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How young Latinos’ online and TV habits offer political clues for 2022


QAnon conspiracy theories were one of many forms of online misinformation that targeted Latino voters during the 2020 election.

By Jazmine Ulloa


Online disinformation hit Latino communities hard before the 2020 presidential election.


It came in the form of videos, tweets and WhatsApp messages, YouTube videos and the rants of Spanish-language radio hosts. It included false reports of widespread violence on the streets of Democratic cities after the murder of George Floyd, QAnon conspiracy theories, and overblown claims of terrorists and criminals crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.


As the most egregious material spread online — and in the private text chains of young Latinos’ tías and tíos — organizers with United We Dream Action, an immigrant rights organization founded and led by young immigrants, jumped into the fray. The group trained members to provide accurate information to their families and friends and create shareable content across social media platforms that was meant to dispel anti-immigrant and anti-Black narratives.


Now, with the 2022 midterms months away and both parties scrambling for the votes of one of the most crucial swing groups in U.S. politics, the organization released a report Tuesday that more deeply explores Latinos’ online engagement with material about immigration. Long exploited by bad actors on the web, the contentious issue is widely expected to be pivotal in elections across the country.


The immigrant advocacy network teamed up with Harmony Labs, a nonprofit research group in New York, to study the television and online consumption habits of more than 20,000 Latinos nationwide who agreed to share their data from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, 2021. Latinos older than 36 were more likely to encounter polarizing anti-immigrant narratives than other cohorts, the analysis found, mainly through right-wing news sites, television and YouTube.


It also found an interesting gender divide among younger Latinos.


Latinas ages 18 to 35 drew from a much wider variety of news and entertainment sources than their older counterparts, the analysis found, and were more likely to seek out stories not just about immigration policy but also about immigrants and the immigrant experience.


Their search queries and content consumption were curious and community-driven, reflecting “a desire to understand and engage with the people and world around them,” according to the findings.


But Latino men in the same age cohort were far different. Those surveyed tended to inhabit “a very insular, virtual world,” the researchers said. Many young Latino men spent much of their time online engaging with anime and fantasy gaming, and did not absorb much media about immigration or immigrants at all, either positive or negative. When they did consume immigration content, it tended to be about policy and stemmed from conservative-leaning sources.


Gamestop stocks and COVID news


Beyond that, their news consumption choices tended to be more individualistic and entrepreneurial. Of 45,000 articles read by Latinos in the first nine months of 2021, only two topics appeared to grab the attention of large numbers of young Latino men: the amateurs who drove up the stock price of GameStop and COVID-19-related school closures.


Young Latinos and Latinas demonstrated less interest in politics, and for the young men, the top “political” personalities were influencers who discuss a broad variety of cultural topics and fall across the political spectrum: Philip DeFranco, Joe Rogan and MrBeast.


The vacuum of political information for young Latino men, coupled with their desire for economic stability and penchant for individualism, is likely to leave that group more susceptible to right-wing anti-immigrant narratives and disinformation in the future, the groups concluded.


This uniquely positions young Latino men for negative arguments “that there isn’t enough for them and that someone else is taking their opportunities,” said Juanita Monsalve, senior marketing and creative director for United We Dream Action. But it also creates an opportunity to intervene with countermessaging, she added.


“We have this research to figure out how to create culturally responsive content and show up in the spaces where they want to consume it,” Monsalve said.


The report’s findings track with previous research on Latinos’ political leanings — and they add to the picture that is emerging of how these voters are newly up for grabs.


Latinos in general tend to lean Democratic, but in 2020, Donald Trump improved his performance among these voters in some parts of the country, and with working-class Latino men in particular, by centering his messaging on the economy.


Young Latinas are likely to be more liberal than their male peers, and are more worried about social justice and equity issues like racism, immigration and climate change.


Opening for Republicans


In Florida, where Spanish-language hosts have amplified anti-Black narratives and exaggerated claims of election fraud, Republicans have seen an opening to appeal to more young Latino men through YouTube and social media, said Andrea Cristina Mercado, executive director of Florida Rising, a racial justice organization focused on building political power for marginalized communities.


As an example, she pointed to an ad released last month by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida with UFC fighter Jorge Masvidal, who is of Cuban and Peruvian descent.


To counter any political messages this election cycle meant to sow racism, division or voter confusion, Mercado’s group has been relying on “promotoras de la verdad,” Latina organizers who serve as “truth warriors” and have been canvassing homes to combat misinformation on issues including the coronavirus, vaccines, Florida’s recently passed law restricting classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity, and the upcoming midterms.


“Latina women are organizing to take back the narrative and the disinformation poisoning our community,” Mercado said. But they cannot do it alone, she added.

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