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Op-Ed: How conspiracy theories about COVID-19 prey on Latinos

A young girl watches her grandparent get vaccinated.
Monserat Ramos watches as one of her grandparents receives the COVID-19 vaccine at a South Los Angeles clinic on March 5.
(Los Angeles Times)

Last year, I was working on a coronavirus story for the PBS NewsHour when my father texted me a since-removed YouTube video titled, “How to wipe out the corona virus THT in 10 min.” A chiropractor with a graying beard named John Bergman — with more than half a million YouTube subscribers and an office in Huntington Beach — said that taking vitamin C and drinking hot water would kill the virus and that the pandemic media coverage was “designed to take away your rights.”

Since the pandemic began, Latinos like my dad, a Mexican immigrant, have been hit with a torrent of false claims about COVID-19 on social media, including that the pandemic is a hoax. When I called Papi to urge him to wear a mask, his mind was made up: He said I was brainwashed. He didn’t believe my mother, who is a doctor, about COVID risks, either. I was frightened for his safety and angry at the people preying on Latinos’ learned distrust of authorities.

Latinos, like other communities of color, have long been targets of inhumane medical policies and practices, such as the sterilization of a third of Puerto Rico’s women between the 1930s and 1970s and of thousands of California Latinos. Our hard-earned skepticism can be an asset, but in the pandemic, it has contributed to high infection and death rates in the Latino community.

Now, Latinos lag behind in vaccination rates, driven in part by Spanish-language disinformation deliberately targeting us on Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and more. The conspiracy forces that tried to depress Latino voter turnout with lies about the election now appear to be using internet platforms to tell Latinos the vaccine contains a microchip, alters DNA or causes stillbirths. The misinformation then spreads through word of mouth.

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María Teresa Kumar, the chief executive of Voto Latino, said vaccine disinformation is meant to further erode Latinos’ trust in institutions. “It’s the most morbid form of voter suppression,” she said. Even her Colombian American mother, who works in elder care, feared the vaccine because she heard it wasn’t safe for human use. Kumar had to point out to her that she made sure Kumar got every single vaccine when she was a little girl.

Kumar recently co-founded the Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab, which found that 51% of unvaccinated Latinos don’t plan to or are hesitant to get vaccinated. For Spanish-dominant speakers, it’s 67%. The lab aims to sway the one-quarter of respondents who are on the fence.

“Once somebody has consumed misinformation such that they’ve internalized it and formed an assessment, it’s extraordinarily difficult and resource-intensive to get them to change their mind,” said Angelo Carusone, chief executive of Media Matters and the lab’s co-founder.

Days after Papi texted me, my Mexican abuela, who lives in San Diego and speaks little English, sent me a WhatsApp message with a Spanish-language video claiming the virus was created by Big Pharma for profit. She was reluctant to be vaccinated because, she said, “they’re experimenting on us.”

But my aunt made her an appointment and persuaded her to get a shot, pointing out that doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers were vaccinated. My aunt, who runs a Mexican restaurant, says only two of her 40 employees took advantage of early vaccines for food industry workers. “They were like, ‘If you’re going to make me get it, I’ll quit,’” she said.

Another relative told me she won’t get the vaccine because she’s suspicious of accelerated clinical trials and doesn’t want to be a “guinea pig,” even though scientists did not cut any corners.

Last year, my Puerto Rican aunt emailed me and dozens of others urging us to watch a bogus conspiracy theory video, “Plandemic,” claiming that masks “activate” COVID-19 and that vaccines “kill millions.” YouTube and Facebook removed it but only after it was viewed at least 8 million times.

I wrote to my aunt, fact-checking the video and expressing my frustration with fraudsters preying on her worries. She thanked me and said, “I forgot to check who was creating this. My cousin sent it to me through Facebook.” She said she’s been wary of official information because the government had done a “poor job preventing and controlling the disease.”

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Systemic neglect, police brutality and violent immigration enforcement don’t exactly encourage Latinos’ trust. But there are ways for communities to fight back.

Social media campaigns like #VacunateYa are working to dispel myths with facts. #YaBastaFacebook is urging Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to “close the Spanish content moderation gap.” (One analysis after the 2020 election found that Facebook put warnings on half of false English-language posts but only on 10% of Spanish-language misinformation.)

PEN America has released English and Spanish guides for media literacy and how to talk to family and friends who share bad information. “You have to bring a level of empathy,” said Nora Benavidez, PEN America’s director of free expression.

We’re all vulnerable to being tricked. But it is particularly deadly when conspiracy theorists are targeting Latino essential workers who have sustained the American economy during the pandemic. We have to look out for one another — and use our familial connectedness and skepticism to fight those trying to use those strengths against us.

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Jean Guerrero is the author of “Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir” and “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda.” She is a contributing writer to Opinion.


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