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Disinformation, QAnon efforts targeting Latino voters ramp up ahead of presidential election

Disinformation targeting Latino communities is ramping up ahead of Election Day, when the demographic is expected to play a crucial role in key battleground states. 

Advocacy groups and election security experts alike say material is circulating on social media platforms and online messaging apps that pushes false conspiracies that echo larger disinformation campaigns in English.

The misinformation efforts, some of which reflect the QAnon conspiracy theory, are especially critical in Florida, a crucial swing state where polls show Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenFacebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' Senate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus MORE is running behind Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBon Jovi to campaign with Biden in Pennsylvania The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in Biden gets late boost with key union endorsement MORE’s 2016 support among Latino voters

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Advocates said the misinformation could dissuade Latino voters, who have historically low levels of voter participation, from voting in this year’s election.  

One example, according to NALEO, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that facilitates Latino participation in American politics, is a Facebook page “Cubanos por el Mundo” that makes false claims that the Cuban government is planning a caravan at the southern border to create a migratory crisis before the election to sabotage President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump, Jared Kusher's lawyer threatens to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards Facebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' MORE.

A video posted by the Facebook page pushing the claim this week was shared more than 334 times in one day. 

Other disinformation efforts have spread across Facebook, Twitter and more recently WhatsApp, the widely popular messaging app among Latino immigrants, with the intent to misinform Latino communities about election security. Much of the disinformation is coming from “one-off groups” that are hard to trace and can spread rapidly through forwarded WhatsApp messages, said Lizette Escobedo, civic engagement director at NALEO.

Online disinformation also has spread into more mainstream Spanish news media in Florida. 

For example, an ad that ran in El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language sister publication of the Miami Herald, included an insert on Sept. 11 that claimed that America Jews support “thieves and arsonists” and equated Black Lives Matters protesters with Nazis. The newspaper later apologized and said it was investigating its business relationship with the Libre, the company behind the insert. 

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South Florida’s Radio Caracol had a similar incident last month, with the station issuing an apology after airing a half-hour segment of paid programming which included an anti-Black and anti-Semitic rant. The aired message included claims that if Democrat Joe Biden won the White House, it would mean the U.S. would fall into a dictatorship of “Jews and Blacks,” according to Florida state Sen. Annette Taddeo (D) who condemned the remarks on Twitter. 

The station issued an apology the same day, canceled the program which had been purchased through an advertising agency, and returned the payment. 

“Those derogatory statements don't reflect the points of view or positions of Caracol 1260 AM, its Management, Talents and employees,” the station’s content director Roberto Cespedes said in a statement. 

Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-PowellDebbie Mucarsel-PowellDemocrats, GOP fighting over largest House battlefield in a decade House Democrats target Hispanic voters in battlegrounds with new barrage of ads Disinformation, QAnon efforts targeting Latino voters ramp up ahead of presidential election MORE (D-Fla.) and Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroFormer DNC finance chairman Henry Muñoz: Latinos 'need to lead ourselves' Overnight Defense: Trump says he's leaving Walter Reed, 'feeling really good' after COVID-19 treatment | White House coronavirus outbreak grows | Dems expand probe into Pompeo speeches House Democrats push forward on probe of Pompeo's political speeches MORE (D-Texas) wrote a letter to the FBI calling for an investigation into the origins of disinformation campaigns targeting Latino voters in South Florida. 

“As we rapidly approach election day, Latino circles in South Florida have witnessed a surge in posts containing false or misleading information on social media. These posts are often politically charged and contain far-right conspiracy theories relating to ‘QAnon’ or other fringe ideologies designed to manipulate Latino voters,” they wrote.

The baseless QAnon conspiracy posits that Trump and his allies are working to expose and arrest an underground cabal of global elites who control the government and run child sex trafficking rings. 

Oumou Ly, a staff fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, said foreign actors are likely propping up these narratives. Officials have warned against similar foreign interference efforts from four years ago heading into the 2020 election. FBI Director Christopher Wray told a House panel last week that Russia is seeking to denigrate Biden’s campaign through social media interference. 

Much of the disinformation targeting Latino voters has the intent to dissuade their participation in the election, advocates said, including pushing unsubstantiated claims that vote by mail is not secure or the election system can be hacked. 

The disinformation is targeting Latino voters beyond Florida.

Hector Sanchez, executive director and CEO of Mi Familia Vota, said misinformation is already spreading in Arizona about mail-in voting and undocumented immigrants voting in the election. 

The disinformation efforts may be amplified through new technologies, but its roots are a “feature of American politics,” said Stephen Nuño-Perez, senior Analyst at Latino Decisions, a polling firm.

“Widespread and systematic attempts to intimidate Latinos, to cast doubt on Latino voters, all of this is a feature of American politics that has been persistent and consistent really since there have been Latinos in American politics,” he said. 

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Part of the problem is the sheer amount of information available, said Alan C. Miller, the founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project. People have access to credible information “literally at their fingertips” more than ever before, but that information is competing with other information intended to “misinform, mislead, exploit and divide,” Miller said. 

“We know that in the current climate disinformation is rampant and we wanted American voters to have very clear guidance, especially during the pandemic, on how to vote,” Miller said. 

His organization has partnered with the Open Mind Legacy project in a nonpartisan campaign to release public service announcements about election misinformation that will air on Comcast and Scripps properties. Each of the four ads were released in both English And Spanish. 

A couple of the PSAs focus on ways people can discern possible misinformation, with one encouraging people to look at a “variety of news sources” and another calling for people to verify whether a post damaging to a candidate is “authentic or not” before sharing.

Another aims to discredit misinformation spreading about mail-in voting, with the narrator of the video stating mail-in voting is “reliable” and “voter fraud is rare.” 

“We all need to become upstanders for facts and give facts a fighting chance,” Miller said. “I think that we need a new sense of personal responsibility around the news and information that we consume, and particularly that we share.”

He likened it to shifting the ethos around other issues, such as drunk driving, littering and smoking. 

“Because ultimately, the consumer is really in charge of what they see and where and when and how they see it, and most important what they do with it,” Miller said. “I think people need to play a more responsible role and also push back against those who are sharing and creating and sending things that they should not be.”