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Will misinformation keep Latinos from voting in the midterms?

That depends in part on where they get their news. Here’s what my research found.

- September 29, 2022

How will Latinos vote — and how many actually will — in the rapidly approaching midterm elections? In tight races, their turnout could affect the results. The answers depend in part on where they get their news, research finds. But Latinos increasingly live in news deserts and are targeted with misinformation. My research found some news approaches that might fill the gaps.

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Latino media ecosystems and the rise of Latino-targeted misinformation

Latinos have historically been less politically engaged than either Whites or other minority groups, voting at comparatively lower rates.

Why? While the answer is complicated, one reason is that they don’t have credible information about the U.S. political process.

As ethnic newspapers shutter across the country, many Latinos whose first or primary language is Spanish live in news deserts as a result. Even when they can find Spanish-language news media, those outlets often devote less attention to domestic politics than do their English-language counterparts. As a result, Spanish-speaking Latinos may receive less news about U.S. politics than other groups.

During the 2020 election, Spanish-language WhatsApp groups and social media filled with false claims. The House’s Hispanic caucus has been pushing executives at YouTube and other social media outlets to crack down on the problem, but Spanish-language social media discussions about covid-19 and election integrity have continued to be infected with misinformation. Many platforms fail to moderate or flag false content in Spanish. Meanwhile, ethnic media outlets did not fully invest in fact-checking tools until months before the election, making it harder to counter false claims.

That matters. My research with political scientists Ethan Porter and Thomas Wood found that fact-checking is indeed an effective antidote to medical and political misinformation. As a follow-up to this study, in April and May of 2021, we collected data from an opt-in sample of 2,869 self-identified Latinos using the online survey vendors Lucid and CloudResearch. We randomly assigned participants to read three out of eight possible claims about politics and medicine, such as whether coronavirus vaccines modify DNA or whether antifa members were bused to D.C. for the Jan. 6 insurrection.

For each claim, participants were randomly assigned to see one of three pages: a page that instructed them to proceed to the next part of the study; a screen capture of misinformation; or a screen capture of misinformation followed by a fact-checking correction. We measured their beliefs for each of the three claims before and after they read the assigned pieces.

We found that those who read the misinformation alone were more likely to believe false claims — but that those who read the fact-check afterward reliably rejected those false claims. In fact, on average, people who read the fact-check after reading the misinformation actually reported more accurate beliefs than those in the control group who simply reported their beliefs after seeing a neutral instructions page.

In other words, our research finds that when Latinos read fact-checked pieces that corrected misinformation, they change what they believe. That was true for English and Spanish speakers, liberals and conservatives, and Latinos with different media diets. More fact-checking within Latino media ecosystems may be one way of improving the community’s knowledge.

Who’s getting vaccinated? The answer has changed since the first wave.

So, would better information improve voting?

Recent studies suggest that traditional Spanish-language media outlets may not be offering the kind of credible information that Latinos need. Those who consume Spanish-language media are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Latinos in our study — both those who generally followed ethnic media and those who followed English-language media — were swayed by misinformation, believing inaccurate claims about politics and medicine. But even if Latino-focused media offered high-quality fact-checks, Latinos might not read or absorb them.

To try to make sure that Latinos do see accurate information, several nonprofit media organizations — including El Timpano, Enlace Latino NC and Conecta Arizona — have launched to offer accurate information in accessible formats like WhatsApp, email and text messages. Consumers can communicate directly with these outlets, asking questions and getting answers from local journalists — thus enabling outlets to deliver information that the audience wants and needs. These operations are experimenting with other formats like podcasts, blogs and email newsletters, and are producing in-depth guides to everything from elections to immigration law.

This year, I partnered with these three outlets to examine how their work affects Latinos. We recruited 1,829 Spanish-dominant Instagram and Facebook users to take an online survey about current events. Of those who completed the baseline survey, 378 agreed to participate in a long-term news consumption study. Those who enrolled were randomly assigned to follow either a community-centered news outlet in their state (e.g., Enlace Latino NC if they resided in North Carolina) or traditional media outlets for two months. They agreed to take news quizzes every two weeks, knowing that they’d get $5 bonuses for enough correct answers.

After two months, we stopped the news quizzes — but got in touch with participants again several weeks later for a final survey. That way, we could see if they kept following the news on their own.

With the 2022 midterms ahead, expect another Latino misinformation crisis

Throughout the study, we found that people reading or listening to one of the community-centered news outlets were more likely to be knowledgeable about local events and politics than those assigned to follow more traditional news. Both groups were roughly as likely to know and understand national political events.

We also found that those following community-centered news were more likely to say they felt “qualified to participate in politics” than those who followed traditional news — and more likely to say they would vote during the midterms. However, we did not observe differences in media trust or political trust between those who consumed the community-centered outlet and those who did not.

For many, following the news became a habit that they kept up. Several weeks after the bonuses for consuming the news ended, most continued to follow whichever outlet they’d been assigned. Consumers of community-centered news did not revert to consuming traditional news. We also found that those who started by saying they preferred following news and those who said they generally followed entertainment all became more informed and engaged. These alternative outlets may be reaching people who are not paying attention to traditional news.

Of course, these findings are preliminary; we don’t yet know whether our respondents will actually go to the polls, as they said they might. But whatever the source, helping Latinos find high-quality news could help combat misinformation while bringing them further into the body politic.

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Yamil Ricardo Velez (@YamilRVelez) is an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University.