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In Florida, misleading Election Day claims spread in Spanish

Facebook and YouTube have taken steps to remove QAnon content in English from their platforms, but experts warn there is still a vast amount in Spanish.
Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell chats with poll employees as a group of people line up to vote at the Westchester Regional Library in the early morning on Election Day on Nov. 3, 2020.Pedro Portal / Miami Herald via AP

MIAMI — After Joe Biden became president-elect, disinformation and conspiracy theories in Spanish of voter fraud and claims that Democrats have robbed Pres. Donald Trump of a victory have intensified among many Latinos.

A well-known former candidate for state office in Florida posted an impassioned video in Spanish on Facebook boosting the baseless claim that the election is being stolen from President Donald Trump. The video has since been reposted to Twitter, where it’s been viewed more than 116,000 times over the past two days.

“You have the historical authority to destroy the communists that are in the department of elections,” the man said, adding that it’s time to take to the streets to defend Trump.

The new wave of false claims comes after Democrats raised alarms in the run-up to the election about Spanish-language misinformation that had circulated among Latino voters in Florida. And while researchers said Election Day passed without evidence of major English-language misinformation campaigns on social media, they cautioned that the coming days and weeks would be challenging.

On Friday morning, a doctored photo was being passed around in WhatsApp groups, a popular app among Latinos in Florida, showing Biden leaning uncomfortably close behind the former president of the National Electoral Council of Venezuela, who herself was accused of electoral fraud in the South American country. Her image has been used in various Spanish-language misinformation memes about the outcome of the U.S. election on WhatsApp.

Content posted to WhatsApp is only viewable to members of the group it's posted in, making it near-impossible to gauge the spread of disinformation on the app, which often circulates within multiple large, closed groups simultaneously with little oversight.

The misleading, false and conspiratorial claims that are circulating in Spanish about the outcome of the election are readily viewable on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, despite policies from all three companies prohibiting or restricting the spread of conspiracy theories and election-related misinformation. According to researchers interviewed by NBC News, the policies have been implemented with more consistency for content posted in English.

Growing Spanish-language disinformation

Flavia Colangelo, a researcher at GQR, a Democratic research firm that advises campaigns on Spanish-language disinformation, said she is concerned about what she is seeing in Spanish on social media platforms.

“Facebook and YouTube have taken steps to remove QAnon content in English from their platforms, but there is still a vast amount available in Spanish and it’s easily accessible,” she said.

Andrea Vallone, a spokeswoman for Facebook, told NBC News that the company has multiple fact-checking partners who review posts in Spanish on Facebook and Instagram to enforce the company’s policies against misleading and hateful information. The company has also been actively applying labels to posts in English and in Spanish on Facebook that discuss the election, linking users to a voter information center, which Facebook has translated into Spanish.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, also has a new feature that allows users to search the web about what’s being discussed in their chats, Vallone said, adding that this could help curb the spread of misinformation.

While some of the disinformation being spread on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and YouTube makes parallels between Biden and Latin American socialist countries, other posts are replicating conspiracy theories that have gained traction in English among conservative circles online.

Alex Joseph, a spokesperson for YouTube, said the company has policies against misinformation about how to vote but does not prohibit content that forwards false views about the outcome of the election.

"Expressing views on the outcome of a current election or process of counting votes is allowed under our policy," Joseph said. "Our policies are global, and we apply them consistently across all languages and regions."

In mid-October, YouTube extended its policies against hate and harassment ahead of the U.S. elections to include prohibitions on conspiracy theory videos, including videos on the massively popular and unfounded conspiracies about QAnon and "pizzagate." That prohibition, however, only extends to videos that target a specific group or individual with a conspiracy that has been used to justify real-world violence. Followers of both QAnon and "pizzagate" have allegedly been engaged in numerous violent crimes in recent years, including murder.

Spanish-language YouTube accounts that in the past have spread themes related to various conspiracy theories, including those alleging George Soros was funding immigration to the U.S., are now focused on the results of the U.S. elections. Many of these videos claim Biden is linked to socialism and question whether there has been fraud in the vote counting.

Twitter has also been a hotbed of Spanish-language disinformation surrounding the outcome of the election, according to researchers and posts viewed by NBC News.

Another viral conspiracy with no grounding in fact that has moved from Twitter to WhatsApp questions the legitimacy of the printed ballots in some states. It also claims Trump will send the National Guard to battleground states to run a secondary check on all the ballots, according to Twitter posts shared in large WhatsApp groups and obtained by NBC News.

Twitter spokesman Trenton Kennedy told NBC News that the company has a team working in multiple languages, including Spanish, monitoring content about the U.S. elections.

“We have and will continue to enforce our rules impartially to protect the integrity of the conversation around this election,” Kennedy said.

President's false claims, in Spanish

Many of the false claims amplify or exaggerate the messages coming directly from Trump’s public statements about electoral fraud. Twitter and Facebook have both actively applied various labels to Trump’s posts that violate their election-related misinformation policies.

The president’s campaign released a statement Friday morning saying, “We are confident we will find ballots improperly harvested,” regarding the vote-count process in Georgia.

The statement also said, “There were many irregularities in Pennsylvania, including having election officials prevent our volunteer legal observers from having meaningful access to vote counting locations.”

The same themes are emerging on viral Twitter posts, in WhatsApp groups, on Facebook and on YouTube channels in Spanish.

During the live broadcast of a popular analysis program on YouTube with almost half a million subscribers, the host began the show by questioning whether there has been fraud in the election. She also said it’s “suspicious” that in one state, Biden’s numbers continue to increase, while Trump’s numbers remain the same.

"Playing with fire"

In response, Trump supporters in Miami have been gathering outside La Carreta, a popular Cuban restaurant, to rally around unfounded claims of election fraud, which they’re sharing with the hashtag #StopTheBidenSteal. The protests have been peaceful.

Democratic strategist Evelyn Pérez Verdía, who monitors Spanish-language disinformation, said Trump is fueling anger among his supporters and it’s reflected in the disinformation being passed around.

“Trump and his campaign are playing with fire, they are playing with emotions. In their heart, they feel they are defending democracy, so it’s very dangerous and it’s coming from the mouth of the president and his campaign," she said.

Part of what is igniting the emotions in Florida is the vast population of Latinos who have come from countries with corrupt governments and have lived through fraudulent elections.

“It has created a lot of PTSD,” said Pérez Verdía, adding that the disinformation is making people feel like they are being cheated here after experiencing the downfall of democracy in their home countries.

Colangelo, the GQR researcher, fears the confusion and uncertainty over the election results are creating the perfect breeding ground for disinformation narratives to grow.

"When it comes to our democratic process, nothing is more important than ensuring confidence in our systems," Colangelo said, "which is why our social media platforms need to act quicker to take down Spanish-language disinformation."

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