On December 27, a Facebook page called Médicos por la Verdad Argentina (Doctors for the Truth Argentina), posted a meme featuring Billy the Puppet — the scary, red-eyed character from the horror movie series Saw. The accompanying text in Spanish was equally ominous: it warned that “the vaccinated will be sterilized and poisoned,” while those who are not “will be separated, stigmatized,” and will “lose their rights.”
For months, the Médicos por la Verdad Argentina page, which had more than 19,000 followers, was spreading disinformation about the coronavirus, including about the efficacy of masks and, more recently, the safety of vaccines. The page was one of several on Facebook with similar names, which all shared coronavirus disinformation and anti-vaccine content in Spanish. Rest of World identified a number of Facebook and Instagram pages and groups run by Médicos por la Verdad, which collectively had nearly 85,000 followers. Together they targeted users in Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico.
Much of the content shared by the Médicos pages appeared to violate Facebook’s policies. After Rest of World reached out for comment, Facebook removed a number of the pages, though some remained active at the time of publication. “We have rules against Pages spreading COVID-19 misinformation, including about COVID-19 vaccines, and work with fact checkers to review this content in Spanish as well as English,” Facebook spokesperson Dani Lever said in a statement. “Between March and October, we removed more than 12 million pieces of content and placed warning labels on 167 million pieces of content that broke these rules.”
In early December, Facebook announced it would remove misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines that had already been debunked by health experts, including “false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients, or side effects.” It was the latest in a series of measures the company has taken to curb misinformation about the pandemic, like prohibiting anti-vaccine ads and placing warning labels on false content flagged by its fact-checking partners.
But experts who spoke to Rest of World say Facebook’s track record when it comes to moderating posts in Spanish is spotty. Even when Facebook puts new, stricter rules in place, “they’re not enforcing those policies when the same content appears in Spanish,” said Carmen Scurato, senior policy counsel at the media advocacy organization Free Press. “I think there’s a real question there about what is Facebook’s commitment to enforcing its policies in other languages.” (Scurato is also a member of the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a counter group formed in response to Facebook’s official body with the same name.)
During the 2020 U.S. presidential election, even as Facebook ramped up its efforts to combat misinformation targeting American voters, conspiracy theories continued to spread in Spanish on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Rest of World found that vaccine and coronavirus misinformation was similarly being shared nearly unabated on Spanish-language pages run by Médicos por la Verdad. (Facebook said that ahead of the election, it built a Spanish-language information center where voters could find authoritative information, among other improvements.)
The group is not the only organization pushing health misinformation in Spanish on Facebook. Rest of World identified several other groups and pages that appear unrelated, which collectively have roughly 170,000 followers. But Laura Zommer, who leads the Argentine fact-checking organization Chequeado, worries the message Médicos was pushing may be particularly potent, especially because it’s coming from people who advertise themselves as medical professionals. That perceived authority, combined with natural-medicine language popular with lifestyle influencers and celebrities, could be “explosive for the credibility of the vaccine,” she said.
The social network has included warning labels on a limited number of Médicos posts in the past. In May, Facebook announced it was allocating an additional $2 million to Latin American newsrooms during the pandemic, and the company says it has established fact-checking coverage in 17 Latin American countries to date. Two of Facebook’s checking partners in Colombia have also received additional funding to support fact-checking coronavirus misinformation specifically.
Even before the new coronavirus outbreak, Facebook struggled to balance what it says is its commitment to free speech with the growing presence of anti-vaccination content on its platforms. In 2019, amid mounting pressure from U.S. legislators and increased media scrutiny, the company began limiting the reach of anti-vaccine information and stopped recommending popular anti-vaccine pages to users. But people still discovered the content, sometimes with disastrous consequences. As Covid-19 vaccines are rolled out across Latin America, experts say it’s more important than ever for Facebook to adequately police vaccine misinformation in Spanish.
