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For Latinos, combating disinformation about the election often starts at home

Maria Lourdes Naranjo waves an American flag Oct. 18 in Miami, as she and other Trump fans shout at Biden supporters driving by. Disinformation has flooded South Florida in English and Spanish, fracturing families and communities.
(Brittny Mejia / Los Angeles Times)
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The falsehoods are flying hard and fast in Spanish and English, each more specious than the last, all designed to sway Latino voters nationwide during this contentious election season.

Joe Biden is no better than a Latin American dictator. (That’s one the Democrat flings back at President Trump.) Black Lives Matter protests are all violent. (They’ve been largely peaceful.) Mail-in voting is riddled with fraud. (It isn’t.) The pandemic is a hoax. (More than 225,000 people have died in the U.S.)

Disinformation is flooding television, radio and social media. It has permeated Latino communities, set family members against each other, caused young Latinos to unfriend their parents on Facebook and pushed fed-up voters out of WhatsApp group chats.

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In this acrimonious political season, when insults are being hurled left and right, much of the disinformation focused at Latino voters and aimed at subverting the presidential election has been targeted at Biden and broadcast by the Trump campaign and the president’s supporters, said Eduardo Gamarra, a politics professor at Florida International University who has tracked disinformation in South Florida.

“The Republicans have essentially mainstreamed conspiracy theories,” he said.

Some organizers fear the disinformation will only ramp up the closer it gets to election day, particularly in Florida, a must-win state for Trump’s reelection efforts, with an important core of Latino voters.

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Gabriella Crespo, whose parents live in St. Petersburg, watched as her Cuban American father increasingly bought into far-right conspiracy theories, such as Democrats trafficking children through an underground network. Crespo described him as being on the “outer scopes of QAnon.” She described her father as calling Black Lives Matter protesters “rioters” who were “violent and racist toward white people” and said he got into arguments with her friends on Facebook. Crespo tried sharing facts with him privately, and he wouldn’t respond.

In June, Crespo unfriended him, and they spent most of the summer not speaking. He is currently on his second ban from Facebook over sharing misinformation, she said.

“It’s hard to tell someone, ‘Listen, all the places you get your news are wrong,’” Crespo said.

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Two members of Congress last month wrote to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, asking him to investigate the origins of the disinformation flooding South Florida and to consider efforts by foreign actors attempting to sow distrust in the electoral process among Latinos. Disinformation campaigns have also targeted Black voters, particularly in 2016, in an attempt to suppress their votes.

“These posts are often politically charged and contain far-right conspiracy theories relating to ‘QAnon’ or other fringe ideologies designed to manipulate Latino voters,” Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.) and Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) wrote, noting that the ideas have surfaced in traditional media.

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To combat the flood of falsehoods, grass-roots Latino affinity groups that support the Democratic ticket have become surrogates for the Biden campaign on radio talk shows to correct the record. Some activists counteract the disinformation online; other advocacy groups have launched programs and group chats and offered guides on “how to talk to your family about disinformation.”

When protests broke out across the country after the police killing of George Floyd, Adrian Reyna’s mother, who lives in Texas, texted him and asked if he was out “looting.” Reyna, a resident of Seattle, pointed out that the photos she shared were not taken in the city.

“You’re a victim to all this socialism. ... You’re corrupted,” his mother responded.

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When Reyna does speak to his mom, it’s to send fact-checked information.

“It’s pretty sad to see how much I have lost my family to much of this disinformation online, to the point where my own parents are appalled by me,” said Reyna, director of strategy for United We Dream Action. “My relationship with my parents is not the same anymore, and I attribute it 100% to the fact that they have become so bombarded on social media.”

United We Dream Action, an immigrant rights group, launched “Reclaim the Web,” a bilingual program through WhatsApp in which organizers share memes and TikTok videos. Some of the content explains that early voting is a safe method to cast a ballot and cites a study showing that protests over racial injustice have been largely peaceful.

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“There have been many attempts to link the Black Lives Matter movement to violence,” one message reads. “Protests are a real path to societal change.”

There are “bad actors” running far-right Latino Facebook pages and Instagram accounts that coordinate and amplify disinformation, said Jacobo Licona, disinformation lead researcher at Equis Research, a progressive Latino polling firm. Often, Spanish-language content outlives its English counterpart, allowing the spread of falsehoods to continue unhindered.

“It’s happening everywhere,” Licona said. In Arizona, Colorado and Texas, conservative Latino influencers have promoted disinformation about voting by mail, he said, and nonpartisan accounts have pushed anti-Black narratives during the Black Lives Matter protests, tying the racial justice movement to violence from the left.

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“Their intention, and that’s the fear for many, is that these narratives will create fear and distrust, especially around voting,” Licona said.

An ad from the Trump campaign that aired in Spanish on Miami-area radio station Mix 98.3 FM painted Democrats as “puppets of the radical left, a gang that prefers anarchy and chaos.”

“You came to this country to live a calm and safe life, a prosperous life,” the speaker said. “Joe Biden is kneeling in front of the violence and putting the future of you and your family in danger.”

