COVID crisis: Vaccine conspiracy theories, hoaxes in Spanish targeting Hispanic community breed fear, hesitancy
Ilan Shapiro, a physician working in COVID-ravaged areas of Los Angeles and Orange County, where Latinos face high rates of infection, hospitalization and death, says he waited 13 months for life-saving vaccines only to be thwarted by Spanish-language viral misinformation spreading on social media.
Knocking down false rumors, conspiracy theories and misleading news reports that play on vaccine fears has become a routine and necessary part of treating patients.
Shapiro is fighting back with a Spanish-speaking digital campaign, #VacunateYa, that taps health-care professionals and “promotoras” – community members trained to deliver health information – to dispel myths with medical facts.
But he says it’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the falsehoods shared by friends, relatives, even celebrities, on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube and in private messaging apps like WhatsApp.
Surging misinformation, he says, is contributing to low vaccination rates among a vulnerable population whose health and finances have already been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We can have all the vaccines in the world here in the U.S., but, if they don’t go in the shoulder, all of our efforts are meaningless,” Shapiro said.
Research shows that health and vaccine-related falsehoods and conspiracy theories are one of the most pervasive forms of misinformation targeting Hispanic communities.
‘We are going to have to save ourselves’:Black community fights deadly COVID vaccine conspiracy theories
Want to get the COVID vaccine?:Facebook is launching a vaccine finder tool
Watchdog groups call it the Spanish-language misinformation gap. They say social media companies have been far less likely to flag misinformation in Spanish, including debunked claims of election fraud and vaccine falsehoods.
They blame lax enforcement, errors in translation such as misinterpreting slang, dialects and context and poor fact-checking of Spanish-language news sites.
An analysis last year by human rights nonprofit Avaaz found that Facebook did not put warning labels on 70% of Spanish-language misinformation versus 29% of misinformation in English.
“Facebook continues to ignore our concerns and is making one thing perfectly clear: the safety and dignity of the Latinx community is not their priority,” said Brenda Victoria Castillo, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
On Tuesday Hispanic advocacy organizations launched a “Ya Basta, Facebook” (“Stop it, Facebook”) campaign, calling on Facebook to devote more resources to Spanish-language moderation.
In a statement, Facebook said it shares the organizations’ goal of stopping Spanish-language misinformation on its apps.
Facebook says it’s fighting misinformation in Spanish
“We are taking aggressive steps to fight misinformation in Spanish and dozens of other languages, including by removing millions of pieces of COVID-19 and vaccine content,” the company said in a statement.
Facebook said last month that it would remove posts with false claims about the coronavirus and vaccines and steer people to accurate information from authoritative sources about vaccines. It also said it would take down accounts that repeatedly share misinformation.
“We also understand that a key part of getting accurate information out is working with communities, which is why we’re providing free ads to health organizations to promote reliable information about COVID-19 vaccines,” Facebook said. “We’re continuing to work on stopping misinformation, including Spanish-language content, and want to continue our dialogue with these groups to strengthen our approach.”
Facebook uses a mix of human moderators and automated systems to identify Spanish-language misinformation and disinformation. Four of 10 fact-checking partners in the U.S. evaluate content in Spanish, according to the company. If posts are flagged but not removed, Facebook says it makes sure fewer people see them and offers users context in Spanish.
False claims about microchips, DNA and satanic rituals still spreading
Despite these efforts, misinformation continues to spread on Facebook and WhatsApp, undercutting public trust in the vaccines, says Daniel Acosta-Ramos, who monitors vaccine misinformation in the U.S. for the nonprofit First Draft.
Some posts claim that the vaccine contains a microchip, causes cancer or that it will alter people’s DNA or is part of a satanic ritual.
Others embrace religion, saying God will cure them if they come down with COVID-19. One meme shared in a religious, Spanish-speaking WhatsApp group read: “The only cure I need is the church.”
Lack of reliable vaccine information in Spanish or poorly translated information combined with too little government outreach have made it easier for vaccine misinformation to spread, Shapiro said.
“When you have lack of contact with a community, something fills out that space and, in this case, that’s fear,” he said.
Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) says he sees firsthand misinformation and disinformation on social media contributing to vaccine hesitancy in his district and in his own family.
White people were over three times more likely than Hispanic people to have received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation in February found.
His 78-year-old mother-in-law, whose primary language is Spanish, recently asked Cárdenas: “Is it true that there are some kind of electronic things that they are going to put in your body?”
“The bottom line is that’s a perfect example of how vulnerable any community can be,” Cárdenas said. “And for organizations like Facebook to ignore an entire community of 60 million people in America, and a subset of that, about 40 million people who communicate in Spanish, for them to do that, is derelict.”
Misinformation contributing to vaccine hesitancy
Over 70% of Latinos say they are probably or definitely going to get vaccinated, on par with non-Latino whites, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. But only 36% said they would definitely get vaccinated compared to 46% of non-Latino whites.
“Low rates of vaccination among Hispanic people would leave them at increased risk for the virus, could further widen existing health disparities and would leave gaps that hinder our ability to achieve overall population immunity,” the foundation said.
Fears about the vaccines’ safety and side effects can have devastating results on communities that already face other hurdles to getting vaccinated, Shapiro said.
Thousands of Latinos were sterilized:Amid COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, they remember
COVID life expectancy gap:Life expectancy at lowest level in 15 years, and even lower for Black Americans, Latinos
Some 43% of Latinos are essential workers and work outside the home, making them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Latinos are twice as likely to lack health insurance and more likely than white adults to say they don’t have easy access to a health-care provider. For some, there are language and literacy challenges.
Undocumented residents may be unsure they are eligible for the vaccine or may be more hesitant to seek it out because of their legal status. Distrust of the medical establishment in communities long neglected and exploited also plays a role in lower vaccination rates.
From the 1930s through the 1970s, for example, about a third of the female population in Puerto Rico was sterilized under population control policies that coerced women into postpartum sterilization after their second child’s birth, according to the University of Wisconsin’s Office of the Gender and Women’s Studies Librarian annotated bibliography on the topic.
“Low rates of vaccination among Hispanic people would leave them at increased risk for the virus, could further widen existing health disparities, and would leave gaps that hinder our ability to achieve overall population immunity,” the foundation said.
In Coachella, California, home to many farm workers, Conrado E. Bárzaga distributes resources in Spanish to counter misinformation about the vaccines.
“Misinformation has always been a problem,” said Bárzaga, CEO of the nonprofit Desert Healthcare District and Foundation. “When we started working with vaccine distribution, we started hearing a lot of conspiracy theories and people would ask us if the vaccine has the virus in it.”
Not every South or Central American who comes to the U.S. speaks Spanish. Many farm workers in Coachella speak Purépecha, an indigenous language spoken in certain regions of Mexico, so Bárzaga started circulating information in that language, too.
“It is extremely important right now that we continue vaccinating our communities against fear with a dose of truth,” Shapiro said. “If we don’t solve this problem, we are going to lose more people.”
Contributing: Nada Hassanein, USA TODAY