When Rafael Olavarría was out of the U.S. for personal reasons recently, he found himself up early on a Friday doing something new in his job at the 2-year-old, Spanish-language fact-checking project Factchequeado.

For the first time, Olavarría was not only correcting a viral falsehood posted on X (formerly Twitter) that he had already corrected three weeks earlier, but also naming the members of Congress who were repeating the disinformation, along with their statements and time stamps. Among them was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

“One of our missions,” said the former Univisión and Telemundo journalist, “is to raise the political price of lying.” (Asked by Capital & Main about Cruz’s posting of disinformation, a spokesperson for his office refused to comment and instead took to X to attack the reporter as biased.)

The lie in question revolves around the claim that the U.S. was “secretly” flying 320,000 unauthorized immigrants into the country — an assertion that is untrue and a distorted description of “humanitarian parole,” a federal immigration program granting people from Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba permission to stay in the U.S. for up to two years. People participating in this program are vetted by the federal government and must pay for their transportation to the U.S. 

The landscape they describe is one filled with too much disinformation, and too few people trying to set the record straight.

All these issues were fact checked by multiple outlets including the Associated Press, and yet Sen. Cruz and other members of Congress kept repeating the falsehoods, Olavarría said. So goes a typical day for Olavarría and his colleagues at Factchequeado, one of only a handful of fact-checking projects in Spanish in the U.S. Fact checkers combatting disinformation in Spanish and experts on the subject spoke to Capital & Main about the problem of viral disinformation. The landscape they describe is one filled with too much disinformation, and too few people trying to set the record straight.

It’s “an unequal fight,” according to Carlos Chirinos, who oversees the 10-person team at El Detector, a fact-checking project at Univisión. Getting accurate information into the hands of the Spanish speakers among the 36.2 million eligible Latino voters in the U.S. will only become more important in the months leading to November’s presidential election, they say.

In addition to Olavarría’s project and El Detector, there is a team of fact checkers at the other large Spanish-language TV news network, Telemundo, and another project called Lead StoriesUSA Today also hired a Spanish-speaking fact checker earlier this year — joining the newsroom’s 11 fact checkers in English.  

Univisión launched El Detector in 2015, and its job has changed as disinformation in Spanish has changed, Chirinos said. In the last five years or so, content aimed at Latino communities in the U.S. has increasingly come from Spanish-speaking countries such as Venezuela, Colombia or Peru, he noted. “We try to do preemptive strikes,” he said. That involves spotting disinformation when it originates in other countries and preparing fact-checking materials for the U.S. audience.

Chirinos’ crew of 10 began an effort to multiply its fact-checking capabilities in late April by training Univisión reporters in cities with large Spanish-speaking populations such as Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago. The idea is for local reporters to spot viral disinformation in their areas, and broadcast their own fact-checking work.

One way Factchequeado disseminates its content is by creating partnerships, or “alianzas,” with media and community organizations. These partners then use text or multimedia content produced by Factchequeado that they deem relevant for their audiences. The partners also offer insight into the disinformation that is spreading in their areas at weekly virtual meetings. This collaboration often leads to more work for the Factchequeado fact checkers, who total three, including Olavarría.

“We don’t have enough staff to anticipate [viral disinformation] before it happens,” Carballo said. “We’re working reactively.”

Al Día, the Spanish-language version of the Dallas Morning News, is one of over 70 partners across the country. As one of a team of three at Al Día, Rafael Carballo faces the challenge of serving some 67,000-plus households speaking mostly Spanish in Dallas County. “We don’t have enough staff to anticipate [viral disinformation] before it happens,” Carballo said. “We’re working reactively,” said the editor. “Our hands are tied.”

The Dallas daily has used Factchequeado’s work to correct viral fake news about immigration and elections, Carballo said.

For disinformation to go viral, there needs to be a social media platform. Platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp amplify and spread disinformation through shares and algorithms that often prioritize controversial content. The small but growing number of people focusing on disinformation in Spanish in the U.S. is trying to work with these platforms to correct or even remove false content.

Factchequeado is “alerting the monitoring team” at Tik-Tok of such cases, Olavarría said. The platform doesn’t tell the project if it takes down videos due to its input, he added. But Olavarría said that a post in early March about a Venezuelan “influencer” falsely claiming the U.S. government was giving $5,000 to families for each child was swiftly removed by Tik-Tok.

When an AI-generated portrayal of Univisión reporter Jorge Ramos, supposedly promoting “free money from the government,” began circulating on Facebook and Instagram, the platforms also removed that content.

Similarly, Univisión’s El Detector has a relationship with Meta — owners of Facebook and WhatsApp, two of the most widely used platforms among Latinos. The tech giant has posted warnings of false content in Spanish and linked to El Detector’s posts about the subject, Chirinos said.

These fact-checking organizations are not alone in fighting Spanish disinformation. The National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) joined civil rights, anti-extremism and Latino organizations in launching a project to hold the social media platforms accountable in 2021. That initiative, called the Spanish Disinformation Coalition, emerged after Facebook failed to remove election disinformation and posts of militias inciting violence in Spanish, despite the company’s 2020 announcement that it would. 

Nonetheless, ongoing efforts to get social media platforms to respond more robustly and systematically to disinformation in Spanish have produced little result, said Daiquiri Ryan Mercado, strategic legal adviser and policy counsel at the National Hispanic Media Coalition. They have “very little business incentive” to do so, she said. This has led NHMC and other groups to look to government regulators for solutions. National Hispanic Media Coalition staff have met with officials from the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. 

Ongoing efforts to get social media platforms to respond more robustly and systematically to disinformation in Spanish have produced little result.

But there have been few tangible results on this front as well, Ryan Mercado said. “We’re at a point where we can agree we have a problem, which is progress compared to two years ago,” she said.

As if monitoring and responding to false information in Spanish online weren’t daunting enough, there’s also radio. A greater share of Hispanics listen to radio compared to the rest of the U.S. population, according to Nielsen. “It’s amazing we don’t spend more resources on combating disinformation in Spanish on radio,” said Gabriel R. Sánchez, political science professor at the University of New Mexico.

Sánchez wrote a paper on disinformation and misinformation in 2022. “The landscape hasn’t shifted that much,” he said. “We still see very little resources or infrastructure in any language other than English. Latinos are in harm’s way.” 

Sánchez worries about the possible impact of false information on Latino turnout come November. “With misinformation targeted at Latinos about election fraud, making it seem like a waste of time, people might think, ‘Why even vote?’” Sanchez said.

Meanwhile, Olavarría said he and others working on the issue “are doing everything possible … to be everywhere the Latino community is [and] whatever we can achieve is a victory.”

Copyright 2024 Capital & Main

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