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Members of the Facebook group Cubanos con Biden, which has more than 13,000 members, created a slideshow fact-checking claims. “How to talk to your Cuban family about the election,” one slide reads. “Yes, it can be done.”

Another slide labels the assertion that Biden is a socialist or communist as a “mentira Trumpista” (Trump’s lie).

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No, the slideshow said, Biden — a longtime centrist — is not beholden to democratic socialists Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Experts have pointed out that likening democratic socialists in the U.S. to totalitarians in Latin America is a false equivalency and meant to stir fear among people who fled authoritarian regimes such as those in Cuba or Venezuela.

Samantha Zager, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, called Biden’s attempt to distance himself from the platforms of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez “the real disinformation campaign.”

Experts say the impact of disinformation on voters is hard to measure, but signs of its reach are most visible in South Florida, where claims that Biden is a socialista are ubiquitous.

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At Centro Comercial Managua in Sweetwater, a Nicaraguan American who declined to give his name said he believes Biden is “extremely to the left.”

“Neither one represents me,” the 73-year-old said about the candidates. “So I’m going to exercise my right not to vote.”

Some Floridian Latinos have bought into the false claims that Biden will take people’s guns and disband the police — falsehoods amplified by the Trump campaign. And in WhatsApp group chats, videos are circulating that feature armed right-wing groups, with a Spanish-speaking narrator saying they are protecting the country from communists. (Right-wing extremists have been arrested in plots to kidnap and kill elected officials and to stir up civil unrest.)

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“People start repeating back to you known disinformation messages as if it were the gospel truth,” said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster in Miami.

On a recent Sunday, a stretch of cars in a Democratic caravan were decorated with Biden-Harris signs and others that declared: “100% anti-comunista. 100% anti-racista. 100% anti-fascista. 100% con Biden.”

On a recent Sunday, a line of drivers caravan for Joe Biden in Miami. Some were decorated with signs that said: “100% anti-comunista. 100% anti-racista. 100% anti-fascista. 100% con Biden.” Biden supporters say they are combating the false claim that the former vice president is a socialist.
(Brittny Mejia / Los Angeles Times)
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“You support socialism,” a pro-Trump supporter screamed from the sidewalk at the cars. Another used a microphone to shout, “Comunistas sin vergüenza” (communists with no shame). They told fellow Latinos to go back to their country. Among themselves, they remarked that cars were likely going in circles to give the appearance of a larger caravan. (That wasn’t the case.)

Maria Lourdes Naranjo nearly screamed herself hoarse with her cries of “USA.” The 58-year-old, who arrived from Cuba 35 years ago, said she believes Democrats are going too far to the left.

“I can’t vote for a man who is saying he wants to make everything free like they did in my country,” she said, as she waved a giant American flag. “I’m not a communist.”

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Biden, whose policies do not aim to make everything free, has scoffed at the Trump campaign’s portrayal of him as an extremist.

“Do I look like a radical socialist?” he asked in August in Pittsburgh.

When asked recently on CBS’ “60 Minutes” if she would push a “progressive or socialist” perspective on Biden, running mate Sen. Kamala Harris laughed. “No, it is the perspective of a woman who grew up a Black child in America, who also was a prosecutor,” she said, adding that she supports Biden’s more moderate policies. Biden has pointed out that he “beat the socialist” — Sanders — during the primary contests, and his campaign has aired ads painting Trump as an authoritarian leader.

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Frances Colón, state director for the Latino vote at Florida for All, said the coalition works with other affinity groups to tailor fact-checked content for Latinos from different backgrounds and religions.

“More of this false, crazy content is coming from here to election day,” Colón said, “and the more we can be proactive, the more we prepare ourselves for the onslaught.”

Some Latinos have found success in talking to their friends and family. Raymond E. Adderly III, a volunteer with Cubanos con Biden, said his neighbor, an 80-year-old Cuban American, once asked him if Biden was a socialist who wanted to defund the police.

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A group of supporters of President Trump gathered Oct. 18 outside a famous Cuban restaurant in Miami to counter a car caravan in support of Joe Biden.
(Brittny Mejia / Los Angeles Times)

No, he told her, Trump’s cuts actually have reduced police department budgets, and Biden is not a socialist. She listened, he said.

J. Walter Tejada of Virginia said his mother came to him after watching a video that downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic, questioning the coronavirus’ origins and claiming that the president was faultless in his response to it. So Tejada, a former chair of the Arlington County Board and founder of the Virginia Latino Leaders Council, watched the video.

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“Everything they were saying was utterly false,” Tejada said. His mother is primarily Spanish-speaking and doesn’t check most of what she sees online, he said. Now, when she has questions, she asks him. He said his mom consulted him before casting her ballot during early voting in Virginia.

Thursday, as part of a national disinformation awareness week, United We Dream will provide a healing space to share stories of the fractures the electoral falsehoods have caused within families and ways to cope.

“What you see is a lot of people losing their family and friends to conspiracy theories,” said Meghna Mahadevan, chief disinformation defense strategist for the organization. “It’s really painful to feel that extreme dissonance of values with your loved ones.”

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