In a democracy, people rely on accurate, credible information to make critical decisions about their lives. But in the United States, availability of and access to such information are not distributed evenly, leaving disadvantaged communities (among them the Hispanic and Latino communities) especially vulnerable to the tactics of disinformation, a pilot project by the Information Futures Lab at Brown University and its South Florida-based partner We Are Más shows. Factchequedo was part of the group of experts with rapid/quick responses to fill informational gaps, receiving participants' information requests and responding with reliable sources and verified content in Spanish.
Tracking the hyperlocal impact of disinformation
Over six weeks in November and December 2023, the Information Futures Lab and We Are Más collaborated with 25 leaders in Hispanic diaspora communities in South Florida on capturing and responding to evolving questions and concerns of community members through a bilingual WhatsApp group.
Every week, the 25 “Information Navigators” (name of the participating group) submitted questions, concerns and rumors received from the community, revealing significant information gaps ranging from “How do I get a mammogram when I am underinsured?” to “How are we going to confront the floods?” to “How much can a landlord raise the rent in Florida?” The submissions from the community also revealed the hyperlocal impact of ongoing disinformation activities through questions such as “How are people handling the severe side effects of getting a fourth Covid shot?” and “Climate change may be real but it is not caused by humans.” Questions such as “Is the 2024 election still happening?” and rumors like “Alexa says there will be no election in 2024” indicate that voter suppression campaigns were likely already underway in late 2023.
In efforts to locate existing answers to such questions, the project team also found that most of the time, relevant information was not available in the right language, lacked cultural cues and context, required digital literacy and access, was not delivered at the appropriate literacy level, was behind a paywall, was outdated, was not present in places where people look for information, or didn’t come from a trusted source.
Information Futures Lab and We Are Más called upon six experts in the fields of medicine and fact-checking, who assisted in quickly addressing questions each week. They contributed their knowledge, tools, and some links in both English and Spanish to address the inquiries and informational gaps of the 25 participants. The journalist Tamoa Calzadilla, editor-in-chief of Factchequeado.com, an initiative combating dis-misinformation affecting Latino communities, was one of the expert participants.
“Here we are, in a heated primary cycle rich in polarizing messaging from competing presidential candidates, and our information spaces are largely not supporting the basic information needs of key communities, opening the doors wide for manipulation and exploitation,” said Stefanie Friedhoff, co-director of the Information Futures Lab and a Professor of the Practice at the Brown School of Public Health.
“This pilot project put evidence to what many of us in Hispanic communities know from experience: It is incredibly hard to get answers to our questions and figure out what’s true,” said Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, Founder of We Are Más (We Are More).
“It is time we flip the model. Community leaders are on the frontlines of how the information crisis is impacting people and their ability to obtain, make sense of and act on information. So they need to be on the frontlines of the response as well,” said Claire Wardle, co-director of the Information Futures Lab and a Professor of the Practice at the Brown School of Public Health.
“In Factchequeado, we believe in collaborative work as the best way to address dis-misinformation, and this effort was proof of that. We could see how old conspiracy theories, such as those related to vaccines and alleged microchips, as well as health service topics like Obamacare and Medicare, continue to highlight informational gaps that need attention. Only together can we make it effective and ensure that the message reaches the audience we intend.” Tamoa Calzadilla, Editor in Chief, Factchequeado
A new approach to informing diverse communities
To overcome such barriers, the project team of journalists and communications specialists from We Are Más and the Information Futures Lab produced brief, shareable content responding to top community questions every week.
By consulting existing evidence as well as local and content matter experts, applying communications and behavioral sciences best practices, and checking all content for language and cultural fit, the team developed a novel way to equip trusted community members with hyperlocal, accurate messages that are easy to further adapt and share on messaging apps like Whatsapp, social media sites and in conversations with community members.
The project team also produced a “Tip Of The Week” to build capacities such as active listening and how to identify manipulated images or fake science. (Content was produced in text, audio and video formats in both Spanish and English.)
More than 75 percent of the participating community leaders felt comfortable forwarding the content directly to others and found it more culturally appropriate than what is available via other sources.
What South Florida partners say about participating in the The Information Project – Rapid Response:
“I found the information that was provided very helpful,” said Ana Valladares, CEO of the South Florida nonprofit organization Mujeres Latinas Empowering Women. “A lot of us in the nonprofit sector need these tools so we can go and give feedback. A lot of what we hear is from immigrants who are new to the country and need help navigating things. No matter how long they are here, or if they can vote or not, they still have questions; they don’t know how the system works. We need to continue this work and expand it.”
“Participating in this important project gave us the opportunity to communicate directly with our clients, to listen to their concerns and challenges. We were also able to combat the misinformation in the community with well researched responses from credible sources.” -Josê Flipo, Vice President of Community Programs, YWCA South Florida
Building on the pilot, made possible with generous funding from the Miami Foundation, the Information Futures Lab is currently fundraising to expand the new model and collaborate with trusted leaders in at least 10 communities across the U.S. that are of strategic importance to the presidential election and expected to be targeted with high levels of disinformation.
Evelyn Pérez-Verdía (Spanish)
Founder, We Are Más
Stefanie Friedhoff (English)
Co-Director, Information Futures Lab at Brown University School of Public Health