I Saw it in Spanish on Facebook

I listened as my parents’ friends—a group of Latinx individuals ranging between the ages of fifty to eighty—spoke about different subjects. I sensed a paranoid looming over each conversation—one of being fed incorrect information, of being indoctrinated by the most powerful or loudest group. When I interjected to ask about a ludicrous assertion, the answer I got was “I saw it on Facebook.” Predictably, this individual had no further information or source; he simply made a dangerous conclusory statement with no additional support or memorable trace. Ironic for all the paranoia.

News Source: Social Media

The rise of social media and the apparently free news has changed the way people digest information—once information which was passed informally via word of mouth is now accessible to masses of individuals through different outlets that may track, buy, and sell one’s information. To individuals who rely on social media for news, however, a looming paranoia seems warranted. Unsurprisingly, in a study assessing the spread of “factually dubious news dissemin[ation,],” research found the obvious—"[H]eavy Facebook users were differentially likely to consume information from these [untrustworthy] websites, which was often immediately preceded by a visit to Facebook. Moreover… fact-checking websites failed to effectively reach visitors to untrustworthy websites” (Guess et. al., 277). As imagined, groups specifically target more vulnerable populations, since their access to information is limited usually by a disconnect in usage capabilities or accessibility. Also, often in these places, since “it is generally thought to be primarily a political issue who controls the television stations,” and today, with censorship of other social networks and oftentimes purposeful dissemination of misinformation for the advantage of those in power, misinformation is often overseen, ignored, and uncorrected (Moglen). This, along with the fact that these groups are also more likely to unintentionally give away personal information by liking or commenting on posts and generally engaging directly on these platforms, creates an information web based on truthful personal information linked to incorrect beliefs. With approximately 72% of American-Hispanic individuals use Facebook, 52% use Instagram, and 46% use WhatsApp—all platforms owned by Facebook, or Meta—social media has exacerbated misinformation dissemination for this growing influential population.

Disproportionality: Misinformation in Spanish

It is anticipated that by 2050, one in three people in the United States will speak Spanish, including bilingual (English-Spanish) individuals (Thompson). Understandably so, it is imperative, at its earlier stages, to implement mechanisms to combat Spanish-language misinformation for such an already prominent language. Yet, a leaked Facebook product risk assessment document to the Securities and Exchange Commission had comments written on it such as, “We’re not good at detecting misinfo in Spanish or lots of other media types” and “We still have gaps in detection & enforcement, esp. for Spanish” (Contreras). This is, however, an alarming cross-continental issue affecting avid users who primarily engage in Spanish. The idea is not to get ahead of the misinformation problem in one language versus another but instead to make sure that misinformation is uniformly addressed in every language. The disproportionality in fact-checking in languages other than English, and English itself, is astounding. Given all the advanced technology available, information already censored in a language should be easily censored in another language. Given it is estimated that over half of Latin America’s population uses Facebook, and it is projected that by 2024, around 55.2% of its population will access their Facebook accounts at least once a month, a social network that quickly disseminates misinformation to masses(Carnahan). While social media usage goes up, so does unchallenged misinformation.

Given many people use social media instead of more reputable news sources, the “informational superhighway” succeeded in rapidly exchanging information without interest in truthfulness (Moglen). Since the United States does not have laws against false information due to First Amendment protections, aside from criminal violations, companies such as Facebook have decided to take some action against misinformation, such as fact-checking and labeling misinformation on ads; however, the likely positive effects of these measures are doubtful. Instead of creating a “Universal Education System,” which has been achieved by few, such as Wikipedia, the Internet’s broadcaster model "favored by those whose economic interests it favors in turn” instead of allowing scholarship to “transcend such self-serving limitations of discussion” (Moglen). And while fear-mongering and false information run rampant all-over social media, observation has shown that often with political information, “the same sort of themes that were showing up in English were also showing up in Spanish…. But in English, they were either getting flagged or taken down altogether, and in Spanish, they were being left up; or if they were getting taken down, it was taking days… to take them down” (Contreras). Another study also found that warning labels for Covid-19 misinformation were missing from 70% of Spanish-language content versus 29% of English-language (Avaaz). Clearly these measures have not been uniform, and the incorrect has not been corrected. In countries still struggling due to failed interventionism, the effects of past dictatorships, and some beliefs tied to homeopathic and religious traditions, widespread misinformation often does not seem farfetched and creates an even more vulnerable population. Moreover, in places where political censorship and more uneven access to software exists, Internet access is heavily associated with freedom, but clearly with an unknown costs and effects. So, what is being done?

What Now?

In Brazil, the Internet Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency Bill—to combat false information dissemination with an “internet transparency council,” including government and civil members—was approved in the Senate in 2020 and is currently in their lower chamber. Argentina also recently launched the Observatory of Disinformation and Symbolic Violence on Digital Media and Platforms (NODIO) act to “detect, verify, identify and disarticulate malicious news” (Rauls). However, these “solutions” come with censorship issues, political implications, and the possible abuse of what is actually misinformation. Thus, if the responsibility falls on companies, we are back to a system where certain populations possibly receive warnings to easily accessible information and where misinformation spreads. As Federico Fellini one said, “A different language is a different vision of life,” quite literally.