Latinos Who Use Spanish-Language Social Media Get More Misinformation

November 8, 2022  ·   Analysis

That could affect their votes — and their safety from covid-19.

A sign with an arrow pointing voters to a polling place.

Credit: GPA Photo Archive

This article was originally published at The Washington Post.

How do Latino people — the largest ethnic minority group in the United States — use social media to get their political and public health information? With Twitter now owned by the wealthiest man in the world and voting about to end in the 2022 midterms, the answers to that question have consequences. The news Latino people encounter online would probably be quite different from what White people encounter, since many Latino people consume news in Spanish: 30 percent of U.S. Latinos consider themselves bilingual, and 40 percent communicate primarily in Spanish. Some social media platforms, including Meta, admit that their content moderation is worse in Spanish. In fact, WhatsApp, which is highly popular among Latino people, doesn’t monitor content at all, relying on users to install fact-checking monitors on their accounts.

Our research found that, indeed, Latino people use social media differently than do White Americans. What’s more, Latino people who rely on Spanish-language social media are more likely to believe misinformation about election issues and are more likely to rely on social media for information about the coronavirus.

Latino people use social media differently than White people do

To understand how and where Latino people get information online, we surveyed 2,636 individuals across America who identify as Latino/Hispanic/Latinx. Respondents were recruited with online advertisements in both Spanish and English to take an online survey. Our sample included roughly equal numbers of English-dominant, bilingual and Spanish-dominant respondents. We also sampled approximately 1,000 non-Latino people as a comparison group. We weighted respondents on education, gender, age, and region to match the national proportions of Latino people and all people based on census figures from the ACS.

We asked our respondents which social media platforms they had accounts on. And we asked detailed questions about their sources of political and coronavirus information.

As you can see in the figure below, Latino people were slightly less likely to use Facebook than White people (79 percent versus 96 percent) and were also slightly less likely to use YouTube (73 percent versus 75 percent).

But Latino people were substantially more likely than White people to use WhatsApp (53 percent versus 14 percent), TikTok (42 percent vs 24 percent), and Telegram (16 percent versus 5 percent). That was true even among U.S.-born Latino people, 33 percent of whom said they use WhatsApp. An even higher proportion of Spanish-language dominant Latino people uses WhatsApp: 70 percent.

A bar chart showing social media use by platform for Whites and Hispanics.

Latino people were also more likely to use these platforms for political information and discussion

We found that Latino people were more likely to follow politicians on social media than White people. Of Latino people on Telegram, for example, 39 percent said that they followed at least one politician on the platform, while only 32 percent of White people said the same.

Even more striking was how Latino people used platforms to talk about politics. While only 15 percent of White people reported using WhatsApp to talk about politics once a day or more, 31 percent of Latino users said they did.

Latino people are more likely to use social media to find information on covid-19

We also asked respondents where they got information about covid-19. This information could be critical to decisions made by individuals about their own behavior; incorrect information could literally put lives at risk.

We found that 53 percent of Latino people said that they relied “a lot” or “a great deal” on social media for information about covid-19. For White people, the figure was only 34 percent.

A bar chart showing where Whites and Hispanics get information about covid-19.

Of course, social media may be peddling misinformation on covid-19. That’s especially true on Spanish- language social media, as Teo Armus has found. That’s a problem, as we found that 56 percent of Spanish-dominant Latino people and bilinguals said they got their covid information from social media. After controlling for respondents’ levels of education, income, and age, Hispanics were much more likely to say that they relied on social media for information about covid-19 than were White people.

Latino people who rely on Spanish-language social media are more likely to believe in election fraud

As Jeronimo Cortina and Brandon Rottinghaus reported in February here at The Monkey Cage, Latino people who rely mainly on Spanish-language media are more likely to believe in baseless accusations than those who rely on English-language news sources. We dug further into this, specifically checking on whether social media use related to belief that the 2020 election was fraudulent. To measure this, we asked who respondents thought more people really voted for in the 2020 presidential election: Joe Biden or Donald Trump. And we asked Latino respondents if the news they consumed on social media was in English, Spanish or both.

We found that 40 percent of Hispanic respondents who relied on Spanish language social media for their news believed that Trump received more votes than Biden, a belief held by only 31 percent of Hispanic respondents who relied on English language social media. Even controlling for demographics such as age, education and income and whether the respondent generally used English or Spanish, reliance on Spanish language social media was associated with a greater likelihood of thinking that Trump won the election.

As others have reported, Spanish-language social media platforms are not as highly monitored for misinformation and disinformation as are English-language platforms. Will this shape Latino votes in this election? Our research suggests that that’s likely.