In the months leading up to the presidential election, reporting detailing the importance of the Black and Latinx vote proliferated across the media. As uncertainty increased about which election-related issues were most important to communities of color, many journalists looked to researchers for insights. But as researchers from Black and Latinx communities, we found a disconnect in questioning that appeared to demonstrate that many newsrooms were commissioning stories based on preconceived notions of what they assumed were important issues, rather than attempting to learn what was happening on the ground. Appreciating the nuanced characteristics of these communities is critical for anyone who studies, funds or works on information disorder.
That most newsrooms do not represent the audiences they are meant to serve is well known. As awareness grows about the impact of disinformation on communities of color, the absence of reporters, social media staff and funders from those same communities is becoming an increasingly urgent issue.
This year, First Draft partnered with the Disinformation Defense League (DDL), a collective established by the Media Democracy Fund that is composed of over 200 grassroots organizations across the US tackling disinformation and voter suppression campaigns targeting Black, Afro-Latinx, and Latinx communities. Through this partnership, we gained perspective on the gap between the organizations that work with the communities they serve, and large newsrooms that too often fail to understand the most important issues within communities of color, resulting in a failure to fully understand racialized information contexts.
Inquiries First Draft received from newsrooms showed an obsession with the impact of a small number of issues, such as birtherism claims about Kamala Harris and niche voting demographics in South Florida, rather than attempts to understand the much more fundamental impact of the pandemic and of systematic voter suppression campaigns against Black and Latinx communities. As we reflect on 2020, here are some key lessons.
The terms Black and Latinx are not mutually exclusive, and the community as a whole is not homogenous.
The term Latinx is not a race or an ethnicity, but a geographical descriptor with roots in the colonial ways people talk about Latin America, a descriptor derived to differentiate “Latin” peoples from the “Anglo-Saxon” peoples of the Americas. According to the Pew Research Center, Afro-Latino is a term deeply rooted in the identity of Hispanics in the US, and understanding that one can identify as both is crucial. As Meghna Mahadevan, Chief Disinformation Defense Strategist of United We Dream, explains: “The Latinx community is not a monolith. The Afro-Latinx experience is different from the Latinx, and is different from the Black experience. However, both communities share some negative experiences, like police brutality.”
Anti-Black sentiment exists within and across Black and Latinx spaces
Anti-Blackness is global, and doesn’t exclude Latinxs from spreading racist and anti-Black sentiment online regardless of whether they reside in Latin America or the United States. This is something that often goes unexamined. Within many Latinx spaces online, social media posts displaying anti-Black sentiment were prominent this election cycle, serving as a vector of misinformation against two social justice movements: Black Lives Matter and the organization’s call to Defund the Police. The Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) is a grassroots organization with sets of independently led chapters, and with leadership decentralized, data deficits about the movement appeared on a national stage. Misinformation associating BLM with extreme ideologies through the relationship of members with foreign leaders resonated in Latinx communities. For instance, in South Florida, dated and out-of-context photos showing BLM co-founder Opal Tometi with Venezuelan president Nicolas Máduro were consistently shared by local influencers such as Miami-based Venezuelan journalist Carla Angola.
The flow of information isn’t straightforward
There were too many assumptions from newsrooms that misinformation was flowing from Latin America to the US, when the flow was often quite the opposite. Much of it originated in the US and then spread across borders. Known misinformation agents translated articles, videos and memes from English to Spanish, sharing them on multiple platforms, such as WhatsApp, Facebook Groups, Pages and distribution lists. For example, Estamos Unidos, a Spanish- language conservative Facebook Page managed in the US, but with a large audience in Latin American countries, often used the The Epoch Times, a newspaper known for its promotion of right-wing conspiracy theories, as a source, translating articles pushing unproven claims of voter fraud.
A common narrative circulating in Latinx spaces online connected socialism to the Democratic Party, exacerbated by ads from Donald Trump’s re-election campaign that were then reposted by content creators such as PR Conservative and The Hispanic Conservative. For many immigrants, correlating socialism with the policies of a particular candidate played on the negative experiences of families who emigrated from countries with leftist authoritarian regimes, such as Cuba and Venezuela, or fled regions controlled by organizations such as FARC in Colombia and Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru. The messages were originally created for target audiences in Florida, where Latinx make up 17 per cent of the voting population. However, these posts gained traction in different online communities, then were amplified to become a nationwide trend of misinformation.
Covid-19 is critical to understanding what is happening in Black and Latinx communities
Black and Latinx communities were hit the hardest by Covid-19, with a death rate almost three times higher than white Americans. The day-to-day impact of the virus on communities of color has not received significant media coverage, but organizers on the ground understood the realities. As Candice Fortin, Senior Regional Field Manager at Color Of Change, explained: “[T]here were so many folks who when we reached out via text or phone call would name that they knew someone who was sick, that they themselves may be sick or someone at their work, in their neighborhood or church was sick [so it was very hard to get people to vote].”
The pandemic also had devastating effects on the economy. According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, the economy, health care and the pandemic were the top election issues for Latinx voters. The Brookings Institution also warned of the harsh economic situation of Latinos, catalyzed by the pandemic. According to the study, one-third of family businesses closed or experienced significant declines in revenue, three out of ten Hispanic families include someone who lost their job, and 40 per cent of households are having trouble paying their rent/mortgage. The impact of this reality on the election was rarely covered.
The importance of recognizing the impact of decades of targeted voter suppression tactics
A primary concern of Black and Latinx voters was the active attempt by President Donald Trump to undermine the mail-in voting process. These targeted messages were a constant drumbeat of the campaign, including the promotion of unsubstantiated claims that non-citizens were taking advantage of the postal voting system to cast ballots. In the Latinx community, there was a general feeling of distrust toward the Postal Service and its workers, evidenced in cases with misleading and sensationalist headlines in small publications such as Cuba en Miami, and in regular posts by well-known disinformation agents, such as the libertarian website PanAm Post.
The president’s messages were coupled with the fact that ballots of Black and Latinx voters had been disproportionately rejected leading up to the election. Fortin from Color of Change confirmed that “misinformation about people not getting their mail-in ballots was a very common thing,” and First Draft’s research surfaced numerous examples of misinformation about how to request, properly fill out or “cure” a ballot. As methods for voting by mail varied from state to state, some found it difficult to obtain a definitive answer in the weeks leading up to the election.
Preparing for 2021
As we move away from the election and toward the widespread availability of a coronavirus vaccine in the US, data deficits will likely increase, and with it, vaccine hesitancy. While vaccine misinformation will be a barrier to trust, that alone does not explain why certain communities of color will be more likely to resist vaccination. Considering the historical legacies of the Tuskegee experiments, Henrietta Lacks, and the recent allegations of forced sterilization and hysterectomies of undocumented women, it is crucial that those who report on Black and Latinx communities understand this legacy.
Racialized information contexts require specific strategies and collectives such as the Disinformation Defense League, which facilitates partnerships between organizations such as United We Dream; campaigners like Win Black/ Pa’lante and others who are working to combat Black and Latinx mis- and disinformation.
Problematic coverage of the protests following George Floyd’s murder showed the urgent need for newsrooms that are more inclusive. But this isn’t enough. Newsrooms need to spend more time speaking with people on the ground, such as organizers, grassroots organizations, activists and educators, who can assist in shaping reporting through insights that can only be found by those with expertise.