From left to right: Cameron Hickey, Program Director, Algorithmic Transparency at National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC); Jacquelyn Mason, Senior Investigative Researcher at First Draft; Jacobo Licona, Disinformation Research Lead at Equis Labs

Now more than ever, our society is centered around the internet. Social media corporations have been growing more and more powerful each day and have been recognized as a significant contributor as the hub of communication and political activity. 

While we have become attached to our cell phones consuming tweets, news, ads and information from a myriad of online platforms there is much to gain for those whose aim it is   to manipulate the public – masking Ads to appear to be news content, and producing content that makes it hard to note the differences. 

Social Media is a key contributor to the dissemination of misinformation politically. Once an idea is spread and shared enough times, it becomes difficult to successfully counter a false narrative.

With so many online platforms, it is challenging for people to discern what is legitimate information from misinformation.  These issues were recently discussed during an Ethnic Media Services telebriefing.   

A Flood of Online Misinformation 

In the last five years, there has been a major increase in online content designed to mislead or misinform users politically, most notably during the run-up to the 2016 election. 

As the presidential election once again draws near, Tuesday, November 3, it’s important to recognize the many ways misinformation can be spread online. 

“Viral misinformation is contagious, and it is dangerous just like an actual virus.  This content spreads because people are sharing it with each other.  And it creates significant problems that put our health and well-being at risk as well as the future of our democracy.”  says Cameron Hickey, Program Director at the Algorithmic Transparency at the National Conference on Citizenship.  “We’re talking about content that uses fear and manipulation. Content that tries to make you feel scared angry or self-righteous to get you to change your behavior.” she said.

President Trump’s Use of Misinformation via Twitter

We have seen this practice directly from the White House.  Unlike any other US President, and with technology at all of our fingertips ready to receive information, President Trump has sidestepped his own communications department and obsessively tweeted.  He’s lashed out at his detractors and communicated his disdain directly to the public. Trump has also coined the term “fake news,” to attack mainstream media.

Trump supporters have come to expect the President’s use of twitter and have trusted his posts.  

“Anything that employs hate outright or dog whistles, the kinds of terms or themes that divide based on identity are rooted in a kind of misinformation and breed and perpetuate other kinds of problematic content,” said Hickey. “Risky content might have underlying misinformation embedded in it in some way or another.”   

The public has been plowed with content during this pandemic and the internet has been full of “pseudoscience” with claims of cures and propaganda masked as news that has gone so far as to call COVID-19 a “hoax.”  “Pseudoscience has been floating around especially during the pandemic,” said Hickey, “but it has existed for a long time, climate change denial is a perfect example of this.”  

Jacquelyn Mason, Senior Investigative Researcher at First Draft is concerned about the unethical use of photo shopping. Referencing a photo of Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee Kamala Harris, she pointed to a collage of images of all the black men that Harris imprisoned past their release date. That image went viral, even though the picture wasn’t real.  The photograph was photo shopped.  “This is a clear disinformation tactic,” said Mason. 

The “gray areas” are especially problematic. In the gray areas there can be the spread unintentionally of misinformation, rumors, junk news and conspiracy theories that won’t get flagged as “inappropriate” content. Among the most recent conspiracy theories online has been QAnon.  The public is challenged to identify online misinformation online with can include: 

Fear and manipulation:  content that tries to make you feel scared or angry or self-righteous in order to change your behavior. 

Conspiracy theories: theories that reference the “deep state” or so-called “boogeymen” such as Bill Gates or George Soros. 

Missing Context: information that leaves out a key piece of the context to distort people’s understanding.

Pseudoscience:  such as bogus cures for the Coronavirus or theories arguing that masks do “more harm than good” which have been disproven by science. 

Hate and dog whistles: divisive language or images designed to elicit a feeling but not to clarify an issue. 

Faulty Logic: logical fallacies and false equivalencies.

Old: content that is outdated and no longer relevant to the current topic.

Misinformation Disseminated to the Latino Community 

“There are diverse cultural nuances and demographics within the Latino community and other communities of color.” said Jacobo Licona, Disinformation Research Lead at Equis Labs.  The Latino community can be targeted geographically and generationally, which creates opportunities for false information.  “There are data and robust information voids in Latinx news, especially in Spanish language, that are exploited and easily filled by false or deceptive narratives from bad actors,” Licona said. “Many false narratives are co-opted and rapidly amplified in Spanish, which often goes largely unchecked on social media.”  Then that same information is shared through private platforms (ie: WhatsApp) that makes it hard to monitor, Licona described. 

“We often see that Spanish language voters tend to follow political news less closely. So, they’re more susceptible to these kinds of tactics. There are also false narratives that are co-opted  rapidly and amplified in Spanish, which often goes largely unchecked on social media.” 

There are Spanish language publications and news outlets that may not adhere to the same journalistic guidelines practiced by English language media. 

The lines between news content, advertisement and “infotainment” may be blurred.  This “blurring” can now be found throughout the internet in both languages.  During this election season, we see photos of “Latinos for Trump” throughout online postings.  This fervor may be fueled by propaganda online about the threat of socialism.  “We continue to see some bad actors spreading the idea that socialism is coming to America and they tailor them to their audiences by targeting people who come from Cuba and Venezuela,” Licona said.  “This type of speech has been amplified by far-right accounts and the use of pro-Trump, Latinx influencers connecting Biden with socialism and Castro’s Cuba or Maduro’s Venezuela.”  These messages have played on the  fears of immigrants who may have left dictatorial regimes and by Latino veterans who have fought overseas. 

Additional fear-based messages fill the internet with predictions about “an impending civil war,” referring to Republicans as “Nazi’s” and Democrats as “communists” or “socialists.” 

“It’s all misleading,” said Hickey of ideological hyperbole.  “My concern about this is that there is no reason to believe at the moment that there will be such [civil war] violence.  All the conversation is problematic because it amplifies the potential risk for violence.” 

“These messages are being deployed constantly,” said Hickey.  “We are no longer having conversations about the issues or about the politicians running for office but exaggerating narrow bands of their perspective and amplifying them in ways that distort reality.”