Yearly, the United States exports to Latin America billions of dollars worth of machinery, electronics, petroleum by-products, cars, chemicals, and food. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, another commodity produced on a large scale on U.S. soil has landed in Latin America very frequently: health disinformation.
A social media monitoring, conducted throughout the first quarter of 2021, proved that at least six major disinformations about the coronavirus and anti-COVID-19 vaccines identified by local fact-checkers reached Latin Americans after going viral in the United States.
The study, presented for the first time in this piece, also revealed that exporting health disinformation from the United States is a process driven by groups that, in many cases, identify themselves as Christians or conservatives, or claim to defend family values. Politicians of various types and celebrities known worldwide for their denialist views also participate in this process.
In the journey from the United States to Latin America, health disinformation also finds wide and largely unmonitored “digital highways.” Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit still present difficulties when combating falsehoods that emerge in English and are translated into Spanish.
The monitoring of disinformation identified in the first quarter of the year shows that English content that goes viral seems to be more scrutinized than Spanish.
The speed at which false U.S. health content spreads is yet another cause for concern for those fighting disinformation. In some cases, translated content appears in other countries in only a few minutes.
So, what can Latin American countries and Latin Americans do to reduce this import of falsehoods? Is it possible to build a virtual or technical wall?
Francisco Brito Cruz, director of the research center Internetlab in Brazil, says no. In his opinion, the solution — if there is one — would require big tech companies to commit to develop strategies to combat disinformation that are adapted to the reality and context of each region and country.
“And it doesn’t seem to me that these companies lack the commitment to deal with false news about COVID-19 or vaccines,” says Brito Cruz. “What they lack is capacity. In some countries, they manage to execute their policies more efficiently than in others, and this asymmetry is the result of two types of asymmetric pressure: public pressure and market pressure, which they face in each territory.”
Caio Machado, a researcher at Oxford University, a specialist in disinformation, and director of the Vero Institute, also in Brazil, finds it difficult to imagine a barrier capable of stopping the export of falsehoods. Yet, he suggests constructing an international mechanism for conflict mediation.
“Creating national laws to combat disinformation is not the solution. We cannot think of a world in which everyone looks after their own house. This goes against the logic of the internet. In the world of cybercrimes, there is the Budapest Convention, which establishes cooperation and agreements for conflict resolution in this field. We could think of something like this for fake news.”
Although the path is not yet clear, Brito Cruz and Machado agree that some steps need to be taken and certain measures need to be tried. In the context of the pandemic, exporting disinformation can put the lives of citizens at risk. At other times, it can ruin the stability of a nation or the entire continent.
Conspiracy theories are translated and spread with few barriers in Spanish
“Plandemic” was one of the first major cases of “import of false content” about COVID-19 – a story produced in the United States and exported to Latin America. It is a 26-minute video in English, which presents a series of conspiracy theories about the pandemic. Among the falsehoods it exposes, it claims that masks are harmful to their users and that doctor Anthony Fauci, director of The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), was responsible for spreading the new coronavirus around the planet.
Plandemic was released in the United States on May 4 2020 and, within a few days, registered more than 8 million views. During the first and second week of May, it was the subject of debate on social media, friends groups and even major media outlets, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Fact-checkers sprang into action the day after the “documentary” premiered. On May 5, the Science Feedback team rated the “Plandemic” trailer as “misleading.” Two days later, PolitiFact published an extensive article, dismantling eight claims said in the video. Next came verifications from FactCheck.org, AFP, and more.
Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo decided to remove “Plandemic” from their content, thinking this would prevent its dissemination. The measure, however, was not as successful as the platforms had hoped. The video was subtitled in other languages and crossed borders. On May 12, 2020, for example, “Plandemic” had already arrived in Paraguay, leading El Surti’s verifiers to publish the first fact-check on this content in Spanish. After El Surti, five other fact-checks by members of the network LatamChequea would come out in the same language.
Two months later, in August 2020, there was another surprise: the premiere of “Plandemic 2.” In almost 1 hour and 30 minutes of video, the second pseudo-documentary brought more falsehoods about COVID-19, social media, and even the work of fact-checkers. Its creators claimed that the world was witnessing an attempt of indoctrination by a network of international entities that had organized themselves to control society.
