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Communication Technologies, Conspiracies, and Disinformation in Latin America: COVID-19 and Beyond

Communication Technologies, Conspiracies, and Disinformation in Latin America: COVID-19 and Beyond
24th February 2022 Dr. Alexis Henshaw
In Coronavirus, Insights

The topic of Spanish-language misinformation and disinformation has received increasing attention in recent years, with a special focus on the targeting of immigrant communities in the United States. This discussion, while important, only sees part of the problem. Researchers have noted that Spanish-language disinformation—on topics including COVID-19, election conspiracies, and QAnon content—is less likely to be flagged or removed on major social media platforms, compared to similar English-language content. While experts have worried about the impact of these trends for US elections and the well-being of US-based Latinx communities, the transnational implications cannot be ignored.

As researcher Stephanie Valencia notes, technology connects immigrant populations to family and friends back home—and there are strong ties between Spanish- (and Portuguese-) speaking populations in the Global North and in Latin America. The widespread use of messaging platforms—especially WhatsApp and Telegram—allows disinformation and misinformation from platforms like Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube to be re-circulated in ways that are harder to identify and trace. In Latin America, false information originating in the US and elsewhere may find a receptive audience. Researchers have noted that factors including political affiliation, levels of education or information literacy, and spiritual or religious beliefs influence public receptiveness toward conspiracy theories. High rates of corruption and low levels of trust in institutions (especially, political parties and state and local governments) further shape the information environment.

Two examples of transnational disinformation in Latin America include anti-feminist/anti-LGBTQ campaigns and disinformation about COVID-19. In the first case, ‘anti-gender’ campaigns have served to create a backlash against feminism, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights, while also complicating efforts to combat violent extremism. While conspiracy theories around gender discourse in human rights date back at least to the 1990s, political and religious leaders in Latin America have seized upon a loosely defined notion of ‘gender ideology’ in recent years to rally for defense of the family, religion, and culture. One researcher who spoke with figures active in these campaigns notes that WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are among the platforms that have been used to circulate false and misleading narratives. These include claims that children are being shown pornography in schools, that traditional, nuclear family structures are facing dissolution, and that women’s rights and LGBTQ rights measures are a backdoor to the termination of religious freedom. Discourse on gender ideology has complicated efforts to combat violent extremism, insofar as related campaigns were influential in the movement to reject Colombia’s peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016. More recently, similar points have been taken up within the Spanish-language manosphere, including disinformation about gender quotas and other, related conspiracy theories.

The spread of COVID-19 dis- or mis-information has become a concern with ramifications for public health. While conspiracy theories potentially deter people from getting COVID-19 vaccines, the proliferation of discourse about ‘alternative treatments’ also places people at risk by pushing ineffective remedies and preventative measures. Extremist communities have helped circulate these narratives in Latin America. In particular, QAnon and QAnon-related groups, have played a role in spreading conspiracies about the pandemic and the COVID-19 vaccine. While some groups and individuals (including politicians) openly identify with QAnon, other communities (like New Age or wellness groups) repurpose QAnon content on social media, using coded language and other tricks to evade content moderation. Multiple researchers have documented the presence of QAnon throughout Latin America, flagging the presence of Spanish- and Portuguese-language content as a significant issue across platforms. In one of these studies, researchers found Brazilian politics to be among the most discussed topics in QAnon channels on Telegram–but they also found that Spanish- and Portuguese-language content skewed toward discussions about the COVID-19 pandemic and religion. The fact that some elements of this discourse—especially, perceived threats to religious freedom and fears of Marxist influence—relate to themes raised in earlier anti-gender campaigns suggests a possible link that merits further exploration.

The affiliation of some Latin American politicians with QAnon highlights the role that elites and government supporters may play in spreading disinformation and conspiracies. These examples add context to recent events like those in Mexico. Officials in Mexico City distributed ivermectin as part of a COVID-19 medical kit, then published and were subsequently forced to retract a paper claiming that ivermectin use was responsible for a sharp reduction in hospitalizations. The mass distribution of an unproven drug (one widely pushed in conspiracy communities as an alternative cure) has raised serious ethical concerns. Yet this incident is also shows how elites can reinforce false narratives. The prospect that academic pre-print repositories—which carry an air of legitimacy but have no peer-review process and little oversight—may be deployed to spread misinformation is a concern that may merit further attention. Moving forward, effective solutions to the problem will likely involve attention from both tech platforms and civil society more broadly. Especially given the role that social networks maintained through messaging apps play in Latin American society, cultivating information literacy and a willingness to speak out against false claims is likely necessary to transform the information landscape.