Médicos por la Verdad claims to be run by doctors and other medical professionals who want to share the ‘truth’ about the pandemic.” The group has claimed that a new variant of the novel coronavirus is actually caused by vaccines and alleged that Bill Gates and a cabal of elites have a nefarious plan to vaccinate the world in an attempt to control the global population. Other posts share misinformation that has become popular globally, such as conspiracy theories about 5G technology and George Soros. Many posts emphasize “natural” methods for healing, including promoting a coronavirus prophylactic involving chlorine dioxide — a type of bleach that has led to at least two deaths in Argentina.
The Facebook and Instagram pages may be capitalizing in part on a preexisting Latin American preference for natural and indigenous medicine, said Saiph Savage, a visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies Spanish-language disinformation and co-directs the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Civic Innovation Lab. “You do have a lot of populations who oppose new scientific approaches and prefer to use these more natural methods,” she said.
But Zommer said that anti-vaccine beliefs have only recently begun appearing in the country. “We never had a strong anti-vaccine movement before in Argentina,” said Zommer. “We have some of the best vaccination rates in the region. This is really the first time we are seeing something like this.” Chequeado is one of Facebook’s official fact-checking partners, and the organization has previously debunked conspiracy theories spread by Médicos.
Last fall, Chequeado traced Médicos’ network of pages on Facebook and found the group was present in 14 Latin American countries as well as in Spain and Germany. The first page was created in July 2020, targeting users in Spain. The group quickly spread to other Spanish-speaking markets via Argentina, a pattern that Jaime Longoria, a researcher at First Draft News, an organization that combats misinformation online, said is common. Conspiracy theories that originate in Spain often spread to Latin America from Argentina, where there is a large population of recent Spanish immigrants.
Facebook says it has more than 15,000 content moderators worldwide — many of them contractors — who police the company’s platform according to a constantly updated set of community guidelines. But Facebook doesn’t provide detailed data about where moderators are located and what language or cultural training they receive. “I think the lack of transparency is one of the biggest hurdles into understanding why this issue is happening,” said Scurato. “If they’re going to commit to this set of standards for the globe, then there should be parity in the way that its policies are enforced across the globe.” (Facebook said that breaking down the number of moderators who speak different languages wouldn’t reflect the resources dedicated to a specific region, since many moderation teams work on content globally.)
Longoria said that unevenness in moderation across languages can inadvertently extend the life of misinformation, or what he calls “zombie content,” allowing conspiracy theories that were once in English to remain on the platform in Spanish. They can then easily be retranslated back into English, giving them a second life. Some conspiracy theories take on local context — Zommer noted that the Médicos group in Argentina has made connections between the new coronavirus vaccine and the country’s recent decision to legalize abortion, for instance. But most of the popular conspiracy theories in Latin America, Longoria said, did not originate in the region.
“In the U.S., we like to think about how mis- and disinformation from outside of the United States is coming in,” he explained. “But rarely do we talk about the damage that’s done by the misinformation that comes out of diaspora communities and is spread into Latin America.”
The connection between English and Spanish conspiracy theories is evident in the content shared by Médicos por la Verdad. Links shared by the Argentina page have referenced America’s Frontline Doctors, a U.S. organization that has spread similar misinformation about the pandemic. In a post from September, the Argentina page shared a link to the viral conspiracy theory video “Plandemic,” which Facebook had previously removed from the platform when it first appeared in May. Though the post appeared with a fact-check warning, users could still click the link and watch the film, which is subtitled in Spanish.
After a pharmacist in Wisconsin intentionally spoiled some 500 doses of the Moderna vaccine, the Médicos por la Verdad Argentina page offered its praise, calling it an “act of civil disobedience.” According to reporting from The New York Times, the pharmacist believed the vaccine would alter people’s DNA, a false claim that Médicos por la Verdad has also made. (A request for comment sent to the email address listed on the Médicos por la Verdad Argentina Facebook page went unanswered.)
Longoria noted that stronger enforcement by Facebook and Instagram would not solve the problem entirely. Similar disinformation is also spread on messaging apps, YouTube, Twitter, and fringe media sites. Rest of World also identified several Telegram groups run by Médicos, some with more than ten thousands of followers, which post content similar or identical to that of the group’s Facebook pages. “We have very little insight into what’s being passed around on WhatsApp or other messaging apps,” said Longoria. “But I know even from my own family, I’m seeing mis- and disinformation continuing to spread.”