Donald Trump at a ‘Latinos for Trump’ event at Trump National Doral Miami resort in late September. The Trump campaign had sought to woo Latino voters with a strong voter registration effort and rallies at a time when the Biden team was avoiding in-person campaigning because of the Covid-19 pandemic, analysts said © Evan Vucci/AP

Social media companies are battling a wave of Spanish-language misinformation related to the US presidential election, as groups aimed to sow division and stoke fears of Democratic subterfuge among pivotal Hispanic populations in battleground states.

An analysis of CrowdTangle, the content tracking tool, by US-based non-profit activism group Avaaz found that Spanish-language posts on Facebook promoting electoral misinformation had received more than 1.4m interactions by 12:30pm EST on November 5.

Though mainly pro-Republican, the messaging appeared to target both sides of the political spectrum, and included unsubstantiated rumours of voter fraud in swing states, fear-mongering about post-election “coups” and allegations that both president Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden are trying to cheat the system to win. 

The deluge, which has been growing in recent weeks, peaked as Latino voters turned out in unexpectedly low numbers for Mr Biden, especially in parts of Florida. It also raises questions about the preparedness of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to moderate content in languages other than English.

Spanish-language misinformation was used in the 2016 US presidential election, said Jacobo Licona, disinformation research lead at Equis Labs.

However, according to Edie Miller, deputy editor of misinformation tracking group Logically, this week’s wave represents the “significant spread” of deliberate efforts to target Spanish speakers throughout this presidential race.

“These misinformation narratives are helping plunge the country further into chaos and confusion, and often the most vulnerable communities in the country are paying the highest price,” warned Fadi Quran, campaign director of Avaaz. 

The latest disinformation campaigns come during an election in which key battleground states such as Florida are home to significant Hispanic populations. Mr Licona said the Cuban and Venezuelan populations there were targeted by conservatives in particular because narratives that Democrats could import socialism were likely to resonate with the communities’ political memories.

Political analysts said the Trump campaign had made a concerted effort to woo Latino voters with a strong voter registration push and multiple rallies at a time when the Biden team was avoiding in-person campaigning because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Biden’s electoral performance in Florida was notably poorer than that of Hillary Clinton four years ago, particularly among the Latino communities that had shown significant support for the former first lady.

While it is difficult to assess the precise impact of disinformation on voters, Mr Licona said “it could be part of the reason why [Mr Biden] did worse in Florida, especially South Florida”.

The trend was also noticeable on other platforms such as Twitter, according to cross-platform research from media intelligence company Zignal. Overall, social media mentions of Mr Biden and “fraude electoral” in Spanish-language contexts spiked on November 3, at more than 12,500 mentions, more than half the number of mentions the keywords received in total over the previous month. 

The new data raises questions about the willingness — and capabilities — of the social media platforms to tackle rule-breaching content in languages other than English. Facebook, for example, has come under fire from the UN for allegedly playing “a determining role” in stirring up hatred against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in 2017, in part because it did not have adequate numbers of Burmese-speaking content moderators to root out hateful content.

Jessica González, co-chief executive of advocacy group Free Press, said she highlighted some Spanish-language content that was inciting violence to Facebook on Friday, raising concerns about the issue.

She said Facebook had taken action on some of the content she flagged but had “acknowledged” that there were some gaps in their Spanish-language enforcement. “There’s just no reason, there’s no excuse,” Ms González said.

Facebook said the company had taken steps including building a Spanish-language Voter Information Center to provide accurate information about the election and had added two new fact-checking partners who can review Spanish content.

“We have a significant number of Spanish-language moderators in our global network, along with advanced automation in Spanish that can proactively detect a wide variety of content violations,” it added.

Twitter said the platform has dedicated teams of specialists providing global content moderation in languages including Spanish. “We have and will continue to enforce our rules impartially to protect the integrity of the conversation around this election.”

Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor

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