DORAL, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 14: A Miami-Dade election worker feeds ballots into a voting machines during an accuracy test at the Miami-Dade Election Department headquarters on October 14, 2020 in Doral, Florida. The test was done as the county prepares for the November 3rd election where President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden are facing off against each other. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Florida Latinos targeted by misinformation and conspiracy theories
03:43 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Social media sites became fertile ground for promoting election disinformation in Spanish in the runup to this year’s presidential vote, and since Tuesday new messages have been spreading, according to observers monitoring online posts.

As the final votes in the 2020 election are tallied, misinformation is swirling online – from unsubstantiated allegations of fraud to misleading statements about the results.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of different disinformation out there,” said campaign director Oscar Soria of Avaaz, a nonprofit that’s been tracking misleading posts and flagging them to Facebook. The consequences, he said, can be serious.

“The threat is real. … The disorientation this has caused is undermining faith in the US democracy,” he said.

Messages alleging fraud are spreading

This week, Soria said, the group has tracked numerous Spanish-language posts with false information fearmongering about post-election protests and unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.

And the origins of many posts can be difficult to determine, he said.

But sometimes, the source of the messages is clear. Misinformation about a “rigged” or “stolen” election is being spread by President Trump, his campaign and some of his most fervent supporters. And influencers with wide followings, radio programs and Spanish-language YouTube shows are sharing similar messages.

Rapidly spreading online posts have become a key part of this ecosystem, says Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a Democratic strategist in South Florida who’s been sounding alarm bells about the spread of disinformation for months.

“People are replicating and amplifying the messages, from Latin America, from here. They replicate things and we don’t know where they come from. There are constant conspiracy theories. They’re repeating and repeating a lie until for them it becomes true,” she said.

Pérez-Verdía said she was shocked to see misleading messages popping up in WhatsApp groups, then watch them quickly spread elsewhere – from Facebook posts to live commentary on radio shows.

Since the election, she said, posts have focused on purported election fraud.

“They are repeating in Spanish that this is a fraud,” she said, “that the elections are being stolen, that the Communists are stealing everything.”

Facebook says it’s stepping up efforts to stop misinformation

Facebook said in a statement that the company took a number of steps to combat misinformation in Spanish before the election, including building a Spanish version of its voting information center, adding US-based fact-checking partners to review content in Spanish on Facebook and Instagram and partnering with fact checkers to develop a chatbot to help people using WhatsApp get accurate information.

And a Facebook spokesman said Thursday night that the social network is now taking additional steps to curb election misinformation.

Spanish-language posts will be included in this effort, Facebook spokeswoman Andrea Vallone said.

Content on Facebook and Instagram will be demoted by the company’s automated systems if the systems determine that it may contain misinformation, “including debunked claims about voting,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement to CNN Business.

“As vote counting continues,” Stone said, “we are seeing more reports of inaccurate claims about the election. While many of these claims have low engagement on our platform, we are taking additional temporary steps, which we’ve previously discussed, to keep this content from reaching more people.”

Facebook says the company has been taking steps to combat misinformation in Spanish on its platforms.

Analysts say online posts can have real-world consequences

As advocacy groups and party operatives start to sort out the election results, many have speculated the spread of disinformation online played a key role in turning Latino voters in South Florida away from Joe Biden – especially posts falsely describing the Democratic candidate as a radical socialist. These may have raised fears among the area’s large number of Cuban and Venezuelan voters – who fled oppressive communist and socialist governments to seek refuge in the US – and their family members.

Biden bested President Trump in populous Miami-Dade County, but garnered notably fewer votes there than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

“I do think you cannot underestimate the level of micro-targeted disinformation that was sent into Miami-Dade County and across certain targeted areas across the country,” Janet Murguía, president and CEO of UnidosUS, told reporters earlier this week.

Domingo Garcia, president of LULAC, said Biden missed a big opportunity in Florida.

“You have a lot of Latinos that do come from fleeing oppression in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua…and so on, and when you do not respond to the label of being called a socialist and you think that that’s not going to affect you, I think that was a big mistake from the Biden campaign. … That hurt them large in parts of Florida, as well as parts of Texas, which I believe are there for the winning,” Garcia said.

Political analyst Fernand Amandi says for months the Biden campaign was largely absent from the conversation as disinformation spread online.

“In the information war, the Biden campaign wasn’t on the battlefield. I think that not being able to recognize the level of damage these attacks were doing to him and be able to counteract them with his own message did great harm to Biden’s image and the Democratic Party’s image,” he said.

Seeing disinformation spread online wasn’t surprising, he said. But seeing it spread without any meaningful response was.

“If you don’t confront these conspiracy theories, for many people they become reality,” he said.

CNN’s Jose Manuel Rodriguez reported from Miami. CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet reported from Arlington, Virginia. CNN’s Brian Fung contributed to this report.