Facebook is failing to enforce its own rules against falsehoods about COVID-19, vaccines, election fraud and conspiracy theories when it comes to posts in Spanish, according to a coalition of advocacy groups.
“There is a gap, quite an enormous gap, in fact, in English and Spanish-language content moderation,” Jessica González, co-CEO of the advocacy group Free Press, told NPR.
Even as Facebook has tightened its policies over the past year to address the proliferation of misleading content about the pandemic and the 2020 presidential election, González said this enforcement gap has left Latino communities more vulnerable to disinformation.
“Not only are they more likely to see [such posts], but they are more likely to be targeted with false claims,” she said. She pointed to the barrage of conspiracy theories and misleading messages that circulated among Latino voters in swing states such as Florida last year on Facebook and WhatsApp, the messaging service the company also owns.
Spanish-language misinformation did not subside after the presidential election, González and other Facebook critics said, but has continued to spread, downplaying the severity of the pandemic and undermining confidence in vaccines.
Free Press is joining with the Center for American Progress, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and a group of critics calling itself the Real Facebook Oversight Board in a campaign called “Ya Basta Facebook,” or “enough already, Facebook.” Some of the groups were also involved in last year’s Facebook advertising boycott.
The campaign is demanding Facebook create a new executive role overseeing Spanish-language content moderation in the U.S. It’s also urging the company to disclose more information about how its automated systems and human reviewers handle posts in Spanish.
In particular, the campaigners want Facebook to give details on how it treats posts in Spanish, including whether content moderators and the company’s algorithms review those posts in their original form or in an English translation.
Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., who is joining a press call with Ya Basta Facebook campaign organizers on Tuesday, told NPR he had heard from constituents who have come across false claims in Spanish on Facebook, including about COVID-19.
“Unfortunately, it’s affecting people’s willingness to get the vaccine in some cases, which means it’s a matter of life and death,” he said.
Cárdenas said he would press Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about how the company handles Spanish posts at a House hearing next week about misinformation on social media.
“I want to hear Mark Zuckerberg tell Congress and tell the people of America and the world that they’re going to police their system in an honest way to make sure that it’s more safe,” he said.
The Ya Basta Facebook campaign spotted several examples of Spanish posts on Facebook that appeared to violate the platform’s rules, González said. She says “very similar content” in English had been removed.
“It’s not unique to Spanish, but I think it’s particularly important for Facebook to address Spanish-language content moderation in the U.S.,” she said. “It’s the second-most spoken language here and it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to Facebook.”
Facebook said it has met with the advocacy groups and shares their goal of stopping the spread of false claims 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,” spokesman Kevin McAlister said in a statement.
“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,” he 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.”
Researchers have long accused Facebook of failing to enforce its rules effectively and consistently in languages other than English.
González pointed to an April 2020 study from the international advocacy group Avaaz that found Facebook flagged 70% of posts with misleading content about coronavirus in English, but only 30% of similar posts in Spanish. After the November presidential election, Avaaz found Facebook labeled debunked claims of election fraud in Spanish less frequently than the same claims in English.
In a separate report about misinformation in the 2020 election, a coalition of researchers concluded that across social media platforms, enforcement of rules on non-English posts “fell distinctly behind even when the narratives themselves were the same across languages.”
This week, Facebook said it would begin labeling all posts about COVID vaccines with “credible information” from the World Health Organization, in six languages including Spanish.
Facebook says four of its 10 fact-checking partners in the U.S. review content in Spanish. When Spanish-language content is flagged as false, users who shared it are notified in Spanish.
At a congressional hearing in November, Zuckerberg was questioned about the company’s approach to Spanish disinformation and what it was doing ahead of the Georgia Senate runoffs.
He cited the company’s Spanish-language fact checkers and said it had translated its voting information center, which appeared at the top of Facebook and Instagram, into Spanish.
“This is something that we are already working on and worked on ahead of the general election,” Zuckerberg said. “We’re certainly committed to focusing on this.”
Editor’s note: Facebook is among NPR’s financial supporters.