Election deception has taken on many different forms over the years, but voting advocates see a particular danger in the current charged political climate: Misinformation and disinformation targeting voters of color and immigrant communities has become increasingly amplified and poses a clear threat in the upcoming midterms.
New U.S. citizens, who are often first-time voters, "face special risks in encountering misinformation stemming from information gaps," according to research from the Brennan Center for Justice. Since they may lack familiarity with U.S. voting procedures or the normal workings of the political system, they are more likely to be affected by election misinformation and disinformation.
When a high demand for information about a topic isn't met with a supply of accurate and reliable information, the result is what the Brennan Center terms an "information gap," which can allow misinformation and blatant propaganda to emerge and spread. Much of this is happening in communities where English isn't the primary language, advocates say, and different communities are susceptible to different types of misinformation that specifically target platforms they are most likely to interact with.
For example, an online network tied to Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, a friend and ally of former Trump adviser and right-wing podcast host Steve Bannon, has spread falsehoods about coronavirus vaccines, promoted unfounded election fraud claims and even spread baseless QAnon conspiracy theories, according to the research firm Graphika.
These efforts have used "home country biases and sensitive topics such as the Chinese Cultural Revolution" and catered their messaging to target members of the Asian American diaspora, according to the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
These messages are most likely to impact first-generation immigrants who may not speak fluent English, according to AAJC. The group says some Asian immigrants began to subscribe to Donald Trump's "big lie" about the 2020 election, or became concerned that their children were being "indoctrinated" with "critical race theory" in public schools..
"We're seeing so much right-wing extremism and mistruths about certain issues, including COVID vaccination, including the pros and cons of affirmative action, basically anything that would be considered like a political issue," said Vincent Pan, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action.
What may differentiate Chinese-language spaces from English spaces is the relative lack of diversity of viewpoints, he added.
"In English, you could probably find a range of perspectives from left to right," Pan said, "but in Chinese-language spaces, it tends to be much more one-sided, because more conservative media efforts and political efforts are intentionally targeting these voters with misinformation."
Pan's organization is trying to fill that gap by providing accurate information in multiple languages, but there is no easy fix for this "structural issue," he said.
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Several organizations have called on social media platforms to take more action in combating conspiracy theories and electoral misinformation aimed at non-English speaking communities. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, has joined a coalition of Latino organizations in these efforts, for example.
"I've been disappointed to see [social media platforms] tolerate lies in Spanish that would never be tolerated in English," said Castro during a press call by the Spanish Language Disinformation Coalition.
Last year, SLDC released a statement denouncing online hate and misinformation targeting Latinos and called for more rigorous moderation:
We know that online platforms are not only spreading hate and lies about Latinos, but also targeting our community with false information. There is less oversight of disinformation in Spanish and other non-English languages. Latino communities have been relentlessly targeted by online disinformation campaigns which include political fake news, human smuggling ads, COVID-19 conspiracies and lies about COVID vaccines. Platforms must do more to moderate this deeply harmful content.
Spanish speakers are particularly vulnerable to misinformation on YouTube and WhatsApp, which are popular in Latino immigrant communities, according to SLDC.
Election-related disinformation has started to spread on these platforms as the 2022 midterms approach, but that's not the only kind of false information targeting immigrants and other vulnerable groups.
YouTube has not removed dozens of Spanish-language videos claiming that fraudulent ballots were coming to the U.S. from China and Mexico, or that 1.8 million "ghost voters" had voted in 2020.
Last month, a group of 48 asylum-seekers in Texas — most of them originally from Venezuela —were handed misleading brochures that promised cash assistance, housing and job placement services in Massachusetts in order to lure them onto the infamous flights to Martha's Vineyard orchestrated by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Immigrant rights groups have equated DeSantis' political stunt with human trafficking, and he now faces both civil suits and possible criminal charges.
"The percentage of Americans whose primary language is not English is very large," Pan said, "especially in states where the political outcomes are razor-thin." With many midterm races likely to be extremely close, he said, these communities may well "make the difference."
Dozens of Spanish-language YouTube videos containing blatantly false election misinformation have spread online, Media Matters found. For example, the platform has not removed videos in Spanish that claimed fraudulent ballots were coming to the U.S. from China and Mexico, or alleged that 1.8 million "ghost voters" had voted in 2020.
Right-wing activists within Spanish-speaking communities have also enabled the spread of false claims about Dominion and Smartmatic voting systems since the 2020 presidential elections. Some of these videos have tied these voting systems to election fraud cases in Mexico and Venezuela.
While YouTube has explicit policies regarding election misinformation and has committed to combating Spanish-language election misinformation ahead of the midterms, Media Matters notes that the platform often rolls out such policy changes too late to make much difference.
There are also other forms misinformation targeting communities of color and coming from other sources. A Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election revealed that information operatives specifically targeted Black Americans more than any other group. Another CNN investigation found that Russian-funded troll farms in Ghana and Nigeria posted content emphasizing racial division in the U.S., often with the explicit aim of discouraging Black people from voting for Democrats, as well as the broader goal of provoking social unrest and racial tension.
Such attacks may be effective at times because of worsening inequality, "vulnerability" and "Black pain," said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the voting rights group Black Voters Matter Fund.
"There is an embedded frustration in our community about the process because we see the growing inequities," Brown said. "We see economic inequity, we see political inequity. So there are forces that seek to actually exploit Black pain and Black discontent."
To offset that, Brown's group has launched a campaign called "We Won't Black Down," which organizers travel by bus to different communities in an effort to address voters' concerns and share real-time information about the most important issues.
When it comes to misinformation spread on online platforms, Brown echoed Pam's concern that the issue is structural. "We have to democratize all platforms," she said, since essentially all major social media platforms are controlled by "wealthy white men." While there is no way to eliminate misinformation and disinformation entirely, she said, making such platforms more democratic would "create a space for there to be accountability, and I would like to see more of that."
Recent social media campaigns have targeted Black Americans by sowing doubt about COVID-19 vaccines and trying to suppress turnout among Black voters, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Such efforts have not discouraged Black Voters Matter Fund from continuing its work, Brown said. Instead, it has made her look toward future generations. "It is our unfettered desire to literally achieve Black liberation that makes us get up in the morning," she said. "We are obsessed with the concept that we should live free of racism — that we can live free of all forms of oppression."