Despite capturing over half of the Spanish-speaking market domestically and in Latin America, Facebook has ineffectively answered repeated calls to address the viral spread of misinformation among Spanish-speaking and Latino communities, according to press reports, research groups, leaked documents and advocacy groups.
Leaked documents provided by former Facebook employee and whistleblower, Frances Haugen indicate that the company knew it was not only contributing to the spread of misinformation, it knew that it was disproportionality incompetent at detecting it in Spanish. “We are not good at detecting misinformation in Spanish… We will continue to have gaps in detection and application, especially in Spanish,” reads Haugen’s letter to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
Before this was substantively proved, activist and research groups were already acutely aware of the phenomenon. Leading up to the 2020 election cycle, company employees had suggested the creation of an accurate voting information resource for Spanish-speaking US citizens, but it never came to fruition. Upon learning this the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) issued a press release criticizing Zuckerberg saying he had “allegedly objected to the proposal because he thought it would look ‘partisan.’” Although this was later denied by Christina LoNigro, a spokesperson for WhatsApp.
This was followed-up by continued internal and external warnings. Nevertheless, the company “did very little to curb Spanish-language disinformation campaigns attempting to influence and divide Latinx voters,” wrote a group of nearly 20 institutions in an open letter to Zuckerberg. Between both letters, the organizations made it explicitly clear that the tech company’s inability to flag and remove misinformation was not a task that should be relegated to individuals or non-profits.
“Not only does this deplete valuable resources that should be dedicated to directly advocating for and providing services to our community, it is also an exhausting exercise in microaggression pain points of our position and power in the systemically inequitable US tech industry,” read the letter by the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC).
Despite this call to action the platform still dedicates most of its misinformation spending on English content. As outlined in Haugen’s letter to the SEC, although only 10 percent of daily Facebook users reside in the US, 87 percent of its fiscal budget in 2020 was dedicated to battle misinformation in the US, thus only leaving 13 percent for the rest of the world. According to Haugen’s testimony before congress, English content is prioritized over other languages based solely on profitability. “It seems that Facebook invests more in users who make the most money, even though the danger may not be evenly distributed,” she said.
Nonetheless, Meta has defiantly pushed back, proclaiming that they had a robust Spanish-language content moderation infrastructure. “We conduct Spanish-language content review 24 hours per day at multiple global sites,” the company wrote in May in a statement to Congress. “Spanish is one of the most common languages used on our platforms and is also one of the highest-resourced languages when it comes to content review.”
Unsurprisingly, this preference has allowed Spanish misinformation to proliferate, research shows. While Meta has the capacity to flag about 70 percent of misinformation in English, its aptitude falls dramatically when filtering for of comparable misinformation in Spanish, flagging only about 30 percent of content, according to human rights non-profit Avaaz. Irrespectively, this margin of error is too high for a platform with over 50 percent market penetration in the US and in most Latin American countries.
Ultimately, despite knowing that it has obvious gaps in content moderation, Meta is seemingly disinterested in blunting a tool that has been weaponized. What is more, the true scope of this problem is difficult to assess when compounded with the companies WhatsApp platform, where misinformation is also prevalent but considerably more difficult to track. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, this intersectionality had fueled multiple misinformation crises at best, in addition to violent and fatal incidents around the world including India, Brazil, Mexico, Myanmar, Ethiopia and most recently the US.
Ultimately, Facebook’s leaked documents and Haugen’s testimony gave substance to what many onlookers already knew, exhausting the last social capital it had. Currently, the company finds itself under intense scrutiny which prompted the company to prematurely rebrand itself under the name Meta Platforms at the end of last month. “Facebook and Big Tech are facing a Big Tobacco moment, a moment of reckoning” said Democrat Senator Richard Blumenthal. Whether a fractionalized US congress uses this momentum to extract immediate benefits for society is questionable with marked implications for Latinx constituents and the wider global community.