Apr 16, 2021

As if fighting disinformation wasn’t hard enough, there’s a language gap, too

HTML EMBED:
COPY
Facebook flags just 29% of misinformation in Spanish, compared to 70% of comparable material in English, according to one study.

Facebook and other social media companies get plenty of criticism for allowing too much disinformation on their platforms, especially when it comes to elections, pandemic misinformation and untruths about COVID-19 vaccines. Now, critics say, even as the platforms are taking steps toward cracking down, there’s a huge hole in their already spotty enforcement. Not all of the disinformation is in English. There are more than 40 million Spanish speakers in the United States, and critics say they’ve been targeted with disinformation campaigns since the 2020 election and beyond.

#YaBastaFacebook, or “Enough Already, Facebook,” is a coalition of advocacy groups that say Facebook’s efforts to scrub Spanish-language content of political and health-related disinformation are underwhelming. Democratic U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas of Los Angeles says this issue is as personal to him as family.

“My mother-in-law is saying, ‘Is it true that there’s some kind of an electronic thing that they’re going to put in your body?’” The fallacy that a microchip comes with the COVID-19 vaccine has spread all over the internet.

But Cárdenas says Facebook has the money to do more, so it should do more. Facebook and its popular platforms Instagram and WhatsApp reach 3.3 billion users monthly.

“It should not be left to the not-for-profits and to the community at large to do the job Facebook admits that they actually do in English,” Cárdenas said.

According to one study by the human rights nonprofit Avaaz, Facebook flags just 29% of misinformation in Spanish, compared to 70% of comparable material in English.

“I’m not saying that they do a good job in English, but the job that they’re doing in Spanish and in other languages is almost nonexistent by comparison,” Cárdenas said.

But Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies treat a lot of their data as proprietary intellectual property. And that makes it difficult to monitor what’s really going on from outside the companies, says Ivan Sigal, who heads Global Voices, a citizen media network that operates in about 40 languages.

“The problem is that we do not know as outsiders. And it’s very hard for us to offer meaningful feedback because of the opacity of their process,” Sigal said.

A spokeswoman for Facebook wrote that the company is taking “aggressive” human and automated steps to fight COVID-19 misinformation in dozens of languages. She said the company has removed millions of posts and added warning labels to millions more. YouTube and Twitter say much the same thing. But the heat is on all of them to up their game substantially, as they increasingly face litigation, legislation and regulation across the globe, all — in one language or another — saying the equivalent of “ya basta.”

The future of this podcast starts with you.

Every day, Molly Wood and the “Tech” team demystify the digital economy with stories that explore more than just “Big Tech.” We’re committed to covering topics that matter to you and the world around us, diving deep into how technology intersects with climate change, inequity, and disinformation.

As part of a nonprofit newsroom, we’re counting on listeners like you to keep this public service paywall-free and available to all.

Support “Marketplace Tech” in any amount today and become a partner in our mission.

The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer