Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. This is the takeaway.
Mark Zuckerberg: For years, disinformation has been festering online. You or someone you know might have come across some of these posts yourself, unfounded claims, conspiracy theories, and stretched truths that are decades old. Can take on a new life because of social media, yet at a congressional hearing last year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, from Facebook, Meta said that it was something the company has been able to handle.
Mark Zuckerberg: I think we have on COVID misinformation, in particular, a relatively good track record of fighting and taking down lots of false content.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Zuckerberg even told CBS in an interview over the summer that Facebook alone had taken down millions of pieces of disinformation.
Mark Zuckerberg: There are people who share misinformation and that's why I said that we took down and have taken down more than 18 million pieces of harmful misinformation about this.
Melissa Harris-Perry: 18 million posts being taken down. Sounds like a lot, but apparently not all misinformation is created equal. Communities that speak languages other than English especially the Spanish-speaking communities have largely been left to fight misinformation on their own. I want to play something for you and I just want to warn you, this is an example of disinformation. It's being spread by Paty Navidad. A Mexican actress.
Paty Navidad: [foreign language]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now what you just heard was a complete fabrication based on conspiracy theories. As a result of this in similar claims, Navidad's Twitter account was suspended in 2021, but the repercussions against her, they're not very representative of what's been happening with other disinformation targeting Spanish language communities. A 2020 report by the advocacy group Avaaz found that Facebook failed to remove or even issue warnings for 70% of Spanish content identified as misinformation. Compare that to only 29% of English language content being left alone.
In fact, an internal memo from Facebook earlier this year showed that the company's ability to detect vaccine misinformation in non-English comments was, "basically non-existent," and all this means Spanish-speaking communities remain the target of largely unchecked disinformation. There are real-life consequences for it. Let's talk about that. We spoke with Stephanie Valencia co-founder and president of Equis Research, and Nora Benavidez, who is senior council and director of the Digital Justice and Civil Rights Division of Free Press. I asked Nora how people can begin to prepare for disinformation that they come across online.
Nora Benavidez: I think there are a number of things we can be doing. First and foremost is we can all begin discussing this as everyday people. It's sometimes seen as an expert topic and it isn't, it's one that affects each of us and it affects our families, our friends, and one of the problems that's most insidious I think is that we often feel it's an abstract concept. Like it affects those people over there and not me and mine. Disinformation by design is really intended to divide us. As we gear up for 2022, I think we're going to see a lot of narratives that undermine our trust in officials and in our institutions. Each of us can begin being on guard for that.
First of all, our Social media platforms can play a role. We've seen in the lead up to the 2020 election, the way that Facebook, for example, put safety mechanisms in place to make sure that extremists or violent calls on their social media platforms were in fact, not amplified. Unfortunately, those mechanisms were turned off after November. I think much of what we saw in January and January 6th was fanned by how extremist content was amplified. Social media platforms really do have a critical role to play, elections are happening all over the world. We have dozens of elections next year, not just in the United States and we need those mechanisms for safety across the globe and across languages.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As I was preparing for our conversation, reading about numbers, which is probably like a segment all by itself about the use of social media, actually across age categories for Latinx folks living here in the US. I'm not sure that I've realized how pervasive the use of social media for just a wide variety of purposes is within Latinx communities. I'm wondering given Nora's point about the extent to which disinformation is amplified in those spaces. If you could help us to make that connection with social media and disinformation targeted towards Latinx communities.
Stephanie Valencia: It is pretty astounding to understand the scope and reach of social media, particularly the platforms of YouTube and WhatsApp with Latino voters and Facebook. Obviously, WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, but Latinos are consuming twice as much information on YouTube than the regular population. That is everything from news and information to music videos, et cetera. Shockingly from our research in the past year, we have come to find that 70% close to roughly 2/3 of Latinos are getting their news and information about politics and elections from YouTube as a primary source.
Which means that they're not going to MSNBC or CNN necessarily, but they're searching out in the search bar on YouTube, January 6th, or Cuba protests or immigration. They are getting news fed to them from-- In some cases, not reputable news sources at all. People who are purporting to be news, but aren't necessarily, and who are and that in some cases are outright disinformation. A lot of this is in English, but a lot of it is actually in Spanish. Part of what we have been trying to bring more attention to is the role that the social media platforms are playing in spreading Spanish language disinformation and the asymmetry that exists in and checking and taking down at the same rates.
