Every day, Veronica Perez works tirelessly to spread the word among her community of farmworkers: Get vaccinated against COVID-19. She goes door to door, field to field, in California’s Central Valley with her fellow community health workers, talking to people.
But no matter how hard she tries, Perez is up against a never-ending barrage of disinformation—intentionally false or misleading information—in Spanish, spreading mostly unchecked on social media platforms. As a result, Hispanics, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, are holding out on the vaccine.
“When the vaccine was rolled out, I started to notice a lot of people say they didn’t want to get it,” Perez told VICE World News. “They were afraid and said that getting the vaccine meant you’d be injecting yourself with the virus, which would change your DNA.”
Recent data shows about one-third of Hispanics have yet to commit to the jab. Farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to getting COVID-19, because their jobs often require them to be in close proximity to others. Across the country, over 500,000 farmworkers have gotten COVID.
While factors like taking time off from work to recover from side effects and fear of being asked one’s immigration status are deterrents, a large factor contributing to vaccine hesitancy is the pervasive role of social media.
Platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube are full of disinformation—and they’re profiting from it. A study from the Center for Countering Digital Hate used the average ad revenue and the number of people consuming disinformation to estimate the value of it in English on social media to be worth $1.1 billion.
Until recently, the platforms were largely opaque when it came to how they handled disinformation.
“We're only being given a small view into what's going on these platforms,” said Jaime Longoria, an investigative researcher who tracks Spanish disinformation for First Draft News. “We don't even have our foot in the door. We're peering through the window.”
Facebook has long been aware of the problem of disinformation spreading on its platforms, but warnings from employees were often ignored, recent reporting from the Wall Street Journal revealed. Internal documents from Facebook state that its ability to detect disinformation in post comments is “bad in English, and basically nonexistent elsewhere.”
A Facebook spokesperson told the Journal that “[n]arrowly characterizing leaked documents doesn’t accurately represent the problem, and it also ignores the work that’s been underway to make comments on posts about COVID-19 and vaccines safer and more reliable.”
A study from Avaaz found that disinformation in English on Facebook was labeled as such more than twice as much as disinformation in Spanish. Facebook told VICE News that the sample size of the study is too small.
Veronica Perez works to spread the word among her community of farmworkers: get vaccinated against COVID-19.Credit: Jika Gonzales for VICE News.
Like social media, disinformation is global. Videos espousing conspiracy theories about Bill Gates putting a microchip in the vaccine, that the vaccine will kill you, and that it will cause infertility spread across borders throughout Latin America, the United States, and Spain.
In the face of rampant Spanish disinformation, Perez continues to try to inform her community.
“If I want to see change, I need to be part of that change,” Perez said. “If we don’t get vaccinated, we’re all at risk.”