(Adds podcast launch in 10th paragraph. A previous version corrected the spelling of Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.)
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Misinformation on Spanish-language media about voter fraud, the pandemic, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to harm Latino communities during this fall’s midterm elections.
The Federal Communications Commission is charged with regulating broadcasters but has done little to address the problem, which Democrats say hurt them in 2020 and has gotten worse since then. The agency historically has avoided moderating content, citing the potential for chilling free speech.
“If we don’t do something about this, it will have a negative impact on the 2022 elections,” said former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.). She cites disinformation, including allegations tying her to communism, as a major reason for her loss in 2020 to Republican Rep. Carlos Gimenez, then Miami-Dade County’s mayor.
The problem includes both misinformation, which covers any falsehood portrayed as true, and disinformation, which is deliberately deceptive. It threatens both to change what people think of candidates, and their likelihood to vote. Such practices aren’t limited to Spanish-language media, but may prove particularly virulent there, researchers and civil rights groups say.
Now, Latino rights advocacy groups are calling on the FCC to do more, and for Congress to pay attention before it’s too late.
“The FCC must be more proactive and own this,” said Kenneth Romero, chairman of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a Hispanic civil rights advocacy coalition. “They have to step up and realize that if they have jurisdiction, then they have a responsibility to hold folks accountable.”
Ronnie Lucero, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said misinformation is harming all Latinos, regardless of party. RNHA is a grassroots organization for Latino conservatives that works to get Republicans elected.
“We want our people to be informed about the issues so that when the time comes to vote they make the right decision,” Lucero said.
South Florida has become a hot spot for misinformation on Spanish radio, where broadcasters have claimed the 2020 election was stolen by Democrats and vaccines are a ploy to enrich Democrats and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
This year, misinformation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has taken hold, with continuous messages blaming Biden for higher gas prices and favoring White refugees over refugees of color, said Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, founder of We Are Más, a consulting firm focused on countering misinformation in Spanish-language media. Her group launched a podcast in Spanish on Friday that focuses on countering disinformation.
Latinos make up nearly 30% of Florida’s population, according to the Census Bureau. Former Republican president Donald Trump won Florida, a key battleground state, in 2016 and 2020, after it voted for Democratic president Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Nationally, Latinos have traditionally been more likely to vote for Democrats, but Republicans have been making inroads, especially in Florida, according to progressive data company Catalist. They could play a key role in determining control of the House in the 2022 midterms, with the two parties locked in a tight race.
Spanish speakers can be more “vulnerable” to disinformation because they don’t have access to the breadth of resources available in English, said Rick Hasen, a law and political science professor at the University of California, Irvine.
Spanish talk radio shows with robust followings are siloed from national media outlets that pick up and fact check disinformation on English talk radio shows. In the Spanish-language media ecosystem, where disinformation festers under the radar, there is increased potential for suppressing Latino turnout, said Liz Lebron, research manager at Voto Latino, a nonprofit focused on registering Hispanic voters.
Lebron has seen an increase in disinformation targeting Latinos since the 2020 presidential election. She described a slow erosion of trust in government institutions and elected officials that makes it “much easier come fall of 2022 or fall of 2024 to start saying, ‘Why would you vote for these people?’ or, ‘Your vote isn’t going to count.’”
The FCC’s system places the onus on the public to complain about broadcasters airing false information. Consumers must show the information is causing “substantial public harm,” or harm that begins immediately, causes direct damage to property or the health of the general public, or diverts law enforcement and safety authorities from their duties.
That policy “is not enough,” said Sindy Benavides, CEO of civil rights group League of United Latin American Citizens. “Just imagine it: you hear a falsehood on the radio and who even knows that this mechanism exists?”
A standard reflected in the First Amendment says the government can only regulate speech when it’s necessary for accomplishing a vital interest and when the speech is directly causing harm.
Broadcasts of false information alone won’t lead to enforcement action because of that high standard. Consumers would have to present evidence such as a radio station manager’s written instructions to broadcast a false statement, for example, according to FCC policy.
The FCC’s jurisdiction doesn’t extend to social media, another hotspot for disinformation and misinformation in Spanish.
Benavides says the FCC could help by spreading awareness of the complaint system through marketing, and by convening a roundtable with organizations on the ground.
“So many people in America are not yet aware that disinformation is a problem in English, but so much more in Spanish,” she said.
UnidosUS spokesperson Lisa Navarrete suggested the agency could establish a research arm to document misinformation and use its bully pulpit to spread awareness. UnidosUS is the nation’s largest Latino civil rights organization.
The FCC declined to comment on the advocacy groups’ proposals.
Mucarsel-Powell, the former House member, said Congress should hold hearings “to inform the public on the threat of disinformation on our democracy.” She said she is continuing to work with the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal elections, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to address the “massive, coordinated” disinformation effort in the U.S.
Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), the chair of the caucus, said the group continues to call for better oversight to counter misinformation, particularly on social media.
“Ensuring that all Americans have access to accurate and timely information, especially as it relates to elections, is crucial to the survival of our democracy,” Ruiz said.
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