickly spotting disinformation in Spanish.
What’s up with WhatsApp?
When it comes to messenger applications, WhatsApp is king with Spanish-speaking groups.
According to consumer data group Statista, 52% of Latinos in the United States use the messenger application, including Nayeli Gallegos who moved to Austin from Mexico 20 years ago. She recently became a U.S. citizen.
“It’s widely used for everything from business to family connections,” she told KXAN. “I’m actually amazed every time I travel back to Mexico, how you see the WhatsApp logo in businesses and on banners,” she added. “They use it for everything.”
Gallegos explained restrictions on wireless data south of the border make WhatsApp an easy way to communicate.
But it’s also another way misinformation spreads between friends and family members, according to Josephine Lukito, a researcher and assistant professor of journalism and media at the University of Texas at Austin.
“One of the great things about WhatsApp is a lot of people are on it,” Lukito said. “But one of the real struggles of studying and understanding misinformation on WhatsApp is that it’s often encrypted and private.”
“So, we’re seeing a large amount of misinformation spread on WhatsApp that isn’t actually detected,” she continued. “There isn’t a larger mechanism on WhatsApp to refute that the way that we would see on a platform like Facebook or Twitter.”
That said, Gallegos isn’t sure moderation on WhatsApp would be welcomed by many users.
“It would be as if all of a sudden, somebody wanted to verify what you’re sharing on your texts to other people,” she said. “I really don’t think that people in the Hispanic community or people who use WhatsApp really see it as a social media platform. They see it as a communication tool to stay connected with family with business with friends.”
What can be done?
Both Lukito and Licona said it’s important to keep pushing the social media giants to keep a closer eye on questionable non-English posts, including memes and screenshots which can sometimes skate past moderation.
Lukito added it’s important to keep in mind the emotion behind any misinformation that comes your way via loved ones.
“My auntie or my uncle, when they share misinformation with me, it’s not because they want to be spreaders of disinformation. They’re sharing it to me, because they care about me,” Lukito said. “And so, it’s not just about putting the correct information out there; it’s also making sure that it comes from the heart, that we’re genuinely trying to talk to someone as opposed to just correcting them.”