WASHINGTON — Maria Teresa Kumar was surprised to find out two weeks ago that her mother, who runs an elder care facility in Northern California, was going to forgo a Covid-19 vaccine.
Kumar, the founding president of Voto Latino and an MSNBC contributor, wanted to know why her mom, Mercedes Vegvary, would take such a risk. The answer: a Spanish-language disinformation campaign, shared peer to peer, that portrayed the vaccine as a technology unsafe for human use.
In effort to combat campaigns like the one that reached her mother — and more explicitly political messaging — Kumar has teamed up with progressive group Media Matters' Angelo Carusone to launch a $22 million new "Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab," the pair told NBC News exclusively. The campaign will launch this week.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, who has expressed concern about the political effects of misinformation, will serve as a co-chair along with them.
To Kumar, the meme her mother encountered fit a pattern she and others noticed during the 2020 election in which misinformation saturated traditional and social media platforms aimed at Hispanic communities.
"The 2020 election showed us that the greatest obstacle to our thriving democracy is having people understand and navigate truth," Kumar said in an interview Wednesday. "It has come down to a matter of literally life and death when disinformation is targeting a community to the point that they don’t take care of themselves and don’t get vaccinated."
The project will try to identify disinformation, determine the most persuasive way to respond and then launch a response communications campaign. The lab will start with Covid-19 disinformation, which Carusone said often involves a false narrative that malicious forces connected to the Democratic Party have concocted an elixir that is either ineffective or harmful to people who are injected with it.
While 46 percent of white adults said they would definitely get vaccinated, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll last month, 36 percent of Hispanic adults and 27 percent of Black adults said the same. Additionally 18 percent of Hispanic adults said they would definitely not get vaccinated, compared to 15 percent each of white and Black adults.
"There are bad actors that go into multiple groups and drop false memes and narratives," Carusone said.
But ultimately, the lab's mission is to fight right-wing messaging efforts before the midterms, when Latino voter behavior could be decisive in closely contested House and Senate races. Democrats were stunned in 2020 by the degree to which President Donald Trump cut into their traditional advantage with Hispanic voters in Florida and South Texas, in particular.
Kumar and Carusone say disinformation campaigns — for example, that Democrats were illegally harvesting ballots and that Biden supported "defunding the police" — were rampant and consequential in the last election.
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"Clearly what we saw was not just some organic misinformation bubbling up," Carusone said. "The right recognized the opportunity. They recognized there’s a value with flooding the zone in these communities with lies and misinformation."
Media Matters, which will assign about a dozen staff members to the project, is handling the monitoring of television, radio and internet forums, including infiltrating closed messaging groups, Carusone said. Voto Latino will work to communicate responses to pieces of disinformation, in part through its network of Spanish-speaking surrogates.
"Fighting misinformation is trench warfare," Carusone said.
Kumar offers up some evidence for that: After reviewing the memes about vaccine, she was able to convince her mom to get the shot.