IF YOU ARE VISITING Segadores de Vida, a Hispanic mega-church on the outskirts of Miami, you’ll likely get more than your average church service. His Dominican-born pastor, Ruddy Gracia, taught conspiracy theories alongside the Bible. Pastors who did not resist containment orders are “in line to take the mark of the beast,” he told his parishioners. He called Anthony Fauci, a public health official, a “wild beast” and believes that Mr. Fauci imports face masks from China to take advantage of the pandemic (the title of this sermon was “The Big Lie”). The ducks are amplified by Mr. Gracia’s social networks, which number several million people nationally and across Latin America.
Numerous investigations have revealed conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, are most popular among white Americans, especially evangelicals. But Hispanics also seem to gravitate towards them. In a July 2020 Pew Research poll, they were the ethnic group most likely to believe that a powerful group of people was behind the covid-19 pandemic. A survey recently published by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a pollster, confirmed that white evangelicals were the most ardent supporters of QAnon, but he also found Hispanic Protestants drawn to the movement. They are just as likely as white evangelicals to agree with QAnon’s basic theory – that “the government, the media and the financial worlds in we are controlled by a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation ”.
One reason why QAnon’s progress among Hispanic Protestants is that many are conservative evangelicals and hold views similar to those of their white counterparts. Natalie Jackson, Head of Research at PRRI, said QAnon is part of the Manichean beliefs about good and evil. Mr. Gracia, for example, conjectured that covid-19 is a plot concocted by a group of elites, including Bill Gates, to undermine the individual rights and patriotism of the people and lay the foundation for a world government that will be led by the Antichrist. .
In recent election cycles, disinformation analysts have noticed more attempts by political groups to spread propaganda and plots among Spanish speakers, especially in Florida. These efforts have been successful, in part because the limited Spanish media coverage of some issues leaves “data voids,” says Saiph Savage, a computer scientist who studies the spread of conspiracy thought.
While the misinformation is mostly about news in America, the researchers point out that some of the biggest influencers are in Latin America, particularly Colombia and Venezuela. Informative g24, a Colombian talk show, has more than 500,000 subscribers on YouTube and covers topics such as the deep state and the end of times. A few months before the presidential election, the show hosted a panel on the global battle between good and evil. “I am convinced that Donald Trump (…) is the only one who can do something for humanity,” said one of the panelists.
Jaime Longoria, researcher at First Draft, a nonprofit that combats disinformation, says other influencers comment daily on transliterated articles from far-right websites such as Breitbart and Gateway Pundit (whose founder was banned by Twitter in February). And some seem to have noted the tech giants’ crackdown on content related to QAnon. Popular Colombia-based YouTube influencer doesn’t mention the movement in his videos but claims to have Latino’s biggest Telegram group QAnon subscribers, with over 30,000 members.
Fact-checkers face several hurdles when tackling disinformation in the Spanish language. Much of it circulates in encrypted SMS apps, such as WhatsApp, making moderation more difficult. Another problem, says Claudia Flores-Saviaga, a member of Facebook’s research division, is that tech companies are using English as their primary language to train machine learning models that automate the detection of disinformation. Bizarre plots in Spanish can escape them.
Groups such as First Draft train fact-checkers, and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, which represents approximately 3,000 Hispanic churches in America, has joined the Department of Health and Human Services to host webinars in Spanish on covid-19 . Changing the minds of Mr. Gracia and others who are convinced this is a spiritual battle will not be easy, however. “We must obey God and not man,” he said. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Conspiracy as a second language”