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Latinx Files: Facebook’s Latinx disinformation problem

An illustration with images of Mark Zuckerberg,  Frances Haugen, the Facebook logo and the U.S. Capitol.
Mark Zuckerberg and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen.
(Photo illustration by Martina Ibáñez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times; Matt McClain / Pool-Getty Images; Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images; Sean Gallup / Getty Images; Stefan Zaklin / Getty Images)

It’s no secret that Facebook has a misinformation problem in Spanish and English, but just how much did the company know about how that disinformation was spreading in Latinx communities? According to a troubling new report from my colleagues Brian Contreras and Maloy Moore, it turns out Facebook knew a lot more than it let on.

“Facebook has not been transparent at all,” Jacobo Licona, a disinformation researcher at Equis Labs, told The Times. Also, he said, the company “has not been cooperative with lawmakers or Latinx-serving organizations” working to combat its spread.

The article highlights how the company, which also owns social platforms Instagram and WhatsApp, repeatedly stonewalled Latino-centric advocacy groups, even after Facebook’s own employees were ringing the alarm internally, according to documents made public by whistleblower Frances Haugen. Among the issues employees flagged were possible voting suppression and the discouraging of Latinxs from filling out the census form.

What’s troubling is the company hasn’t really said how it plans to fix the spread of viral misinformation in the Latinx community. In June, a group of senators and representatives wrote a letter expressing “concerns regarding the increasing rate of Spanish and other non-English language disinformation.”

“We received a response from Facebook, and it was really more of the same — no concrete, direct answers to any of our questions,” said a spokesperson for Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Pacoima), one of the signatories.

Even worse is the fact that Facebook, which has now rebranded to Meta, has pivoted to a more defensive approach when in comes to addressing controversies.

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Back in September, I made a snide comment about how you should be concerned that Mark Zuckerberg was going to be a key player in building out the metaverse, the virtual reality version of the internet that looks to be our future. But I also meant it. Facebook has already staked a claim. That should be concerning to you.

After all, what makes you think this company will be adept at dealing with all the problems that will surely arise with the advent of this new technology? What indication have you gotten from Facebook that it would even care?

Today’s episode of The Times podcast, hosted by Gustavo Arellano, focuses on disinformation on social media and how it affects Latinxs. You can listen to it here.

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Meet our Latinx staff: Brian Contreras

The Los Angeles Times employs more than 60 Latinx journalists. One of the goals of this newsletter is for you to meet them all. This week, we highlight technology reporter Brian Contreras. Here’s what Brian has to say, beginning with an incident from a few years back:

My cousins and I are sitting in a bedroom in the Miami suburbs, and they’re speaking Spanglish, and I’m not — because I speak English, but I don’t speak Spanish, and Spanish is … well, it’s half of Spanglish.

And for whatever reason, they’re all taking turns complimenting themselves — saying “I’m so guapo” or whatever, that sort of thing, which sounds fake until you remember that we’re all, like, 13, and 13-year-old boys will say stuff like “I’m so guapo” without a hint of irony — and I’m feeling left out.

So I decide to wing it, which means whipping out that classic non-Spanish-speaker trick of taking an English word, adding an ‘o’ to the end and praying that the meaning carries over. Except the adjective I go with is ‘cool,’ which in my very loose attempt at a translation becomes “cool-o.”

Which, as my cousins explain to me once they’ve finally stopped laughing, is not how you say that you’re cool in Spanish. It actually means something very different.

Look — I won’t pretend that my personal embarrassment is the worst thing a language gap has ever led to (an argument could be made for top 10). But speaking Spanish is obviously a big part of many Latinos’ identities, and I’ve always felt a little weird that it’s not part of mine. Even when I took Spanish classes in high school as some sort of half-hearted attempt to “get in touch with my heritage,” I just wound up sitting in the back row with the Anglo kids, desperately trying to remember the difference between a preterite and an imperfect conjugation.

Hell, I can’t even roll my r’s! When I try to do the Cardi B “okurrr” thing, it sounds like I’m choking on wet bread.

That’s why I found it a little reassuring to discover, while working on my new story about Facebook struggling to handle misinformation targeted at Latino users, that that misinformation spreads in both Spanish and English.

I mean, sure, yes — there’s a widespread and ongoing crisis of lies and conspiracy theories being pumped into Latino communities over social media. It’s not ideal. But on the plus side? The people spreading that misinformation are doing some of it in English! Latinos who don’t speak Spanish can still get targeted with Latino-focused misinformation!

In some roundabout way, it’s a rebuke of my insecurities about not being “Latino enough.” And I think that’s pretty culo.

Things we dug this week that we think you would dig.

