In the past decade, misinformation has emerged as a leading threat to democracy and public health. And the news industry has invested in countering this ill. We have created fact-checking sites, verification organizations, and disinformation beats, and strengthened our skills in identifying misinformation.
But for Latino immigrants and many other communities, news outlets long ago disinvested in providing news they could rely on. No matter how much fact-checking news organizations produce, they cannot be a solution to countering misinformation for communities they’ve left behind.
Among immigrant communities, Facebook pages, WhatsApp group chats, and church services are often more accessible and trusted sources of information than news outlets or medical authorities. As Maria González told El Tímpano in January when she and her family were sick with COVID-19, WhatsApp chats with relatives were among the few sources she had for medical advice. Not because she didn’t trust health authorities, but because she didn’t have a relationship with one herself, or a clear way to contact one now that her family was sick. She knew that the home remedies her in-laws offered were questionable, but she said, reflecting on her own experience, “people just hear things, and do what they do because they don’t have any information.”
The pandemic has put an overdue spotlight on this vacuum of trusted and reliable information among Latino immigrants and many communities of color. It has been a source of inequities in access to testing and vaccine sites, contributed to the spread of unproven and in some cases dangerous home remedies to prevent or treat the virus, and led to distrust of the vaccine (though the latter is not nearly as common as the media has made it out to be).
How, then, can news outlets — or any organization — prevent and counter misinformation circulating in immigrant communities?
This is the question El Tímpano seeks to answer through a new initiative called Comunidades Informadas (“informed communities”). Inspired by the promotoras model of public health education, we believe that the answer lies not within our own institution, but within the communities we serve, in which hundreds of individuals day in and day out play a role as trusted messengers for their own families, apartment complexes, or workplaces. We are going to the communities we serve — Latino and Mayan immigrants — to learn how they are affected by misinformation, and designing popular education and participatory media that will equip them to recognize it and halt its spread.
Mistrust as a root of misinformation
Coverage about COVID-19 disinformation in immigrant communities and communities of color often frames the issue as one of ignorance or lack of education. If we just get the right information to these communities, they’ll come around. But we’ve found that there is something much deeper at play: A firmly, and often rightfully, rooted sense of mistrust in not just media organizations but also health and government institutions, based on longstanding collective histories and personal experiences of misrepresentation, racism, and systemic exclusion and abuse.
When it comes to health, immigrant communities and communities of color have a well-founded mistrust based on historical fact: The Tuskegee experiments did happen — the US government did willfully allow Black men to die of syphilis rather than provide proven medical treatments, just as American scientists did willfully infect Guatemalans with the same disease in the 1940s for research into penicillin. The US government did forcibly sterilize Puerto Rican women for decades beginning in the 1930s. And believe it or not, the CIA did stage a fake Hepatitis B vaccination campaign in Pakistan to attempt to collect the bin Laden family’s DNA in 2011.
Aside from these historical experiences, widespread mistrust and uncertainty is also rooted in contemporary exclusion from the medical industry, as well as media and government institutions. Today, millions of undocumented immigrants in this country are uninsured, meaning they have no formal relationship with the heath care system or medical professionals. In fact, one reason community members have told El Tímpano that they’ve yet to get the COVID-19 vaccine is because of a concern that, were they to experience severe side effects, they wouldn’t have anywhere to go for treatment.
To not acknowledge the factual basis for mistrust is to fail to understand how misinformation takes root and gains a stronghold in communities that have been marginalized by some of the very institutions now trying to reach them. Malignant misinformation ultimately feeds on kernels of truth. By acknowledging (again, well-founded) mistrust, exclusion, and uncertainty as a core element of misinformation, our framework for informing communities shifts from a passive, banking model of “education” and media distribution, to a community-engaged model, rooted in popular-education frameworks, that centers participatory trust- and relationship-building.
Equipping trusted messengers to combat misinformation
From initial conversations with community members about misinformation, one thing is clear: information — whether true or false — spreads through trust. That is, it most often spreads from within a community, from trusted messengers like church pastors, shop owners, friends, and neighbors. Think back to Maria Gonzalez, the mother whose household got sick with COVID-19 in January. She trusted her relatives who provided home remedies to recover.
This is why, for the past four years, El Timpano has invested so heavily in building trust with our community. It is why we invite people to subscribe to our SMS platform in person, usually in partnership with other trusted institutions like churches or schools. It is why every message from an audience member receives a response, and why we are building a team that reflects the communities we serve. For these reasons, when Mrs. Gonzalez was sick, she also reached out to El Tímpano, which provided her with the public health guidance and connection to health officials that she was looking for.
But we know that our organization alone cannot halt the spread of misinformation. After all, El Tímpano is only one of hundreds of trusted sources our audience members rely on. To foster a more informed community, we want to equip community members — ”trusted messengers” within their own families and social circles — to be reliable and confident sources of information.
Comunidades Informadas consists of designing and facilitating popular education workshops and accessible media content to train community members to understand what misinformation is, why their communities are often targeted, and how they can identify misinformation before unintentionally spreading it. Through workshops and lessons disseminated through accessible media, mothers, entrepreneurs, church pastors, and other active, engaged community members will be trained in the skills to defend their families and communities against misinformation.
To do this, we are learning from and building on the extensive resources and expertise peers have developed on the subject. First Draft News has created a vast catalogue of up-to-date resources for journalists on combating misinformation. We are working with their team to adapt those resources, along with others from PEN America, for Latino and Mayan indigenous immigrants. Local partners here in Oakland, including Mujeres Unidas y Activas and La Clínica de la Raza, as well as El Tímpano’s team and SMS community, have provided insights on how misinformation circulates and how it affects Latino and Mayan immigrants, in the context of the pandemic and beyond.
When we recognize the role that each one of us plays in sharing information — not just journalists and news outlets, but parents, grandparents, shopkeepers and neighbors — then we can broaden solutions to combating misinformation to create more informed, resilient, and healthy communities.
Madeleine Bair is the Founding Director of El Tímpano. Diana Montaño is a consultant for El Tímpano’s Comunidades Informadas initiative and also contributed to this blog. Comunidades Informadas is supported by a grant from the California Health Care Foundation. Thanks to Wen Calm from El Tímpano and Shaydanay Urbani of First Draft News for contributing their expertise.