It is true that by the time “Plandemic 2” hit the Internet, social media networks already were more structured to prevent its dissemination. As reported by The Verge, Facebook blocked the publication of the link and Twitter warned its users in the United States about the low quality of such content. However, these systems to reduce the spread of “Plandemic 2” worked much better in English than in Spanish.
A search performed on Facebook for the word “Plandemia” (the Spanish translated version of “Plandemic”) listed, on May 25, 2021 (one year after the American scandal), a series of results suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic was, in fact, a big farce. A link for the group “Doctors for the Truth“, known worldwide as denialists and anti-vaccine, came in second place among the results.
In English, the situation was different and certainly more efficient in terms of combating disinformation. When searching “Plandemic” on Facebook, users received, at the end of May, a suggestion to visit the platform’s COVID-19 information center as the first link in the results. The pseudo-documentaries did not appear.
When contacted for this story, Facebook reported that it had adjusted its Spanish system and had added its “COVID information module” to searches of the word “plandemia”.
The platform stressed that it uses the same machine learning model and the same external news verification services against disinformation in Spanish and English, and that it has removed more than 18 million pieces of content from Facebook and Instagram for violating its COVID-19 policies. Facebook acknowledged, however, that its “systems are not perfect and the work against disinformation never ends.”
On Twitter, a year after the release of the first part of “Plandemic,” a search for the phrase “plandemic en español” resulted in a series of tweets containing links leading directly to both parts of the pseudo-documentary.
In searches using the word “plandemic” (in English), the platform not only offered its information center on COVID-19 but also highlighted the word “pandemic” in the results, i.e., without the “L”.
Twitter was asked about this and replied that it has a specific policy to deal with disinformation on vaccines. In addition to this, it stressed that specific cases of violation of its standards should be reported to the company.
New platforms: how disinformation travels through a number of new spaces without any verification
BitChute, Rumble, and Gab may not be as popular as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter yet. However, these are the new social networks used by disinformers to spread falsehoods. And there’s bad news: they are growing fast.
On March 15 of this year, physician Steve Hotze, known to the American press for his denialist and controversial views, posted a video on Rumble. In the recording, Hotze says that mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 are, in fact, a “dangerous genetic experiment.” FactCheck.org did its job and proved that to be false. COVID-19 vaccines have been tested and are safe.
Unlike what other tech companies do, Rumble seems to have no intention of verifying content or working with fact-checkers to help its users know when they are faced with false content. So Hotze’s falsehood proliferated and reached Latin America. On April 9, a Gab account in Brazil was already offering the video in Portuguese. And on April 16, a Rumble profile (possibly from Argentina) was already hosting at least one version with Spanish subtitles.
Rumble was born in Toronto, Canada. It is owned by entrepreneur Chris Pavlovski. By November 2020, it had 1.6 million users. By the end of March 2021, it had 31 million. In April 2020, Rumble was hosting videos about lions, birds, and pets. It was receiving about 120 new pieces of content every 30 days. One year later, under the banner of those who reject online content moderation, the platform has an average of 27,000 new videos per month, and among the most viewed are those debating conspiracy theories. The most viewed video in April of this year, for example, was about the frauds allegedly registered in the American elections last November. This is demonstrably misleading content.
CNN describes Gab as an “alternative social media network popular with conservatives, the alt-right, and some extremists.” Gab gained millions of users after the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill in Washington. After hundreds of supporters of then-President Donald Trump invaded the legislative house, interrupting the recognition of Joe Biden as the winner of the election, Gab became popular. It served as a shelter for many profiles —and people — that, for inciting violence, had lost access to the most common social media networks and also to the equally controversial Parler, a platform that was temporarily deleted from Apple and Amazon stores for not having policies against publications inciting violence.
BitChute was founded in 2017, in England, by entrepreneur Ray Vahey. In April 2021, it was a place to criticize “traditional media,” “Bill Gates” and the “World Health Organization” (WHO). The most watched video last April invited people to stop wearing masks because their use was one of the lies of the “enemies of the United States.” Vahey stated several times that he is in favor of total freedom on the Internet and, therefore, he says, nothing should be done to stop hate or disinformation.
