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WhatsApp, Misinformation, and Latino Political Discourse in the U.S.

Inga Kristina Trauthig, Ph.D. is the research manager of the Propaganda Research Lab at the Center for Media Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin, where Kayo Mimizuka is a graduate research assistant at the Center for Media Engagement and a Ph.D. student in the School of Journalism and Media.

This essay is part of a series on Race, Ethnicity, Technology and Elections supported by the Jones Family Foundation. Views expressed here are those of the authors.

A wave of candidates advancing false claims about the integrity of U.S. elections, spurred on by former president Donald Trump, are challenging American democracy and fueling a loss in public trust in election results. As midterm elections loom in the fall of 2022, the U.S. is at an apparent crossroads. Understanding the complexities of the impacts of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda on different parts of the U.S. population is necessary to create a truly inclusive political system. 

Whether along racial or demographic lines, diverse parts of the U.S. population have varying habits with regard to information gathering and media consumption. While TikTok is capturing headlines as the potential next big thing for misinformation among young people, another set of platforms is growing in political importance but are perhaps less in the spotlight: private, partially encrypted messaging apps (EMAs). 

These message apps are hugely influential in the formation and communication of  political opinions among Latino voters. For instance, WhatsApp has an outsized importance among U.S. Latino users (46% use it), compared to Black users (23%) and white users (16%) according to Pew Research. The app serves the dual purpose of connecting with people with friends and family abroad but also within diaspora communities in the U.S. 

In order to better understand the relevance messaging apps hold for the political life and democratic participation of Latino diaspora communities in the U.S., we undertook qualitative research, traveling and speaking in-depth with various people who self-identify as part of the Cuban and Venezuelan diaspora communities in Miami, Florida, and in the Mexican diaspora community in San Antonio, Texas.

San Antonio is the biggest Latino-majority city in the U.S., and is almost 60% Mexican American  – making it a relevant locale to study Spanish language misinformation. The city witnessed a large increase in voter turnout in the 2020 election, with Latinos in San Antonio, as well as Texas more broadly voting Republican more often than pollsters had anticipated. However, this year in Texas, mobilizing Hispanics and women was identified as a decisive factor for potentially disrupting the continued electoral success of Republican candidates. 

Likewise, Cuban Americans in Miami have been a crucial support group for Trump, and the 2020 election brought to the fore varying kinds of misinformation – these included attacks on Joe Biden as well as extremist content, such as QAnon-related conspiracy theories and antisemitic tropes. In 2022, Latinos comprise almost 20% of the state’s registered voters, and are “poised to play a key role,” with Cuban and Venezuelan Americans in Miami being a noteworthy case study as a decisively conservative Latino group among voters in Florida. 

For the purposes of this work, the factor of self-identification as belonging to a diaspora community is central: we use the term “diaspora communities” to include community members who told us that they regularly use EMAs to communicate with people in their country of origin or where their family is from, with individuals who share their cultural context, and with people living in the U.S. identifying with the same community. While this approach risks over-including individuals who are not part of identical communities, the connecting thread for our research is the usage of these apps. Our definition also aims to avoid the dominant rationale for the homogenization of people from non-white communities in the U.S. Instead of basing the study on sociologically deterministic inclusion/exclusion criteria, such as a certain age or nationality, this study follows well-established conceptualizations by thinkers such as Benedict Anderson that subvert the determinist scheme in which any nation is portrayed as a product of specific sociological conditions; the nation is an “imagined political community.”

Overall, our work suggests that we are observing a critical shift in the way diaspora communities engage with news. We argue that broader sociological parameters can also explain the success of messaging platforms as places for political discussion amongst diaspora communities since these environments offer an alternative to what is considered the majority-dominated public discourse. They have the potential to operate as “subaltern counterpublics,” which can inspire more trust and confidence among communities that have been historically marginalized from the public sphere.

Is misinformation a permanent feature of interpersonal communications?

We argue that misinformation has become part of everyday communication – it’s not a ‘phenomenon’ but instead incessant in daily news consumption and interpersonal communication – and messaging apps are the most important vector of this misinformation normalization for Latino communities. Information received via messaging apps is often seen as more trustworthy and is simultaneously more hidden from any fact checking efforts, which presents a unique challenge. Furthermore, the mere promotion through content moderation of what platforms consider authoritative sources and official narratives are likely to be ineffective, especially in these chat spaces as ‘subaltern counterpublics,’ if they do not have members of the minority communities adequately represented in their own voices in efforts to confront misinformation. 

