Op-Ed: Facebook and the Disinformation Targeting Latinx Communities

By Jessica Cobian, Carmen Scurato, Brenda V. Castillo Mar 19, 2021

In the lead up to the 2020 presidential election, Latinx people in the United States were flooded with false information. Even worse, these deceptive campaigns targeting the Latinx community have continued long after Election Day, aiming to undermine the results of the election, erode trust in the new administration, and mislead our community about dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the efficacy of the vaccines. 

While Facebook attempts to paint Spanish-language moderation as an issue that impacts only Spanish speakers in other parts of the globe, the reality is that in the United States more than 40 million people speak Spanish at home, giving our nation the second-largest Spanish speaking population in the world.

This lack of cultural competency at Facebook is glaring.

As civil rights and consumer-protection advocates, we have publicly shared our concerns with Facebook about rampant U.S. Spanish-language disinformation and hateful activities on the platform, and we are deeply disappointed to have our concerns largely–and continuously–ignored. Thus, soon, there will be an opportunity for accountability. Mark Zuckerberg is scheduled to appear before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 25th. There, he must address the issue of Facebook’s U.S. Spanish-language disinformation and hateful activities, and publicly identify an executive-level manager to oversee U.S. Spanish-language content moderation.

Facebook’s Spanish-language moderation gap became painfully obvious when the company announced a series of policy updates and enforcement actions to address militias and election misinformation in 2020. Our organizations immediately flagged Spanish-language content that seemingly violated Facebook’s newly-updated content moderation policies. In some instances, the platform took action. But, in most cases, Facebook appended a "fact-checking label" to Spanish-language content that clearly violated its own policies. 

One post in particular published on June 4, 2020 a call to arms in Spanish, depicting several photos of armed white men, women, and militia groups with a caption urging white individuals to stand up and defend their lives, their flag and their country with pride – is still visible to Facebook users.

The company has refused to remove this particular post, because, according to Facebook, "the call to violence was not explicit." It seems that Facebook’s faulty translations may also be to blame, translating the Spanish word "parense" as "stop" when, in this context, it better translates to "stand up." Facebook’s incorrect translation dilutes the meaning and intent of the post, revealing how a lack of diversity and racial awareness at the company directly contributes to flaws ingrained into its translation algorithm. Despite Facebook’s effort to depict their translation algorithms as progressive, it’s clear to Spanish speakers like ourselves that this post, combined with the photos and contextual rhetoric, is intended to incite violence.

Facebook’s dismal attempts to enforce its own policies seem to only account for English-speaking people in the U.S., while Spanish-speaking people are an afterthought–if regarded at all. Not much appears to have changed in the years after investigative journalists revealed Facebook’s secret moderation rules protected white men over Black children. This skewed perspective may explain why the pleas from the Latinx community for the removal of content that demonstrably violates the Facebook community standards have been met with inaction, and our questions about who exactly is responsible for the U.S. Spanish content moderation have gone unanswered. 

It is crucial for the stability of our democracy that Facebook move forward with equitable enforcement of its policies against the incitement of violence in every language.

We call on Facebook to publicly identify an executive-level manager to oversee U.S. Spanish language content moderation policy and enforcement, and to publicly explain the translation process of the algorithm and content moderation;  as well as share the training materials used to review if content violates existing policy.

Last minute or half-baked efforts to enforce their policies won’t prevent online rhetoric spilling into real world violence. Facebook must make a serious commitment and effort to disrupt hateful activities and dangerous conspiracy theories, which abide by no language barrier. 

Jessica Cobian is a Senior Campaign Manager on Technology Policy at the Center for American Progress.
rnCarmen Scurato is a Senior Policy Counsel at Free Press.
rnBrenda V. Castillo is the President and CEO at the National Hispanic Media Coalition.