Hotze’s press team did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Who translates and drives disinformation in the region?
On January 12 of this year, a video posted on Facebook went viral by showing a woman in a gray sweater and black pants trying to get out of a bathroom with enormous difficulty. The woman was having intense tremors and the narrator of the video, identified as Brant Griner, claimed that his mother was like this because she had been given Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.
PolitiFact published the first fact-check on this content eight days later and made it clear that it had not been possible to verify that she had been given the Pfizer vaccine and that the Louisiana Department of Health, where Grine lives, had not recorded any cases of severe seizures or neurological side effects caused by vaccines.
The export of this falsehood to Latin America was one of the fastest observed in the monitoring conducted in the first three months of this year. Less than 24 hours after Griner’s post, there was already a powerful version of the false connection between tremors and vaccines in Portuguese.
Clau de Luca is Brazilian and describes herself as “mother, activist, singer, publicist, Christian, conservative, 100% Bolsonaro.” She has more than 92,000 followers on Facebook and, according to data from verification tools, has been the main disseminator of Grines’ video in Portuguese. In addition to her presence on social media, Ana Claudia Peres Lucas Lopes is a publicist and run for Congress in São Paulo in 2018 and for mayor of the city in 2020.
De Luca is an example of the type of “influencer” that collaborates with the export of disinformation from the United States. Last May 15, she participated in a demonstration in favor of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, known for opposing social distance and face masks. At the event, De Luca took the microphone, introduced herself and defended her activism: “I am a widowed mother. I have an autistic son. (…) I have a lot of pride in my activism. I am a mother who seeks to do the best for her family, for the cause of autistic people and for the cause of the Brazilian family.”
The Spanish version did not take long to come out either, and also included sites that identify themselves as conservative and Christian. “Ciencia Y Espíritu”, which has 168,000 members, has been the great disseminator of this false connection between tremors and Pfizer vaccines in Spanish. “Preparándome como José en Obediencia y fe”, which gathers 15,000 followers, has also contributed. Both pages have an esoteric and religious approach to the pandemic. They usually publish content on “eternal life” and prayers.
InternetLab’s Brito Cruz sees some reasons for these groups to participate in the dissemination of untruthful content.
“We are talking about a group that wants to have power on social media, become known, gain followers… But that, at the same time, has very little capacity to produce content. So, translating controversial materials, which stimulate debate, becomes attractive.”
Machado, from the Vero Institute, adds another view on these groups that participate in the export of health falsehoods from the United States to Latin America. They are channels that were connected before, possibly for political reasons, and will remain so.
“We know that there is a digital connection capable of spreading the same rhetoric around the world in a short time. Techno-populists are connected with each other, as are their activists. What one does, another repeat. They monitor each other to amplify what suits them. And from there, pages emerge that translate contents and make a living from this.”
Asked by Chequeado, Brant Griner said that he knows that many fact-checkers have classified his mother’s story as false, but that she is still “living a terrible nightmare, just like many other people.” Griner said that he didn’t know his video would go beyond his “100 Facebook friends,” but he is happy to know that her story “helped to open people’s eyes to the terrible adverse effects of vaccines.”
Clau de Luca, meanwhile, did not respond as of press time.
Celebrities who disinform
January was a tough month for baseball lovers. Besides suffering the death of Hank Aaron, one of the best baseball players of all time (something like Maradona or Pelé in soccer), they also had to deal with a wave of disinformation that emerged on the same day.
Known for his 755 home runs, Hank was 86 years old when he died. He was at home, and forensics told NBC News that he died of “natural causes.” In a public statement, the Atlanta Braves, the team where he played for years, added that Hank had died “peacefully in his sleep.”
But many took to social media on January 22 to claim that the player had been a victim of the COVID-19 vaccine. Among them were two world-renowned influencers.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, is a lawyer known for his anti-vaccine stance. As soon as he learned of Hank’s death, he tweeted to his more than 230,000 followers a link from the organization Children’s Health Defense, which he heads. In the link, the organization stated that Hank’s death was part of a “suspicious wave of deaths among seniors just after getting COVID-19 vaccines” and recalled that the player had gotten the Moderna vaccine two weeks earlier.