Overall, it is likely that the 2022 U.S. midterm elections will be seriously challenged by manipulative, false, political messaging over messaging apps that leverage topics specifically targeting some diaspora communities. Propaganda is, based on our observations, increasingly flowing in private spaces and targeting communities that have often been politically marginalized. The potential consequences for rising misinformation within diaspora communities are concerning. On an individual level, misinformation can decisively but illicitly affect a person’s voting decision, or even the desire to engage politically. On a societal level, misinformation risks harming and alienating minority communities and, ultimately, further degrading democratic systems — which rely upon the votes of all people, and particularly those who have less of a voice in institutional politics.  

Political misinformation creeps into small group chats 

With the U.S. midterm elections looming, many of our Latino interviewees said they are exposed to mis- and disinformation on a daily basis, and the primary channels are typically WhatsApp groups with their closest friends and family members. This reflects a concern that was prevalent among registered Latino voters during the 2020 presidential election that their family and friends would get misleading information about the candidates on chat apps in conjunction with other social media platforms.

For Ray (pseudonym), a 37-year-old Mexican immigrant in San Antonio, the biggest source of mis- and disinformation is a WhatsApp group with his childhood Mexican friends. At first, the ~15 person chat group was simply for checking in with each other and sharing funny memes and jokes. But gradually, the space became saturated more and more with false content and conspiracy theories posted by one of Ray’s old friends. The friend started bombarding the chat group with chain messages, memes and videos—both in Spanish and English—on topics including elections, transphobia, and flat-earth conspiracies, to the point where it was impossible to have proper conversations, Ray said. “I’m assuming he got it through WhatsApp groups or YouTube, where it was reaffirming his point of view… it’s really crazy to see because it’s someone I grew up with.” 

Trust and familiarity make misinformation on chat apps more dangerous

Our interviewees described how, in those WhatsApp groups, misinformation not only spreads but changes people’s opinions on political issues by leveraging trusted relationships. Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ray’s WhatsApp group became inundated with anti-vaccine memes and content that essentially denied the pandemic, contrary to overwhelming evidence, as well as videos that discouraged people from wearing masks—all forwarded by the same friend in the group. One of the memes this friend posted read: “Most people are afraid of COVID-19. I’m more afraid of my friends and family who have no problem falling in line with a system of control. Why? Because one day, they’ll have no problem turning on me for not doing so.” 

Eventually, more than half of the friends in the chat group were convinced to not get vaccinated. Other messages shared in the same group suggested that the “system of control” was seen as the media institutions and the national government in Washington D.C., sometimes referring to specific Democratic candidates. “I still love them because I grew up with them, but it’s crazy,” said Ray.

Other members of the Latino diaspora communities we interviewed also indicated they encounter misinformation through their family WhatsApp groups,  which are their primary avenues to keep in touch with their parents, siblings, and extended relatives. While all interviewees observed high levels of misinformation floating on messaging apps, they disagreed on who is most susceptible. Some of our interviewees saw younger generations (usually their children who are in college) as being more susceptible to misinformation, while the interviewed children were convinced their parents’ and grandparents’ generations are not only more susceptible, but are also quicker to spread misinformation. Existing studies provide varying evidence on generational differences in people’s ability and actual efforts to verify information.

In family WhatsApp groups, all generations come together, and information originating from various sources—YouTube, TikTok, TV, radio, and sometimes religious circles—is shared. Victor, a 48 year old Mexican American in San Antonio, said he was exposed to COVID-related mis- and disinformation “all the time” through one of his family WhatsApp groups, where his uncle and aunt kept posting information their church community passed along. His uncle had recently passed away from COVID-19, but his aunt continued to disseminate misinformation about the pandemic. “She lost her husband, but apparently the church is more important to her than any of those things. It’s pretty scary that the religious groups are spreading misinformation,” said Victor. He is convinced that there are basically no topics, including politics, for which WhatsApp information is not the main source for information that informs decision making for many of his family members. 

Polarizing content and misinformation on messaging apps is particularly dangerous to democracy

These vignettes are not distinct to Ray and Victor, but rather exemplify everyday experiences among our interviewees. Many of the people in the Latino communities we interviewed shared similar stories of how mendacity spreads, affects people’s opinions and behaviors around political issues, and divides their communities on WhatsApp. It is hard for them to simply shut down these communication channels as that would mean losing touch with loved ones. As a result, misinformation has become normalized in their most personal communication spaces in which they spend a substantial amount of time. “Every day I wake up to… I would say, a hundred texts in total from all of the groups I have to check in the morning,” said Mauro, a 27-year-old Venezuelan American in Miami.

