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Latino voters targeted by abortion misinformation campaigns

"This is part of an ongoing campaign with far-right groups associated with the Catholic Church," one expert said.
Voters in Miami wait outside an early voting site on Oct. 19.
Voters in Miami wait outside an early voting site on Oct. 19.Lynne Sladky / AP

In the final days before the election, Spanish-language misinformation about Joe Biden's and running mate Kamala Harris' positions on abortion is specifically targeting religious Latinos on Facebook and its messaging service, WhatsApp.

Several of the memes about their positions on abortion that are circulating are false.

One meme includes a picture of a crying newborn next to photos of Biden and Harris with text in Spanish that translates: "These candidates support an abortion 5 minutes before birth and if it survives the abortion, they approve of killing the baby."

Since Sept. 29, that meme has spread across 87 posts in Facebook pages and public groups, garnering 5,900 interactions, or comments, reactions and shares, according to the Facebook-owned social media analysis tool CrowdTangle. That's even with a banner warning from Verificador, the fact-checking unit of the Peruvian newspaper La República, which Facebook has enlisted as a fact-checking partner, that it had found the content "misleading."

Higher stakes

While it's unclear who created the false meme that Biden and Harris support drastically late-term abortions, it isn't the first time disinformation tied to religious issues has been used to target Latino communities online, said Sam Woolley, the project director for propaganda research at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

"This is part of an ongoing campaign with far-right groups associated with the Catholic Church, focusing on pulling Latinx voters to the Republican side," Woolley said, adding that he saw similar misinformation in 2016 and 2018 likewise targeting religious Latino voters around abortion.

But this year, the stakes are even higher, with Latino voters for the first time representing the largest group of minority voters in the country — an estimated 13.3 percent of all eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center. Spanish-speaking populations are an especially important voter base in crucial swing states, like Texas, Florida and Arizona, where Latino communities are even larger than in the rest of the country. Democrats have expressed concerns through the campaign season that disinformation has been having a major impact on Latino voters, especially in states like Florida.

Jaime Longoria, an investigative researcher at First Draft, a nonprofit that provides research and training for journalists, said the focus on abortion misinformation in Spanish-speaking communities online has spread this year, in part thanks to the popularization of messaging platforms like WhatsApp among immigrant groups.

The posts target closed, private groups that often include family members and friends who have personal connections to others in the group. Posts or ideas that a family member might originally find on a Facebook page can easily be screenshot and reshared in a WhatsApp group filled with trusted family members and friends, he said.

"Misinformation really works when it's preying on your emotions, and it's even more effective when you have that dynamic between a family," said Longoria, who has been tracking the rise of disinformation that targets Latino communities online. "If you have someone in your family that is sharing information that they believe is true and that they believe is meant to help you, you're more inclined to believe it."

Rising disinformation

Disinformation about abortion targeting Latino communities online reached a high point this month in a town hall conversation when Biden said that, if he wins the election, he would "pass legislation" making Roe v. Wade the "law of the land."

Shortly afterward, religious Spanish-language blogs posted articles that were then shared to Facebook questioning Biden's devotion to his Roman Catholic faith and highlighting his words as a guarantee to enshrine a federal law making abortion broadly legal should he become president. The president can only sign legislation first passed by Congress, which would be sharply divided over any measure to codify Roe as federal law.

Two such posts viewed by NBC News received over 2,700 likes, shares and comments.

One post viewed on a conservative Latino Facebook page following Biden's town hall comments, which received nearly 800 shares, said in Spanish: "KILLING BABIES UNDER #JoeBiden would become CONSTITUTIONAL LAW OF EARTH #United States ... "

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The researchers found a surge of positive posts and memes in Spanish-speaking religious Facebook groups after President Donald Trump signed an executive order at the end of September that ensures that all babies born alive prematurely or after failed abortions will receive medical care, even though, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, late-term abortions are exceedingly rare.

"A lot of the misinformation being shared in Latinx religious communities are really partisan issues," Longoria said. "When misinformation is tied to religion, it's so powerful because the people who are spreading this stuff, especially when it's tied to clergy, have such a powerful connection to their followers."