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‘It is getting really bad’: Misinformation spreads among Florida’s Spanish-speaking voters

A disinformation research organization says anonymous threats sent on social media are meant to elicit an emotional reaction and confuse voters.
Gisela Fiterre attended an Anti-Communist Caravan for Freedom and Democracy and in support of President Trump, beginning in the Magic City Casinos parking lot at 450 NW 37 Avenue following a route through several Miami streets including SW 8 Street and Flagler Street, on Saturday, October 10, 2020. PEDRO PORTAL PPORTAL@MIAMIHERALD.COM
Gisela Fiterre attended an Anti-Communist Caravan for Freedom and Democracy and in support of President Trump, beginning in the Magic City Casinos parking lot at 450 NW 37 Avenue following a route through several Miami streets including SW 8 Street and Flagler Street, on Saturday, October 10, 2020. PEDRO PORTAL PPORTAL@MIAMIHERALD.COM [ PEDRO PORTAL | MIAMI HERALD ]
Published Oct. 30, 2020|Updated Oct. 30, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — In private messaging apps and social media, Spanish-speaking residents in South Florida have been exposed to a barrage of deceptive claims — a voter disinformation tactic that could last until Election Day.

The latest example is an anonymous message that emerged in WhatsApp chats this week that threatens Spanish-speaking supporters of President Donald Trump. The claims have rattled some Hispanics in South Florida even as experts warn of the claims' falsehoods.

The threat closely mirrors false, often racist and anti-Semitic, narratives peddled in local Spanish media where some hosts and political pundits have suggested a vote for former vice president Joe Biden would mean supporting a violent takeover of the country.

Alternatively, recent intimidating messages suggest Trump supporters will become the target of crimes by an anonymous group if the president loses and refuses to concede.

In South Florida, some Hispanic Trump supporters are taking those threats seriously, citing traumatizing violent experiences they’ve had in their home countries. This is concerning family members who are growing worried about the toll fake scams and unsubstantiated threats are taking on their relatives.

Erick Arevalo, a 38-year-old who lives in Homestead, told the Times/Herald he is worried about his stepfather and grandfather, two Cuban-American Trump supporters who are convinced the threats they are seeing on Whatsapp are real.

“They are all really scared, and they all really believe it,” Arevalo said. “It doesn’t matter how many times I have told them that it’s OK, to not worry about it and that it is fake news and that nothing is going to happen. They are really worried and scared.”

Damon Scott, a Florida fellow for First Draft News, a disinformation research organization, said the message’s anonymity, the method of delivery and the broad threats that are clearly meant to elicit an emotional reaction from Trump supporters are among the red flags that point to disinformation.

The message includes threats to burn down their houses if Trump does not concede the election. The exact same messages surfaced earlier this month in at least two other states, New Hampshire and Missouri, but they were printed threats in English, Scott said.

False messages but real fear

Orencio Rodriguez, Arevalo’s 73-year-old stepfather, told the Times/Herald he became aware of the message after a family member sent it to him via WhatsApp, a popular social media app among Latin Americans and Hispanics in South Florida.

“They are all warning each other,” Arevalo said. “I am really angry because I know it’s fake. But most of them really believe that.”

Evelyn Pérez-Verdia, a veteran Latina Democratic strategist in South Florida, said she has witnessed widespread misinformation in WhatsApp group chats leading up to the election.

She said it is common to see conspiracy theories — including QAnon — and deceptive partisan claims and memes in Spanish posted in private chats created by Republicans that include up to 200 people.

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“It’s an audience where the people who are in those groups are there based on trust or friendship or nostalgia of family, and everything you receive you say, well, if this is a friend or person I know or a person I respect knows, it may be true,” Pérez-Verdia said.

Rodriguez, for example, said about six of his family members have been made aware of the threatening WhatsApp message, and all of them are anxious about it. He is convinced the threats are true even if police and disinformation experts say otherwise.

“They may not want to see it that way or they may want to say it is not true, but I believe it is true,” Rodriguez said in an interview Thursday.

Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough county election officials said voters have not reported such threats, but noted they should be reported to law enforcement. Hialeah Police Department spokeswoman Adriana Quintana Martinez said police have not been made aware of them, either.

Arevalo and Rodriguez said they have not reported the message to police. And in many cases, it’s difficult to track down the origins of these threatening messages, making it that much harder to dispel them.

By comparison, hundreds of threatening emails sent to voters in at least six Florida counties from a group purporting to be the Proud Boys, a far-right group, were quickly reported last week to local, state and federal law enforcement officials.

The FBI quickly investigated and in less than two days, Director of National Intelligence John Rattcliffe determined the emails were part of a foreign intimidation campaign.

Miami Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell last month asked the FBI to investigate what she said was a “surge in posts containing false or misleading information on social media,” as well as in traditional media outlets. Her office did not immediately respond when asked if the FBI responded to her request, and the FBI has not made any public conclusions on the matter.

Historically, Hispanic voters in Florida are disproportionately more likely to register to vote without a party affiliation, compared to white and Black voters, according to Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida. As of Friday morning, 1.6 million no-party voters have voted though it is not entirely clear how they are leaning.

“Dissuading people from voting is in some ways a more effective strategy if you are not sure how they are going to vote, and is particularly the case with Hispanics who are registered as no-party affiliates,” Smith said.

Disinformation campaigns can achieve that, Smith said.

As Facebook imposed stricter rules on campaign advertisement, other social media platforms, including WhatsApp, are being used to target voters either to build enthusiasm or cast doubt on a candidate, or dissuade people from voting, Smith said.

Other examples this election cycle have included Miami’s Actualidad radio host Carinés Moncada claiming on air that the Black Lives Matter movement against systemic racism and police brutality is inspired by “dark spirits” at the core of the movement’s leadership.

“If someone knocks on your door tomorrow, the way they’re knocking in other states, if they knock on your door, and they want to rob you, and they want to burn you, don’t complain. Don’t complain because that’s what you’re voting for. For anarchy, for rapes, for attacks,” said Moncada during a show on Sept. 17.

In late August, a 16-minute clip of a paid program aired on Radio Caracol, of a man who was unidentified on the air and spewed hateful messages on Black immigrants, women and Jewish people.

The station’s executives apologized, and admitted it failed to listen to the full program before it aired and returned the money to the agency that booked the air time.

Jorge Gonzalez, the Miami businessman who read the script on air, told a Miami Herald reporter a few days later that the program was a pilot show, and due to the negative feedback, it would not be returning on air. When asked, he did not say if it was sponsored by any political group or candidate.

This rampant disinformation, however, is sometimes coming from outlets in Latin America. One of the more frequently shared videos on WhatsApp in Miami include clips by Informativo G24, a conservative YouTube show based in Colombia in which the host tends to read articles from fringe right-wing publications that support conspiracy theories.

Sometimes media coverage of a threat is enough to achieve the goal of intimidation or disinformation, and both sides selectively use it to their advantage, said Jesse Littlewood, vice president for campaigns for Common Cause, who heads up the organization’s disinformation research.

Littlewood has criticized the media for often elevating election stories that are isolated incidents or administrative errors, and “it becomes the story that carries the water for the disinformation actors and conveys the sense there is a bigger problem at foot when we’re just reporting on it.”

Arevalo, however, says the disinformation has proven insidious in his family and wishes there was public information he can cite to show his family members that what they fear is false.

"This is something that needs to be put out there and debunked … because it is getting really bad. It is getting really bad, " Arevalo said.

Padró Ocasio reported from Miami, and Ceballos reported from Tallahassee.

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