And the problem is even more severe in languages other than English.
The crisis is especially acute on Facebook, where Mark Zuckerberg and other company leaders have repeatedly ignored calls from their own employees, lawmakers and advocacy groups to take non-English disinformation seriously.
Free Press CO-CEO Jessica J. González recently spoke to The Los Angeles Times about Facebook’s failures. She recalled a meeting held in October 2020 that the company took months to commit to. “We had a lot of specific questions that they completely failed to answer,” she said. “We were consistently met much the same way they meet other groups that are working on disinformation or hate speech: with a bunch of empty promises and a lack of detail.”
Earlier this month, Free Press Action and Sen. Ben Ray Luján hosted a roundtable that delved into the non-English disinformation crisis and explored solutions. González moderated the conversation, which brought together members of Congress, staff, policy experts, grassroots leaders and selected members of the press to shine light on this issue and to offer an opportunity for robust discussion about potential policy solutions.
Participants included Sen. Luján, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Tony Cárdenas and FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, as well as public-interest leaders and disinformation experts from EquisLabs, Media Democracy Fund, MediaJustice, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Viet Fact Check.
Stephanie Valencia is the co-founder and president of EquisLabs, which focuses on building Latinx political power. “Our research shows that there’s a real asymmetry between how Facebook, YouTube and other social-media platforms are treating Spanish-language disinformation,” she said. “We know that for all the harm that Facebook and other companies are allowing to flourish in English, their handling of Spanish-language content is dramatically worse.”
People’s lives are on the line
Disinformation, said Sen. Luján, has “cost people their health and livelihood.”
Rep. Cárdenas agreed, noting that deceitful content about the severity of the virus and the safety of vaccines is “convincing good people to risk their lives for no good reason.”
He said that platforms like Facebook are “calculating how much it would cost them to [address non-English disinformation] yet they are not recognizing how much it costs individuals and families and the community writ large when people succumb to this disinformation.” Indeed, social-media companies routinely prioritize profits over the safety of their users — and the health of our democracy.
The two lawmakers, along with Sen. Klobuchar, have helped lead Congress’ response to this growing threat. Cárdenas spoke during a March briefing announcing the launch of the #YaBastaFacebook (enough, Facebook!) campaign, led by Free Press, the Center for American Progress, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and the Real Facebook Oversight Board. The centerpiece of the campaign is the Spanish-Language Disinformation Action Plan, which outlines four concrete steps the company should take to combat the crisis.
In July, Cárdenas, Luján and Klobuchar spearheaded a congressional sign-on letter that Free Press Action helped craft to the CEOs of Facebook, Nextdoor, Twitter and YouTube. The letter addresses the companies’ failure to crack down on Spanish-language disinformation. “There is significant evidence that your Spanish-language moderation efforts,” the letter reads, “are not keeping pace, with widespread accounts of viral content promoting human smuggling, vaccine hoaxes and election misinformation.”
“Sometimes Spanish-language posts never get flagged,” Sen. Klobuchar said during the roundtable. “You can still find Spanish-language Facebook posts from November 2020 that promote election lies with no warning labels.”
The revelations from Frances Haugen and other whistleblowers have provided hard proof that Facebook has long been aware of its disinformation problem. “What Frances Haugen has bravely revealed,” González said in an October statement, “is Facebook’s actual knowledge and serial cover-up of the extent of its global harms.”
Haugen testified before Congress last month, and advocacy groups are hoping that the documents she leaked will energize lawmakers to regulate Facebook and confront the hate-and-lie-for-profit business model of tech platforms. But there’s also a role for the Federal Trade Commission, as FTC Commissioner Slaughter acknowledged during the roundtable.
“The FTC should not wait for federal legislation to act,” said Slaughter. “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.”
Slaughter acknowledged that the agency is “overdue to get started.”
‘A form of discrimination’
What’s clear is that Facebook in particular — with its refusal to confront hate and disinformation in any meaningful way — is not fit to govern itself.
“Inaction is disrespectful to our community,” said National Hispanic Media Coalition President and CEO Brenda Castillo. “It’s a form of discrimination.”
As the co-founder of Viet Fact Check, Nick Nguyen documents Vietnamese-language disinformation. “Time and time again we read about a policy solution to address harms and find that these solutions are almost entirely implemented for English speakers,” he said. “And when action does happen we’ve observed bad actors start to use code words to evade the moderators who are not native language speakers.”
Jacquelyn Mason is the director of programs at the Media Democracy Fund and also helps lead the Disinfo Defense League, which works to disrupt disinformation aimed at communities of color. During the roundtable, she discussed efforts to confront a range of hoaxes and lies circulating on Facebook, including coordinated efforts to disparage vaccines, discourage voting, and incite animosity and division between Black and Brown communities. “We saw a huge effort to spread anti-Black narratives during the summer of the Black Lives Matter protests,” Mason said.
MediaJustice Executive Director Steven Renderos explained why disinformation campaigns so frequently succeed. “Targeted disinformation campaigns aimed at people whose primary language is something other than English are highly influential because they often prey on fears or legitimate lived experiences,” he said. “I believe we need policy solutions that deliver the users of these platforms, particularly those that don’t speak English, the vital data-privacy and civil-rights protections they deserve.”
As González toward the end of the roundtable, it’s time to “move from outrage to solutions.” Urge Congress to regulate Facebook, call on the FTC to protect online privacy and civil rights — and watch the video of the roundtable below.