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With the 2022 midterms ahead, expect another Latino misinformation crisis

Our research identified which Latino voters are especially susceptible.

- February 24, 2022

Before the 2020 U.S. election, the Latino community was inundated with misinformation and conspiracy theories on political and health issues — including inaccurate claims that coronavirus vaccines don’t work, Democrats were illegally harvesting ballots, a Biden administration would put the United States under the control of “Jews and Blacks,” that Joe Biden was a socialist and not a “real Catholic.” According to Maria Teresa Kumar, the founder of Voto Latino, these claims were “rampant and consequential” in the 2020 election. Much of this misinformation spread uncontested or was even outright weaponized by those opposed to Joe Biden.

The 2022 elections may be no different. The left-leaning advocacy group Avaaz reports that more than 70 percent of Spanish-language political misinformation has stayed online, compared with 29 percent of English-language misinformation. Many observers are warning that the midterm elections could involve another big wave of Spanish-language misinformation. As one Democratic strategist told NBC News: “We clearly see that the music is being turned up. It’s not going away.”

When does this misinformation matter? Our research finds that where Latinos get their information plays a large role in whether they believe conspiracy theories. Perhaps not surprisingly, supporters of former president Donald Trump are especially willing to believe.

How we did our research

In a forthcoming research paper, we examine the factors associated with belief in conspiracy theories in the Latino community. We partnered with the Center for Mexican American and Latino/a Studies and Univision News on a national survey of Latino registered voters, fielded from Sept. 17-24, 2020, with an oversample of Latinos in Texas. The survey was administered in English or Spanish. Here we examine the Texas sample of 401 respondents in depth.

We asked whether respondents believed certain misinformation claims. The first question asked whether Joe Biden would be under the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement and antifa if he won. (While Biden sought support from those sympathetic to the BLM movement, he did not court support from antifa, the radical anti-fascist group, nor was he controlled by these groups.) The second asked whether a “deep state” was out to sabotage Donald Trump. The third asked whether the coronavirus that causes covid-19 was intentionally released by powerful people.

Our Texas Latino respondents’ belief in all three unfounded conspiracy theories was alarmingly high: 41 percent of respondents agreed it was definitely or probably true that Joe Biden was under the influence of Black Lives Matter and antifa; 35 percent believed the deep state was out to ruin the Trump presidency; and 39 percent believed that powerful people intentionally spread the coronavirus.

Why so many Latinos voted for Trump

Who believed these conspiracy theories?

In general, Republicans were no more likely to believe conspiracy theories than Democrats — with one exception: Trump supporters. This is not surprising, since the former president was a significant spreader of misinformation. Many Trump supporters relied on the president for information, including medical advice, often remaining within a media ecosystem that was an echo chamber of false statements.

Many Latinos who keep in touch with relatives throughout Latin America and the United States do so using platforms like WhatsApp. However, those apps can present unwitting opportunities for spreading misinformation. Our analysis found that more social media use was associated with a greater likelihood of belief in conspiracy theories, increasing especially among older respondents — who used social media less frequently but were more susceptible to inaccurate claims.

Our findings suggest that Latinos are affected by a different misinformation environment than reaches the U.S. population at large, and are often targeted in ways specific to their national backgrounds. For instance, many of their sources played up worries about socialism (often using the term “government handouts”), encouraged racial resentment pitting African Americans against Latinos, or preyed on distrust of authority in the Latino community.

Spanish-language media also helped spread misinformation. Respondents who got their political information on Spanish-language outlets were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, with that likelihood increasing almost two-thirds of a point on our seven-point “conspiracy belief” scale as the respondent went from, for example, consuming Spanish-language media “not that often” to “somewhat often.”

The multitude of these stations and their relatively low profile often allows misinformation to spread. One local station’s host claimed a BLM co-founder practiced brujería, or witchcraft. Another claimed a brooch that Lady Gaga wore at Biden’s inauguration signaled that Biden was working with leftist figures abroad.

To learn about the Democratic party’s future, look what Latino organizers did in Arizona

Addressing misinformation in the Latino community

Political knowledge is the cornerstone of a functional representative democracy, according to Founding Father James Madison, who wrote to William T. Barry in 1882 that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Misinformation and belief in conspiracy theories can disrupt that, with potentially dangerous consequences for democracy.

That includes among the U.S. Latino community. Across the country, Latinos account for more than half of the population growth from 2010 to 2020.

According to the U.S. census, in the November 2020 election Latinos made up 44 percent of the total voting-age population registered to vote and over 60 percent of the citizen voting-age population nationwide. In 28 states, from Minnesota to Texas, more than half the citizens of voting age are Latinos. That’s a highly diverse population, made up of many different generations, national and socioeconomic backgrounds, levels of assimilation, and political outlooks.

This makes combating misinformation in the Latino community important for American democracy. Social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter report that they are hiring more people to review Spanish-language content and to fact-check claims.

A 2020 Nieman Lab report suggested that Spanish-language media outlets offered little to no response to misinformation, allowing conspiracy theories to flourish. Last month, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus asked for meetings with leaders of Meta, TikTok, YouTube and Twitter to discuss the issue. This month, both national Spanish-language networks announced that they are expanding their moderation capacity to address misinformation’s spread.

If policymakers and political figures want an informed Latino electorate, they may wish to support these efforts and understand the medium and targets of misinformation.

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Jeronimo Cortina (@jcortina) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston and associate director of the Center for Mexican American and Latino/a Studies.

Brandon Rottinghaus (@bjrottinghaus) is a professor of political science at the University of Houston specializing in the executive and Texas politics. Most recently he is author of Inside Texas Politics: Power, Policy, and Personality of the Lone Star State (Oxford University Press, 2020).