— We’re in the midst of World Cup qualifying season, which means there’s been a lot of wonderful stories written about the beautiful game. The latest example is this piece written by Nelson Rauda for El Faro on the Salvadoran national soccer team and the fact that many of La Selecta’s players are U.S.-born. From Rauda’s report:

A score of twenty-somethings spent the first half of 2021 memorizing the anthem. Unlike their fellow countrymen, they didn’t learn it as kids because they weren’t born in El Salvador. Some of them hadn’t even set foot in the country. Some don’t even speak Spanish. And yet, they’re at the center of the collective catharsis and hope, because this year they are wearing La Selecta’s blue.

The thing I love about this story is that it gets to the core of what those people who aren’t fans don’t understand: It’s more than just a game.

It’s more than just bragging rights. Belonging to a diaspora often requires you to find bridges that connect you to that which was left behind. It’s been my own personal experience that soccer is one of the better ways to do just that. I hate to be corny, but Dani Rojas isn’t completely wrong. Sometimes, fútbol really is life.

— The Harvard Crimson, the oldest college newspaper in the country, has elected its first Latinx president: Raquel Coronell Uribe. Coronell Uribe appears to be following in her parents’ footsteps. She is the daughter of Daniel Coronell, the former president of Univision News, and María Cristina Uribe, a former TV news anchor and journalist in Colombia. For more, read this story by Nicole Acevedo of NBC News.

— Spanish singer Rosalía and Canadian crooner the Weeknd are LARPing as Latinxs in “La Fama,” a bachata inspired by the former’s visit to the Dominican Republic. I’m very much looking forward to the Music Academy renaming their award the “Hispanic Grammys” so they can give this song a trophy. Just kidding. They’re going to give them one anyway.

— Speaking of actual Latinx artists, my colleague Suzy Exposito recently profiled Rauw Alejandro, who’s poised to be the next big thing if he already isn’t. Alejandro’s “Vice Versa” album has been on heavy rotation at my house ever since it came out in June. if you haven’t, check out the music video for “Todo de Ti,” which Suzy rightfully described in the L.A. Times’ internal Latino Slack channel (yes, of course we have one) as giving off “major Latino Xanadu vibes.”

— The best thing on the Latinternet: Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, better known as Bad Bunny, was recently a guest on “The Daily Show.” During the Q&A, host Trevor Noah fawned over El Conejo Malo’s world domination — he was the most streamed artist on Spotify in 2020 — noting that he did it without feeling the need to cross over. The Puerto Rican star in turn responded with the following:

“Why would I have to change? Nobody asks a gringo artist to change. This is who I am. This is my music. This is my culture. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to me. If you like it, you know ...”

I want you to read those words again. Memorize them and chant them to yourself. Make it your mantra. I’m not a fan of the term “unapologetic,” especially when it comes to describing Latinxs (in my mind, it’s been stripped of all meaning and has become nothing more than a buzzword on pitch decks), but in this case I’ll make an exception. Yes, be unapologetic of who you are. You, after all, are the future, so why try to conform into the past?

You can watch the whole Bad Bunny interview here.

And now for something a little different...

Girl listens to "feliz navidad" on her iphone
It’s that time of year...
(Sara Mei-Yuen Wang / For The Times)

Sara Mei-Yuen Wang is a Mexican Chinese American graphic designer raised in San Diego and now living in busy Los Angeles. Her craft shop and illustration work pulls from her childhood experience and explores what it means to be hyphenated, culturally.

“I often imagine both sets of ancestors, intimidating and unimpressed as they watch over this particular branch of the family tree. A hypothetical mixture of a Buddhist and Catholic afterlife would give them front row seats to see their descendant absolutely tank her high school Spanish quizzes and get heartburn if she eats enchiladas after precisely 7 p.m.,” Wang says.

Growing up with a Catholic Mexican mother who insisted her daughters attend Mass every Sunday, Wang often studied the church’s stained glass windows lining the church’s walls, which inspired the style of her piece. “I wanted to show vignettes of my life and those of the people who bring clarity to who I am and where I come from. My piece focuses on the old memories of road-tripping in the winter to visit my family in south Phoenix.

“Every year like clockwork, my grandmother would greet us with giant platos of food, scolding us that we were too skinny and way too pale. After she passed, we started staying at Tío Macario’s house, where he would bring all the birds’ cages in from outside so they wouldn’t get too cold at night, filling the living room with color and keeping us company during our visit. At some point, I would inevitably be wrapped up in some animal themed cobija as the adults gossiped and caught up on each other’s lives. Although it might not be everyone’s story, it is part of mine and I am glad to be able to share a piece of it with you.”

Are you a Latinx artist? We want your help telling our stories. Send us your pitches for illustrations, comics, GIFs and more! Email our art director at martina.ibanezbaldor@latimes.com.

A quick programming note.

I’ll be taking the next two weeks off, but that doesn’t mean the Latinx Files won’t be delivered to your in-box during that period. Starting next Thursday, we’ll have back-to-back guest writers. I won’t tell you who they are (it’ll be a nice surprise!) or what they’ll be writing about (because LOL, I don’t know), but I have no doubt in my mind that it’s going to be awesome.


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