Tech companies blasted for inaction on Spanish-language disinformation


Lawmakers and activists blasted technology companies Wednesday in an online panel, saying they are doing a worse job flagging and removing disinformation posted online in Spanish than they are in English. 

Technology companies are leaving in place disinformation in Spanish or failing to flag it on social media platforms after they have removed or issued warnings about identical posts in English, the lawmakers, a federal regulator and anti-disinformation activists said. 

The discussion on the spread of online disinformation in Spanish and other languages was organized by Free Press Action, a political anti-disinformation group and Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico.

Participants included Luján, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Rep. Tony Cardenas of California — all Democrats — and Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, a commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates deceptive trade practices.

“Platforms use the vast majority of their resources to (remove) misinformation within English language content,” Lujan said. 

Lujan said people need the latest and best information to keep them safe from diseases or when a natural disaster forces evacuations, and to hold elected officials accountable.

But he said that disinformation is eroding trust in real information and that it has “cost people their health and livelihood.”

NBC News reported in September on a rise in Spanish-language disinformation online and on the radio amid the surge of the delta variant of Covid-19.

Luján, Cardenas and Klobuchar serve on congressional committees with oversight over communications and the internet, and consumer protection. 

The three 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. 

Cardenas said that recent revelations from Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen prove that social media platforms “are calculating how much it would cost them to do that, yet they are not recognizing how much it costs individuals and families and the community writ large when people succumb to this disinformation.”

Klobuchar said that disinformation on vaccines is a particular concern. 

“Platforms are even more behind when it comes to cracking down on non-English information,” Klobuchar said, adding that more than 100 languages are spoken in Minnesota. “Unfortunately reports have shown that Facebook will flag English language posts containing lies about vaccines days before acting on the same post in Spanish.”

“Sometimes 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,” she said.

She noted that Hauser testified that 87 percent of Facebook’s spending to counter misinformation is spent on English language misinformation, but only about 9 percent of users speak English.

Simultaneous with the panel discussion, the Global Disinformation Index, a nonprofit group that tracks false information campaigns online, reported that this year advertisers unwittingly are spending $12 million in advertising on 56 Spanish-language sites that push Covid-19 disinformation.

GDI said Google’s online ad placement service accounts for the largest share, 51.3 percent, or about $6 million, of that ad placement spending.

That share is a decline from 70 percent previously reported and the drop is likely due to Google’s introduction of a policy regarding Covid-19 disinformation, GDI said in its report.  

NBC News has reached out to Google for comment.

GDI also reported that advertising for popular brands was purchased on the sites. Ads bought through Google’s ad placement, GDI said, were placed in Spanish-language websites with articles that made false claims including that two-thirds of Covid deaths in the United Kingdom involved vaccinated people.

Clare Melford, GDI co-founder and executive director, called for the AdTech industry to take action by cutting financial incentives that she said is driving the disinformation. 

“Online disinformation creates real offline harms — as we have seen to great tragedy throughout the pandemic,” she said in a news release. 

The GDI report was jointly released with SumofUs, a group that pressures corporations on various issues including climate change, worker rights and other issues.

Slaughter, the FTC commissioner, pushed for regulation of the platforms.

“The FTC should not wait for federal legislation to act. 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,” she said.

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