The same narratives in English that are being spread aren't being necessarily taken down with the same speed or urgency that English language narratives are being taken down. This is a problem because as many of these narratives are around disinformation or misinformation or conservative reeducation are being spread on YouTube or Facebook, they're often being spread even more virally via WhatsApp. We always joke about the viral memes that we get in our families, the [unintelligible 00:07:36] memes that we get from our aunts and our cousins or that have a good day, I love you memes that we get from our family in the same way those spread very virally.
We often get memes or other videos that are sharing on WhatsApp. That is a closed platform, very dangerously closed platform. That is going almost completely unchecked for disinformation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There's a way that this presumption that mainstream media is itself not creating disinformation. I'm not trying to do like a fake news thing here, but that actually even within our mainstream sources, it can sometimes be tough to know that what we're getting is something that we can trust.
Nora Benavidez: Absolutely and so much research has now gone into studying and trying to ascertain what trust means because I think trust is at the heart of all of it. If you and I are Facebook friends and Melissa, you post something, I would guess that the credibility I somehow bestow upon your post even implicitly means that I'll just take whatever you've shared as real and as credible. The first step in this huge table, I think is the way we're engaging with information among informal friends. That means if you post something from CNN, I see that headline. I'm not even sure many people click on links. Many people only read headlines. The trust that they have among their communities is the highest.
Then it plummets, people do not trust national media as much as they trust local news, and yet local news is suffering greatly as many of us know. In part because social media is now the primary pathway for people to get information. CNN sure. That is absolutely one of the questions worth considering, but the biggest step back is what are we trusting and what are we not trusting? Disinformation absolutely has helped sow that distrust so that your social media feed may look very different from mine. Then when I come to the table with you and with Stephanie to discuss facts, the facts that I have seen.
I'm putting facts in air quotes here, they could be drastically different from the things you're seeing. Maybe you're seeing the CNN reports on a certain topic and I'm seeing something drastically different on Fox. The division that comes out of all of this is because the different news pathways for us are things that we think everyone is seeing.
Stephanie Valencia: One of the things that is actually, I think the feature, not a bug for are those who are trying to sow this discord and division, is to actually just create a lot of distrust and like the distrust is the goal because distrust in democracy, distrust in institutions, whether those are politicians or candidates, distrust in any number of things that we engaging in our everyday lives, that distrust can often lead to less political participation, more resignation around the political process.
As it relates to especially like communities of color, that is actually a very dangerous proposition, just creating that distrust so that people stay on the side-lines and not participate because they feel like they can't, or they shouldn't, or they've just created this notion of distrust and disbelief that forces people to not want to trust anything. I think that is one of the most dangerous features about what we're seeing with disinformation is this deeper sentiment of distrust that we are going to have to contend with. That being said, when we think about antidotes, Nora said earlier, there's been a lot of research to try to understand how do we create better trust?
How do we better label content, "news content or political content," to encourage people to ask questions? We ultimately have to work to create, we have to do all this stuff to keep social media platforms accountable, but we also have to create smarter and more critically thinking and probing consumers. We also have to encourage people to ask questions and question, where am I getting that information? What does the other side say? That is like a bigger challenge and a bigger goal that we have to take on to create better trust and information sharing.
The third piece I would say as like a critical antidote, is ensuring Melissa, what you were just saying is how do we flood the zone with good news and facts about COVID that are just as interesting and shareable as that [foreign language] meme or the interesting video that went viral that was fake news and so that is the stuff that we have to be able to try to think around how we are able to create that creative content that is also shareable in a way that gets good news and facts into the bloodstream.
Nora Benavidez: I want to be really concrete with an example here because I think this can, as I mentioned at the top feel really abstract. Let's just think about some of the examples we saw in the 2020 election. There is a single example I often use because I think it's so potent. An image that went viral on social media before the 2020 election was a photograph of what appeared to be ballots that is mail-in ballots that were thrown in a trash bin. Frankly, I would be really concerned if I saw that image. If Melissa you sent that to me on WhatsApp, or if I saw that on Twitter, I would absolutely be worried about a whole host of things.
