MIAMI — Jelena Buvat, 55, a Venezuelan American preschool teacher in Missouri said she has watched one of her good friends in Florida become obsessed with conspiracy theories over the past several months, to the point where they hardly speak.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the conspiracy theories popping up on her friend’s social feeds have intensified and include that wearing masks is a hoax, Joe Biden wants to defund the police and the idea of “kids in cages” was fake news disseminated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
“Last summer, we would still have normal conversations,” Buvat told NBC News by phone. “Now we hardly talk.”
Conspiracy theories around the “deep state,” billionaire Democrat philanthropist George Soros and QAnon have become a constant fixture on Spanish-language YouTube programs, WhatsApp clips and pro-President Donald Trump Facebook groups aimed at a Latino audience.
A YouTube video clip that made rounds in Miami claims that former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were attempting to secretly sell uranium to Russia — and that Russian President Vladimir Putin has all the information and is willing to collaborate with Trump to get to what took place.
Democrats fear the disinformation is having a powerful impact on Latino voters in Florida, skewing their views and amplifying Trump’s messaging. The far-fetched conspiracy theories have concerned Democratic strategist Evelyn Pérez-Vedía for months, and she said they are swaying voters.
“It’s very troubling,” she said.
Florida is the largest battleground state where Trump has seen increased support among Latinos, according to a recent NBC News/Marist poll.
Some conspiracy theories have been heard on local radio. Miami’s Actualidad Radio, an AM radio station, interviewed a commentator Thursday who said the aim of the Black Lives Matter movement involves “brujería,” or witchcraft, and “a vote for Biden is a vote for that.”
In August, Caracol Radio, another AM radio station, aired a paid program that claimed that if Biden won the election, the U.S. would fall into a dictatorship led by “Jews and Blacks.” Caracol later apologized for the content and said it banned the commentator from its airwaves.
Eroding trust in the media
The idea that Spanish-language news cannot be trusted is being pushed by YouTube channels, like GR8 America, Sin Filtros, that urge viewers to subscribe so they can view Trump campaign events in Spanish and follow interviews that viewers “won’t see in traditional news outlets.”
GR8 compared itself to Telemundo — which is owned by NBCUniversal, NBC News’ parent company — and Univision, saying it was the “second most followed outlet during the Republican convention on YouTube.”
“People see the videos and the disinformation so many times that it gets to them. They feel they can’t trust the media, and that’s the most worrisome part,” Pérez-Verdía said. “Now they call Spanish-language media fake news.”
The two largest and most established Spanish-language networks are seeing more protesters confront their reporters and question their coverage.
A month ago, a caravan of angry protesters, honking their horns, rallied in front of Univision’s headquarters, calling it “mentiravision,” or “lie-vision.” In a widely circulated video recorded by a protester, a Univision photographer is shouted at and asked why they don’t air the truth.
In a video from July with over half a million views on Facebook, a local Telemundo reporter in Miami is told, “If it weren’t for Facebook, if it weren’t for social media, we would not be able to spread our message. We Hispanics feel we don’t have a news source that tells the truth.”
Programs like Informativo G24, hosted by Colombian journalist Sandra Valencia in Medellin, are more sophisticated, with newscast-like openings. One program, which suggested Soros was behind the caravans of Central Americans attempting to come to the U.S., has over 1 million views. Valencia refers to herself as a patriot — reminiscent of the right-wing tea party patriots.
Valencia often defends or sides with Russia in her commentary. She has accused Germany of leading attacks on Russia for developing a coronavirus vaccine that was approved before large-scale trials were concluded. In the same show, she said Russia was attacked “for promoting information that was discrediting Joe Biden, when in reality they were not discrediting him,” but simply highlighting information they have always known.
Valencia often interviews Omar Bula Escobar, an analyst who touts his former U.N. experience and has his own program. In one of his programs, for example, he accused Soros of “being behind” organized migration, child prostitution and “radical Islam.”
Snippets of these shows that last over an hour are edited and disseminated on social media, WhatsApp and through text messages.
“The goal is to blur the narrative and say things that are false so many times that people start to believe it or they just completely tune out,” said Randy Pestana, assistant director of research and strategic initiatives at Florida International University’s Gordon Institute for Public Policy. “People turn to their friends and family, which is where these texts and videos become so important, because you believe your family, you believe your friends.”
Pestana pointed out that Trump himself retweeted a manipulated video of Biden supposedly playing the NWA song “F— tha Police,” when he was really playing the song “Despacito” by Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi during a Hispanic Heritage Month event in Florida.
Pestana said that during the Soviet era in Russia, disinformation aimed to blur the truth and create a fog where people were not sure what to believe, something Putin has been doing now.
“I don’t think the government of the United States is doing this, but I can tell you for a fact that Trump has done this consistently, which blurs the narrative,” Pestana said.