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Community Organizers Are Helping Immigrants Navigate COVID Misinformation
This story comes to us from our partners at Feet in 2 Worlds, a project that brings the work of immigrant journalists to digital news sites and public radio.
At the beginning of 2021, Catalina Jaramillo had just started working as a staff writer at FactCheck.org, investigating and correcting misleading information about COVID-19 in Spanish. Immigrant communities were facing a tidal wave of inaccurate claims about the coronavirus, a lot of it on social media.
At the time she began her new job, the COVID-19 vaccine was already available, and Jaramillo was doubtful there would be much misleading information to correct. Relaying her thoughts in an interview on A Better Life? podcast about the impact of COVID-19 on immigrants, Jaramillo said, “The worst happened already.” She added, “I felt like  was the big misinformation spread. I was so wrong.”
Misleading information about COVID-19 comes in many forms. One of the most common is what Jaramillo refers to as misinformation. This is false information spread without awareness of it being untrue. “A typical example would be your tio, your uncle, sending you something on WhatsApp about COVID vaccines without knowing that [it’s] false or incorrect, just because they just want to share it with you because they love you,” Jaramillo says.
Now, Jaramillo realizes that “misinformation, unfortunately, is here to stay,” and worse, “it keeps coming.” She likens it to a “game of whack-a-mole. You kick one, it comes from another place.” This year alone, there’s been misinformation on the safety of vaccines and cases of people self-medicating with dangerous and inappropriate drugs, such as ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug for animals.
“Immigrants are particularly vulnerable to online misinformation,” Jaramillo adds. “They don’t trust a lot of people, so they’re in a lonely place. And that’s when predators can be more effective, because you don’t have someone to ask, or you could not read the media because you don’t understand the language.”
According to a recent Nielsen report, Latinos in particular spend more time on almost all social media platforms compared with the general population, but the content filtering used by these platforms is insufficient to correct the wave of misinformation aimed at immigrant communities and non-English speakers. According to a study from Avaaz last year, Facebook only detected 30% of misinformation in Spanish—compared with 70% in English.
Immigrants are also frequent users of messaging platforms like WhatsApp, which allows them to stay connected with family and friends no matter where they are. But WhatsApp has also been used to circulate messages riddled with false information. “These messages are inherently tied to the community,” says Nicolás Ríos, an audience editor at Documented who has reported on the impact of misinformation on immigrant communities in New York.
Occasionally, Documented asks people to send in suspicious messages they have received to see what kind of false information is being circulated. “I was not getting, for example, from the Latino undocumented community in New York, fake messages about hydroxychloroquine … but [I was getting messages about] a lot of herbs,” Ríos explains. “We in Latin America, people that grew in the countryside, we are very used to, because of indigenous culture, herbs that are medicinal.”
The other form of misleading information, disinformation, can be more sinister, because it is false information spread with the intent to mislead and manipulate. People who circulate disinformation go to great lengths to make it more accessible in order to better manipulate their targets.
While those spreading disinformation are often strategic in their approach to immigrant audiences, the same can’t always be said for those who provide accurate, reliable information. There is a lack of centralized science-based and vetted information for immigrants, making it harder for these communities to find reliable sources for the information that is relevant to them. “Sometimes, information gaps come from public programs themselves,” Ríos notes. “The bureaucracy gets too bureaucratic. Then, basically, you get these gaps and … you get people that are trying to fill the gaps and charging for that.”
Ríos saw WhatsApp messages containing false information about COVID-19 cures, stimulus checks, and access to food—issues the local undocumented Latino community wanted information on but had trouble finding accessible information about. The messages spread around the community were easy for people to understand because they were “in Spanish, [and] had some local [slang]. It was more conversational,” says Ríos. These messages would then provide a link to learn more but redirect to a page full of advertisements. Ríos adds, “The fake news had the purpose of sending people in need to a website, so this guy who made it makes 10 cents per click.”
Around the country, organizations are making an effort to push against the wave of misinformation with scientifically sound facts about COVID-19. Documented created a centralized guide with basic explainers and resources for undocumented Spanish-speaking people in New York. FactCheck.org has been making an effort to translate its stories from English into Spanish and works in alliance with Univision’s El Detector. Another news outlet, Conecta Arizona, uses colorful graphics and online chats to bring accurate information about the virus to Spanish speakers in Arizona and its neighboring state of Sonora, Mexico.
One of the most successful efforts has been led by Boat People SOS (BPSOS) Gulf Coast, an organization that works with the Vietnamese American community in Alabama and Mississippi. In Alabama, upward of 90% of Vietnamese Americans had already been vaccinated by June 2021, compared with only 34% of all Alabamians who had been vaccinated at that time.
Daniel Le, the branch manager of BPSOS Gulf Coast, credits this high vaccination rate to the organization’s concerted effort to make information accessible to Vietnamese Americans. “Whatever information they receive or that they understand, it usually comes from us. We are the [ones] who gather critical information, translate [it] into Vietnamese, and then we disseminate it to an outlet,” says Le. For BPSOS, dissemination of this information takes many forms, including flyers, visits to churches, and town-hall-style meetings.
Le says a big part of his group’s success is that they listen to and respond to members of the community. “We need to include community members as part of the solution. I think that’s one of the things that our local government is lacking, [which] is to understand and listen to the communities. They assume what we need, but those needs may not [necessarily be] the needs of a community,” says Le.
Katelynn Laws is a Colombian-American writer and producer based in North Carolina. She has produced for Feet in 2 Worlds' A Better Life?.