I think one is, "Oh my gosh, will my vote be thrown in the trash if I mail it in? Is the election rigged? Is this some political or partisan effort?" Then I think the underlying and real heart of it is, "Should I even vote at all?" That is part of why disinformation can be so insidious. What we learned about that image though and this is what's so hard to your question about how do we build up resilience and education and curiosity? Is that it takes time because it took so much time to unearth that image was taken of 2018 envelopes in California for the votes that were mailed-in in 2018, and by statute, are you ready? They had to be kept for a certain period of time so the image was real.
It wasn't doctored, but the image was so evocative because it made at least me and I think thousands of others believe a whole host of things that then led to our deeper distrust of democracy and that is the whole point.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I think about, so I've been an educator for more than 20 years now, and initially in teaching critical media literacy part of what we would do is to teach you to distrust sources of information and distrust them full scale, but to ask certain kinds of questions of them. Yet at this moment, we're also talking about building trust and I guess I worry that the desire to build trust could then perhaps actually lead us to trust sources that are inaccurate.
Again I still appreciate this very specific example so let me just say if someone were to say to me, "Oh, a police officer had his foot on someone's neck for all of these minutes and then that person perished, and it happened in a large crowd and everyone saw it." My first reaction might be like, "Come on now, like that, come on. Did that really happen?" That idea that sometimes the realities are horrifying enough or stressful or so beyond what we think of as normal actions take January 6th, that we would initially be distrustful of them, but those are actually the things that really happened.
I guess I'm asking you here about how to approach the question of critical media literacy, how to ask the right questions of things like those images without simply being a person who presumes that all news is fake news.
Nora Benavidez: I think the easiest first thing that I always recommend for people it may sound corny, but it's to slow down, to take a breath and to basically always promise to breathe and slow down before you share something. I think the other piece of it is how we engage with media and how media brings readers in to actually report better, to report on things that readers need, and to make context obvious. Trying to bring context and history where otherwise our media has a very long arc of largely ignoring and miscommunicating about specific communities.
Stephanie Valencia: The one thing I would just add, I agree with what everything Nora has said. I do think though we have to talk about like the root of the challenge and the problem as it relates to the platforms, which is a couple fold. One is that they are not treating Spanish language disinformation with the same urgency and set of resources as they are English language disinformation. One of the statistics that we cite is that Facebook failed to issue warning labels on upwards of 70% of misinformation in Spanish compared to 29% in English.
They are not treating Spanish language content with the same level of scrutiny and the same level of integrity checks as they are English language, media, or English language disinformation in narratives. In addition, we also have to take into account the algorithmic reward system that has been created by the platforms to reward some of this content that goes more viral and ultimately many of the producers of this content are actually making money off of it, including the platforms.
One last example that I will use very concretely is last summer during the height of the George Floyd uprisings, what we saw in Spanish language disinformation spaces were racially driven tropes to divide between African Americans and Latinos. We've similarly seen similar tropes related to immigration and immigrants in the African American community being spread. Those are the things that people are dropping in very divisive narratives to tap into the greatest fears or ill-conceived notions that people may have to reinforce some of those biases that is incredibly, incredibly problematic.
It may not be considered outright disinformation, but the way people are using imagery and words to reinforce bias, is a really, really terrible thing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Stephanie, can you say one more word here to also, because I think it's so useful how you talked about this use of a wedge between groups of colour. Can you also maybe say a few words about presumptions, both for those who might be advocating against disinformation and those who are actually producing and making use of this misinformation of a singular or monolithic Latinx community.
Stephanie Valencia: When you look at the community, there is such a diversity of issues that matter in key parts of the community. For example, socialism resonates in a very different way in Florida than maybe it does in Arizona and the issue of immigration may resonate in a very different way in places like South Texas and Arizona than it does in other parts of the country. Again, we are seeing a lot of kind micro-targeted disinformation efforts and some of these more localized communities based on what the community in that particular region or area is experiencing or places importance.
I'll use the example of South Florida as a media ecosystem that conservatives have really invested in from YouTube, to radio, to the online ecosystem of just Facebook and WhatsApp. WhatsApp again is this place where these memes are shared very virally. In places like South Florida you have YouTube influencers, conservative YouTube influencers like Alex Otaola who was a former Clinton supporter turned Trump supporter, who has built a YouTube following and does gossipy type videos every day but streams in and plugs in a lot of conservative policy content.