Two days later, the export of this disinformation had already landed in Latin America and also in France. On January 24, former French presidential candidate François Asselineau published on Facebook a post reproducing Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s suspicion and suggesting a connection between the Moderna vaccine and Hank’s death. The result: 6,100 shares. It also reached the account of Asselineau’s party, the UPR, which also collaborated to disinform in French.
The Portuguese version of this falsehood was denied by Estadão Verifica’s team of fact-checkers on February 3. In its article, Estadão included not only the statements of the baseball team and the forensic experts but also an interview with an infectious disease doctor from the University of São Paulo (USP). Evaldo Stanislau stressed that vaccines can present adverse effects, like any other medication, but that there were not (and are not) any studies showing a cause-and-effect relationship between immunization and Hank’s type of death.
Kennedy Jr.’s press team, contacted for this story, assured that he did not say that the COVID-19 vaccine had killed Hank Aaron. “He simply commented on the large number of older people who had died right after the vaccination,” they explained.
The “Ciencia y Espíritu” site, the Facebook groups, and the French politician did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Disinformation focused on women and foreign interest
Data compiled by Statista, a portal that gathers important databases on technology and society, show that in, January of this year, women consumed more social media networks than men in almost all age groups analyzed in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Chile. Moreover, in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Ecuador, women use Facebook significantly more than men – and disinformers know how to take advantage of this.
Throughout the monitoring conducted in the first quarter of 2021, at least two major disinformative stories focused on the female audience emerged in the United States and reached Latin America. Both attempted to associate COVID-19 vaccines with future health problems.
The first one came from a biased interpretation of an announcement made by radiologists. On February 9, Intermountain Medical Center Breast Care Center posted a video on Facebook to explain that one of the possible adverse effects of the COVID-19 vaccination was swollen lymph nodes in the armpit area, which could result in false positives on mammograms performed after immunization. In the same video, physicians recommended that women have their mammograms done before their vaccination.
The anti-vaccine movement was quick to misinterpret the instructions and, on March 1, the Natural News website published a sensationalist article claiming that women who had received “experimental covid-19 vaccines” were showing symptoms of breast cancer. Within 24 hours, eight other sites republished this content. The disinformation also spread with versions in Spanish and German.
The other analyzed case tried to convince Latin American women that COVID-19 vaccines could cause abortions. This is false. FactCheck.org explains, in Spanish, that the websites and posts spreading this content have misinterpreted statistics from the U.S. VAERS reporting system to draw false conclusions about vaccine safety. Newtral follows suit.
What is striking about this disinformation is that it gains traction with the help of The Epoch Times network, which, The New York Times explains, is run by the Falun Gong, a group critical of the Chinese government. The English version of this portal has been the great disseminator of this content in the English-speaking world. In less than 24 hours after its first publication, eight other URLs were already sharing the same content and had more than 40,500 interactions on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Reddit.
Also in less than a day, the Chinese group translated its false content into Spanish. The Epoch Times in Spanish and “La Gran Época”, two groups of the same news network on Facebook, have great disinformative power.
Public data presented by Facebook reveal that “La Gran Época” has 6.4 million followers and is a site managed by 23 people. Seven are in the United States, six in Argentina, six in Colombia, three in Mexico, two in Spain, one in the Dominican Republic, and one in South Korea. The Epoch Times in Spanish has 11,000 followers and 14 administrators. Four of them are in the United States, four in Argentina, two in Colombia, two in Mexico, one in the Dominican Republic, and one in Spain.
By spreading disinformation on COVID-19 vaccines and abortions, both pages published the same content at the same time. This is a sign that the export of the US lie to Latin America is also of interest to groups in other parts of the world. Part of the fight against this process is to investigate the motives.
Natural News and Epoch Times were contacted for this report but at the time of publication had not responded.
This research is part of “The Disinformants,” a series of investigations about different actors who have disinformed during the pandemic conducted by LatamChequea, the Latin American fact-checkers network coordinated by Chequeado that includes editions from participating organizations and journalist Hugo Alconada Mon.
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