FTC commissioner urges use of ‘statutory toolbox’ to combat Spanish-language disinformation

FTC commissioner urges use of ‘statutory toolbox’ to combat Spanish-language disinformation

Tech companies are failing at combatting Spanish-language disinformation, lawmakers and advocates said during an online panel last week. NBC News reports that while tech companies flag or remove English-language posts, the same often doesn’t happen for Spanish-language versions of those posts.

“Platforms use the vast majority of their resources to (remove) misinformation within English language content,” New Mexico U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján said in the report. The panel, organized by anti-disinformation group Free Press Action, featured Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, “a commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates deceptive trade practices,” the report continued.

The panel, which also featured Minnesota U.S. Sen Amy Klobuchar and California Rep. Tony Cárdenas, comes as another NBC News report last month highlighted rampant Spanish-language COVID-19 disinformation. That report cited the massive use of free messaging apps like WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, by younger Latinos in particular. ”The outsized use of this technology also makes these apps prime for spreading misinformation, particularly among Latino communities,” Nielsen noted in a report last month.

NBC News reported that the legislators from the panel last week “have been pressuring social media platforms such as Facebook to step up their monitoring and blocking of disinformation in other languages, particularly on Covid-19 and vaccines that they said is costing lives. The problem is far worse for non-English-speaking families, they said.”

“Platforms are even more behind when it comes to cracking down on non-English information,” Klobuchar said in the report. “Unfortunately reports have shown that Facebook will flag English language posts containing lies about vaccines days before acting on the same post in Spanish.” Klobuchar noted that “[s]ometimes Spanish language posts never get flagged. You can still find Spanish language Facebook posts from November 2020 that promote election lies with no warning labels.”

This was similarly noted by Equis Research and Equis Labs co-founder Stephanie Valencia in The Washington Post late last month. “More recently, we’ve seen that Facebook will flag vaccine misinformation content in English, but the same content in Spanish takes days to get flagged, if it ever does,” Valencia continued. “The online activist group Avaaz found Facebook failed to issue warning labels on 70 percent of misinformation in Spanish, compared to only 29 percent in English.”

Documented last year reported on a number of rumors being spread among Spanish-language social media. One claimed that children who test positive for the virus would be taken from their parents.  “According to Google, the text first appeared on a Facebook page called ‘Un Dia Mas,’” the report said. “That Facebook account serves as a ‘content farm’—a person or group of people who share entertaining images to draw an audience.” Within just two hours, the text from that post was picked up by an account with millions of followers.  

While legislators and advocates have said it’s long past time to take a sledgehammer to Facebook, Slaughter said there is action that can be taken now. “The FTC should not wait for federal legislation to act,” she said according to the report. “We should use all tools in our statutory toolbox to protect American consumers and competition … to investigate and take appropriate enforcement actions where we can.”

“I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: Spanish-language misinformation campaigns are absolutely exploding on social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, etc,” New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted last week, writing it puts “English misinfo campaigns to shame … So for all the English-only pundits out there who want to wax ideological poetic about Latino polling numbers, please understand that what’s happening now is way beyond a scale most English-only speakers can see.”

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