He's had Donald Trump on his show multiple times, a lot of Hispanic conservative influencers on his show, and is using his platform as this gossipy columnist on YouTube to put cards in his cards in the stack of conservative reeducation. Meanwhile, you also have a radio station that was purchased in South Florida by conservative-backed entities for $350,000 last April. Democrats on the other hand spent $14 million in paid advertising in the same media market in the last 30 days of the 2020 election.
You have Republicans who are thinking in terms of sharing and coordinating messaging both disinformation and just conservative reeducation, by buying radio stations so they have platforms year-round, 24/7 to distribute that news and information, and Democrats are still very much focused on buying paid media and just burning money on fire at the end of an election cycle trying to talk to these voters. There's also an asymmetry of tactics between the left and the right in terms of information distribution and how to think about educating, and reaching, and persuading voters.
Nora Benavidez: Well local news is on the decline and the-- I would say aggressive decline over the last 15 years. More than 25% of newspapers have closed and because of COVID, that problem has now been compounded. We know that furloughs, layoffs, mergers, have contributed to less and less news around the country. For local communities that means that they are actually less civically engaged. We know that where local news exists there is more robust engagement, and where local journalism for example is on the decline, where it withers or where local radio stations close, where local papers close, a few you horrible consequences always follow.
There are examples that corporate malfeasance goes up, local government salaries go up, when local news leaves, and then people are less likely to know when elections are, they are less likely to vote. All of that getting to I think your question and the underlying issue here of how are we making communities connected and better connected to news and how is media better-serving communities? That is a very big question because of the asymmetries that Stephanie has laid out. I think some of the financial incentive models now because of our social media platforms.
They are in a position where their revenue is so much greater, that they are now the primary pathway for information for consumers, and the upstream systemic failures on the platform to give people credible information mean that they play a more responsible role than I think we often even in a public discourse push upon them. I'm glad that Stephanie mentioned some of those upstream systemic issues. One other example I was thinking about as Stephanie was talking is research from the markup, which has that Black, Latino, indigenous, middle Eastern, Facebook users have been shown less credible COVID-related information from the world health organization. Why is that?
How do we somehow give people information they need and push that out where organizations like the World Health Organization I think have good intent. Yet what we are seeing then is a model and incentive structure that clearly isn't giving people equitable information across identity. It's a very very difficult question. Ahead of 2022, I think one of the most important takeaways for us is the power of engagement journalism that among all of the systemic failures we will be trying to correct CORs on. We need media to be really centering and answering questions that communities have legitimate interest in knowing about. Then we need to be pushing for reforms that I think are more on the systemic side.
I've mentioned to many and I'm very excited that this week we at Free Press have been working with the Disinfo Defense League to launch a policy platform. That can be one avenue. It is not the only avenue. It is not the silver bullet but it is one important avenue to think about regulatory and policy reforms, because across all of the ways that we consider solutions I think we need a real wraparound approach. We need media literacy. We need policy reforms. We need media to be engaged and so in trying to give everyday people a roadmap the Disinfo Defense League has created this policy platform that really is a launching pad that centers civil rights.
We are centering privacy, the need for transparency from platforms, as a place to go when members of Congress and others say, "How do we correct CORs? What is the role that regulators play? What is the role that policymakers play? We are trying to answer that question. At least getting us to a place whereby 2022 and 2023 we are better positioned to have strong robust digital ecosystems.
Stephanie Valencia: I'm just going to add quickly to what Nora said is not forget this notion that 70% of Latinos are getting their news and information about politics and elections from YouTube as a primary source. 70%, over 2/3 of Latinos are getting their news and information from YouTube. As we think about where people are getting that news and information, I think we have to be really creative around how and where we're reaching people. To me, the biggest competition for news organizations like [unintelligible 00:26:43] and Telemundo is YouTube because that is where Latinos are consuming news and information.
We have to think creatively about authentic and organic channels and ways that are going to provide mechanisms to give quality news and facts, to people in bitesize ways that are going to help people to make sense of the world, and who they are in the world, where they fit in the world and all of those pieces. What's happening in the world as a mechanism to ensure people are getting good news and facts.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Stephanie Valencia is co-founder and president of Equis Research and Nora Benavidez is Senior Counsel and Director of the Digital Justice & Civil Rights division of Free Press. Thank you both for joining us.
Nora Benavidez: Thank you so much, Melissa.
Stephanie Valencia: Thanks, Melissa.
[00:27:36] [END OF AUDIO]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.