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Democrats, experts warn Spanish-language disinformation is intensifying

“We clearly see that the music is being turned up. It’s not going away,” a Democratic strategist said about misleading information ahead of the midterm elections.
A woman walks past a "Vote Here" sign at Miami Beach City Hall in Miami Beach, Fla., on Oct. 19, 2020.
A woman walks past a "Vote Here" sign at Miami Beach City Hall in Miami Beach, Fla., on Oct. 19, 2020.Eva Marie Uzcategui / AFP via Getty Images file

MIAMI — The proliferation of Spanish-language conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation is already intensifying ahead of the midterm elections, several Democrats and experts warned at a roundtable held Monday in Miami by congressional Democrats.

Florida International University political scientist Eduardo Gamarra said he’s been documenting a “causal link” between misinformation and disinformation and how Spanish speakers have voted in recent elections, telling members of the Committee on House Administration that it has contributed to a change in voter patterns.

The amount of false or misleading information spread in Spanish was intense in the months before the 2020 elections, as well as after the elections, including conspiracy theories about electoral fraud and assertions that former President Donald Trump won the election. False information spread on social media, as well as in closed messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram channels.

Although disinformation has spread to Latino communities across the U.S., South Florida in particular was a hotbed for misleading information. Similar to some AM radio shows in English, some in Spanish also push far-right conspiracies.

Part of the problem, Gamarra said, is that disinformation “has been cast exclusively as a one-sided complaint from a single party,” referring to the Democrats, and as the “cry of a sore loser.”

Former radio host Raúl Martínez, the Democratic former mayor of Hialeah, told the House members that hosts at a conservative AM radio station before the 2020 elections said those who wanted to vote for Joe Biden were “anti-Christian,” and he accused Black Lives Matter protesters of being involved in witchcraft. They also falsely claimed that U.S. Southern Command forces under Trump were stationed in Panama and the Dominican Republic, ready to invade Venezuela.

“Where is the FCC?” Martínez said.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus asked the Federal Communications Commission last year to reject the sale of Miami radio station Caracol 1260 AM to America CV, which they say leans conservative.

Martínez, who previously said he was let go from Caracol because he wasn't conservative, said he was “ashamed” to have been part of a radio station that aired a paid program in August 2020 that claimed that if Biden won the election, the U.S. would fall into a dictatorship led by “Jews and Blacks.”

Before and after the roundtable, several South Florida AM stations pushed back, saying Democrats want to restrict freedom of speech. Conservative Latinos on social media echoed the arguments.

Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a Democratic strategist who was the first to flag many in the media about the rise of Spanish-language disinformation in Florida, briefed the lawmakers after the roundtable.

“We clearly see that the music is being turned up. It’s not going away," Pérez-Verdía told NBC News. "It’s concerning, because we’re already starting to see the same patterns we saw leading up to the 2018 and 2020 elections, when the level of disinformation began to slowly accelerate.

“We’re seeing domestic actors coordinate with others in Latin America” on disinformation, Pérez-Verdía said.

But she also warned that Democrats need to be mindful of the words and symbols they use on social media, noting that the word “progressive” in English is “progresista” in Spanish and that it is synonymous with “communism” and “socialism” to many who escaped leftist regimes and violence in Latin America.

According to Nielsen, Latinos spend less time watching traditional TV and more on streaming services than non-Hispanics, 34 percent to 25 percent. YouTube accounted for 21 percent of Hispanics' viewing minutes in June.

As the roundtable was taking place, the National Republican Congressional Committee emailed a statement: “Democrats continue to believe Hispanic voters are misinformed when in reality they are fully aware of how Democrats’ socialist agenda will hurt their communities.”

During the roundtable, former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida, a Democrat who lost her congressional seat in 2020 to Republican Rep. Carlos Gimenez, said Spanish-language misinformation and disinformation are “a well-funded and well-coordinated effort” that is “misleading our community.”

‘The main goal is to undermine our democratic institutions,” she said, accusing GOP legislators of pushing back against Democrats’ demands for oversight of Spanish-language media, saying it amounts to censorship.

While Democrats wanted the hearing to highlight the importance of disinformation, they weren’t always accurate themselves. Mucarsel-Powell accused the conservative Libre Initiative of being behind a controversial newspaper insert, also called “Libre,” that included racist and antisemitic language, but the group wasn't behind the paid supplement. She later corrected herself.

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