Herein lies the danger – if private messaging spaces, such as WhatsApp, have de facto developed into the most important medium to stay in touch with family and friends but simultaneously are exploited for misinformation to the exasperation of some group members, these dynamics are counterproductive for democracy in two main ways: 

a) They fuel democratic malaise and discontent, as the constant exposure to polarizing content and misinformation on messaging apps negatively impacts the interest in democratic engagement; and 

b) They can embolden undemocratic actors interested in spreading lies to protect their own interests or lure people into certain voting decisions, which might be to their own and/or their community’s detriment. 

This second point is a heightened challenge with regard to EMAs, as content seen on and received via those apps is accredited with a pre-disposal to trust. While researchers have tracked the meddling of domestic and foreign actors spreading disinformation on messaging apps, this possibility has been largely disregarded by our interviewees. Many interviewees told us that while they see misinformation all the time, they don’t believe it is spread with malign intent, or that it necessarily has origins outside of someone they know sharing something false simply because they randomly came across it. 

Unintentional news and misinformation consumption 

Misinformation often arrives in the form of a news article, video or bulletin. When asked whether WhatsApp or other messaging apps are important sources of news, few of our interviewees said they were – which is in line with existing polling data that shows marginal importance (3%) for WhatsApp as a news source: in June 2022, Pew stated that among Americans overall (not just Latinos), Facebook is the most widely used social media site for news, with 31% of U.S. adults saying they go there regularly for news. 

In fact, our interviewees saw chat apps as one of the least reliable platforms to obtain factual information. But the polling and the incipient answers of our interviewees hide a second reality – when we continued the conversation discussing habits of news consumption, most interviewees agreed that while chat apps were not their main go-to source for news, nevertheless those platforms are where they come across the most news. This suggests our research agenda must appreciate that despite their stated news and information habits,  people cannot avoid seeing political and news content on messaging apps numerous times throughout the day. While they might not accredit messaging apps with the highest importance for news consumption, we need to continue studying what latent news consumption and passive exposure to misinformation via messaging apps has on their political lives. 

Messaging apps are part of a media ecosystem, but carry unique implications

Our interviewees also reminded us that we should attend to the diversity within the Latino community and differences in their information consumption patterns embedded in hybrid media ecosystems. For example, in Cuban American communities in Miami, local Spanish-language radio stations—which had traditionally been a megaphone for Cuban exiles—still remain trusted sources of news for many. Gloria (pseudonym), a 30-year-old Cuban American in Miami, believed that a lot of mis- and disinformation from those radio stations spread widely on WhatsApp. “They’re getting this information from radio, from TV, and they’re spreading it within the community amongst each other,” said Gloria. “And that’s how it also ends up in these social media networks and chat applications…it’s all just playing together and facilitating one another” which exacerbates the spread of misinformation in the Cuban American communities.

Our research attempts to engage with one of American philosopher and political theorist Nancy Fraser’s main deliberations, namely the move from understanding the public sphere not as unitary but instead as a plurality of contesting publics.  In this case, Latino diaspora communities on messaging apps create a partially insulated counterpublic, which can have implications for the consumption and spread of misinformation or the development of narratives for political candidates independently from dominating campaign rationales. From a media perspective, different experiences and interactions with the national media environment define communities’ experiences of inclusion and representation. Two prevalent dynamics are

a) the stigmatization of stereotypical media frames in the context of multiculturalism, and 

b) the vulnerability to populist rhetoric in different time periods. 

With regard to Mexican-Americans, for example, the cultural production of Mexican identity in U.S. media has produced a Mexican threat narrative in the American public’s mind, emphasizing the alleged criminality or foreignness of those ‘others’ in U.S. civic culture. With regard to Latino communities more generally, the formation of Latino diasporas in recent decades spurred racial frameworks and discriminatory discourses in North America which tend to equate the “Latino otherness as a homogeneous peripheral group.” This continues to marginalize a growing part of the population. Even in marketing campaigns aimed at different Latino communities, the homogenization of diaspora communities fails to recognize various intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, age, class, language, religion, citizenship, and nation. 

While the internet generally– and more private spaces like EMAs specifically– carries tremendous potential to empower those on the margins of society, this potential is constantly threatened by an incessant influx of misinformation. On messaging apps in particular, people don’t push back or have the ability to disengage as easily as they described with regard to other social media platforms because they don’t want to upset family and friends – the group chat often being the main connecting node. Frustratingly, interviewees explained to us an intrinsic desire to protect messaging apps as private platforms, but it seems too late for that as the apps are too flooded already. 

