LatAm in Focus: How Data Voids Exploit the Latino Vote

By Carin Zissis

Facebook Fellow and WVU PhD candidate Claudia Flores-Saviaga explains how disinformation fills online content gaps, particularly for Spanish speakers.

There’s no doubt about it: trolls, bots, and misinformation have become a major problem, particularly whenever election season rolls around. And when there isn’t enough quality content out there about a topic, purveyors of misinformation will be there to fill in the gaps.

That’s what has become known as a data void. If trolls share a rumor attacking a candidate, the lack of content checking that fake information allows it to spread—an issue that may deepen with an even greater absence of correct information published and provided for Spanish-speaking audiences. Moreover, in the case of the 2020 U.S. presidential race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, those spreading misinformation tailored misinformation to specific Latino audiences.

“We are very different, even though we are all Latinos and we are triggered by different things,” says Claudia Flores-Saviaga, a Facebook fellow and PHD candidate at West Virginia University whose research covers ways bad actors and political trolls organize disinformation campaigns online. “So maybe the Cuban Americans are triggered by the socialist discourse [while] in the Mexican American case, what I saw were a lot of posts trying to link Biden to Mexican business men that were corrupt or even ex-presidents that were corrupt.”

"It’s not something that is only affecting the Latino vote but democracy overall."

Of course, the disinformation extends beyond elections, as Flores-Saviaga explains to AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, research about COVID-19 was initially published in English, allowing rumors to fester in Spanish about how the coronavirus spreads. “We started to realize [the Latino community was] lacking reliable information from reliable sources, which is one of the reasons why these conspiracy theories started to get into their minds—because they didn’t have anything to rely on.”

What can be done to stop such dangerous information? One way is by translating and targeting correct information, says Flores-Saviaga. She also advocates for governments to get involved and treat disinformation as a weapon. “This is a complex problem and that’s why a lot of countries, especially in Europe, have treated disinformation like a national security problem.”

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Katie Hopkins produced this episode. The music in this podcast was performed at Americas Society in New York. Learn more about upcoming concerts at