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Messaging Apps Face Lawmaker Scrutiny for Spanish Disinformation

May 16, 2022, 11:32 PM

A congressional effort to crack down on Spanish language disinformation is expanding to include popular messaging platforms.

Democrats are probing social media companies for disinformation spread on their platforms as analysts warn false messages online are eroding trust in the country’s electoral system, undermining public health efforts, and stoking violence.

Meta Platforms Inc.‘s WhatsApp Inc., Telegram Group Inc., and Signal—encrypted, instant messaging service providers—on Monday heard from 23 Democratic lawmakers seeking information on the companies’ efforts to combat disinformation targeted at Latino communities.

“We have a serious responsibility to ensure that big tech companies and group messaging applications are taking the necessary steps to insulate our democracy and democratic institutions from bad actors hell-bent on destroying our great American experiment,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement to Bloomberg Government. “I am more committed than ever to working with these companies, as well as holding them accountable when needed.”

This March 23, 2022, photograph shows the WhatsApp logo displayed on a tablet in Lille, northern France.
Photographer: Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images

Meta and Signal didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment; Telegram couldn’t be reached for comment.

In letters led by Menendez, Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), and Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), lawmakers stressed the companies don’t have to compromise user privacy or the integrity of private communication when addressing the spread of Spanish-language disinformation. Companies should increase access to fact-checking organizations across languages, and hire staff who have the “necessary cultural context” to address Spanish-language disinformation, the lawmakers wrote.

Lawmakers also probed Twitter Inc. and TikTok‘s handling of false information in Spanish at a meeting last week.

Twitter, TikTok Pressured on Anti-Disinformation Efforts

WhatsApp in Spanish

Spanish-language disinformation is seen as more pervasive because it goes unchecked longer and targets a population that tends to be online more. Among Latino respondents whose primary language spoken at home is Spanish, 66% received wrong or harmful information about the coronavirus vaccine through messaging apps, a 2021 poll by Change Research shows.

WhatsApp is especially popular among Latinos who use it to communicate with family and friends abroad. About half of Latinos in the U.S. use it, more than any other ethnic or racial group in the country, according to Equis, a research organization focused on Latino communities.

WhatsApp has partnered with Univision to provide verified information. Users can send audio, image, or text they find suspicious to a WhatsApp number and fact checkers will verify it.

But lawmakers said “critical gaps” remain, pointing to allegations by Spanish-language content moderators that they aren’t paid as well as other bilingual moderators and aren’t taken seriously when raising concerns about their working conditions.

“These issues reinforce our concerns that your efforts to combat mis/disinformation for your Spanish speaking users are not an internal priority at WhatsApp or Meta,” the lawmakers wrote.

Lawmakers also expressed concern with Telegram because it allows as many as 200,000 individuals to be in one group, which makes it an attractive platform for bad actors to spread disinformation rapidly to mass audiences. WhatsApp allows up to 256 people; Signal allows up to 1,000.

The companies have until June 13 to answer a series of questions including what resources they’ve dedicated to combat Spanish-language disinformation, and what metrics they use to assess the success of their programs.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maria Curi in Washington at mcuri@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com