Of course, chat apps are still crucial to their lives and useful also with regard to community organizing, but platform developers of chat apps are called upon to think of how people are actually using those platforms and act on the problem of misinformation overload. In the words of Rome, a 20-year-old college student who identifies as Mexican-American and Latino, “I am not going to argue with my grandma (…) communication just breaks down.”

Active disengagement from political content

Community members, especially younger generations, navigate through these avenues often by intentionally disengaging with dubious content. The majority of our interviewees said they would simply ignore or even avoid clicking forwarded links. Many of our interviewees were acutely aware that misinformation proliferates by hijacking our scarce attentional resources, and that rigorous fact-checking could easily drag them into the rabbit hole of the internet. “People are smarter, but they don’t get credit,” said Roberto (pseudonym), a 26-year-old Cuban American in Miami. “If you get something that you think is outrageous or a lie or whatever…it’s not intended to be true. People understand that. People are not taking that stuff for face value,” he added. 

Nevertheless, misinformation saturating those largely unmonitored chat spaces also exacerbates general distrust in news and sows discord among tight-knit communities of friends and family members. While empowerment of communities is crucial to democratic participation, the onus needs to move away from those communities and put more responsibility on tech platforms and policymakers to create the necessary conditions.

Understanding the nuances and complexity in Latino media landscapes

Our research highlighted that we need to pay more attention to how mis- and disinformation disseminates in the voids in the Spanish-language media ecosystem, and that messaging apps, especially WhatsApp, are a crucial part of this. English-language misinformation is often translated into Spanish among those Latino communities, but a lack of diversity in Spanish-language media– often due to inadequate funding– makes it even harder to combat the problem.

We also note again that we cannot treat the Latino diaspora communities in the U.S. as homogenous. Observations by our interviewees underline that each community is exposed to misinformation embedded in different narratives that exploit specific identity issues, often tied to their home countries. Similarly, the ways people perceive and use different chat apps within the complex and fluid Latino media landscapes can change over time. This is partially affected by technological adjustments of tech companies, but much more affected by sociopolitical situations in their home countries as well as circumstances in the U.S. 

For example, Cuban American interviewees noted that more and more conservatives in their communities are migrating to chat apps such as Telegram and Signal as they are perceived safer platforms for political conversations following the deplatforming of Trump, although WhatsApp still remains the primary space for day-to-day communication. As we head into the 2022 midterm election cycle, politicians, platforms, and policymakers must understand the centrality of those nuances, and address efforts to manipulate public opinions within these diverse Latino constituencies.

But these communities themselves are already developing counter-mechanisms which should factor into proposed solutions. Equis Lab, an organization that promotes political inclusion among Latino communities, works to combat mis- and disinformation with the community by focusing on both English and Spanish-language spheres online. In light of the language dynamics and information consumption patterns specific to these diaspora communities, Factchequeado, a project initiated by fact-checking organizations in Spain, Argentina and the Global South, tackles mis- and disinformation within the Latino communities in the U.S. in collaboration with community members and journalists. These organizations are striving to better understand the implications of messaging apps on minority communities by advocating more inclusive, bottom-up tactics. In the words of Gloria: “If we’re going to gain any ground in these communities, we can’t have these consultants or these actors making decision for this community who are not truly members of this community, because they don’t really understand how things work here.”

For the short term, the support of real-time fact-checking is vital. For what it’s worth, there is preliminary evidence that fact-checking and flagging content are more impactful on WhatsApp than on Facebook. Importantly, researchers have built a successful “WhatsApp Monitor” tool for electoral contests in Brazil and India. Tools like this are designed to work alongside communities who use them to detect viral misinformation content early on, and hence to facilitate fact-checking. They often include customizable push mechanisms that will publish the fact-checked result back to the groups where the false content was originally received. We argue that tools like this are necessary also in the U.S. and should be accompanied by bottom-up, community-centric programs, because the utilization of familiar relationships is particularly relevant in these more private, intimate spaces.

With the midterm elections coming up it is important to keep in mind that many community members mentioned fears about increasing misinformation and division in their community, and even inside their families. “There’s so many eyes and so many people that are looking to make an example out of my community and my people. I feel that around election time, it becomes ‘brown vs white vs black’ (…) versus all of us to gain together,” according to Rome. 

Any policy recommendation intended to strictly reassert the legitimacy of mainstream news sources fails to address the challenge of trust and inclusion. In the long term, we need to design digital literacy initiatives that initiate an inclusive dialogue that can be truly interactive, so as to begin the process of (re)building this public trust. Amongst the most straightforward consequences is that legislative discussions about regulating the tech sector and content moderation should include representatives from minority groups so that their experiences and opinions inform these discussions.

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