Disinformation is a growing problem in American politics, but combating it in Latino media poses its own special challenges. Joining us on this week’s episode of “The Downballot” is Roberta Braga, founder of the Digital Democracy Institute of the Americas, a new organization devoted to tackling disinformation and building resiliency in Latino communities. Braga explains how disinformation transcends borders but also creates opportunities for people in the U.S. to import new solutions from Latin America. She also underscores the importance of fielding Latino candidates and their unique ability to address the issue.
In our Weekly Hits segment, co-hosts David Nir and David Beard hit a broad array of stories, including why a top California Democrat is seeking to pick his opponent for the general election; a truly bonkers un-retirement in Indiana; a troubling story sparked by an AI-generated image of a Democratic congressman in Illinois; and why a whole bunch of Oregon Republicans won’t be allowed to seek reelection even though they very much want to.
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This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
David Beard: Hello, and welcome. I’m David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.
David Nir: I’m David Nir, political director of Daily Kos. “The Downballot” is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency, from Senate to city council. Please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts, and leave us a five-star rating and review.
Beard: What are we covering on this week’s episode, Nir?
Nir: We are diving in with some Weekly Hits. First up, how one California Democrat is trying to pick his opponent for the general election. Then we have a completely bonkers decision to unretire by an Indiana Republican, a troubling story sparked by an AI-generated image of an Illinois congressman. Then why a whole bunch of Oregon Republicans won’t be allowed to run for reelection this year, even though they very much want to. Then, for our deep dive, joining us is Roberta Braga, who is the founder and executive director of the Digital Democracy Institute of the Americas, a new organization devoted to combating disinformation in politics, particularly among Latino media. It is an eye-opening conversation. We have a terrific episode for you once again, so let’s get rolling.
So, Beard, a few weeks ago on “The Downballot,” we were forced to talk about the presidential primaries against our will. So I am really, really glad that the real primaries, by which of course I mean the primaries for downballot races, are finally about to start.
Beard: Yes, of course, in part due to the presidential primaries, a lot of these primaries are earlier than they normally are, but that just gives us a bigger window of primaries to talk about, because we’ve got these first primaries coming up on March 5th. Some states moved their regular primaries to coincide with their presidential primary on March 5th. Some states just have the presidential primary on the fifth and then do their regular primaries later, but we do have some key states that are taking place on March 5th, and we want to start in California, of course, where there’s an open Senate seat—very big race. Almost certainly the person who wins the seat is going to be able to hold it for as long as they’d like, so we’re going to have a senator for probably a long time here.
There’s a number of key candidates here. Adam Schiff, Rep. Adam Schiff, is of course the favorite to take the first slot in the top-two primary. Of course, the way California does it, as we’ve talked about before, the top two candidates from the March 5th primary, regardless of party, advance to the general election in November, and Schiff has a pretty consistent polling lead. He’s got by far the most money, and so I think he’s the most likely to advance in that first slot. The big question is who’s going to take that second slot, to go into November with Schiff? There’s three other candidates who are competing for it, Rep. Katie Porter, Rep. Barbara Lee, both Democrats, and one notable Republican, Steve Garvey.
Garvey is a former MLB player. He played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, so of course he’s pretty well known in southern California. So polling has showed that second place is very, very close between Garvey and Porter. In fact, the most recent poll actually had them tied, at 15% each. Now, Schiff would be pretty much a lock in the general election against Garvey since you would have one Democrat, one Republican. California is a very Democratic state. Partisan cues would just allow him to sail through into the Senate, but a race against Porter, a fellow Democrat, would be much more uncertain. It’s just not always clear how those same-party races in a general election are going to go.
So Schiff, of course, would prefer to face Garvey. So, he started running ads to basically boost Garvey among Republican voters in this primary election. Schiff’s ad describes Garvey as too conservative for California, and says, “He voted for Trump twice and supported Republicans for years, including far-right conservatives.” Now, of course, that’s bad for the median California voter. That’s not going to make the median California voter vote for him, but Schiff and Garvey both just want a bunch of Republicans to vote for Garvey, to get him into that second slot. It’s pretty different circumstances because this is, of course, the top-two primary, but Claire McCaskill, way back in 2012, did a similar thing to get Todd Aiken through the GOP Senate primary by running ads talking about how he is too conservative. He’s a far right-winger, which, of course, appealed to those GOP primary voters back in 2012, in that Missouri GOP primary, and helped McCaskill get reelected in the general in 2012.
Now, Katie Porter has, of course, decried this ad, says that it’s brazenly cynical, all about Schiff advancing his own political career, boxing out qualified Democratic women candidates, but ultimately, there’s not much she can do about it. Schiff has a lot more money, and if he wants to run these ads to try to get Garvey into the second spot, he’s free to do that.
Nir: We saw, of course, in 2022, Democrats did this kind of thing all the time, all over the place, to boost unacceptable GOP candidates in GOP primaries all around the country. Of course, we here at “The Downballot” were extremely supportive of these moves. They worked out extremely well—in fact, flawlessly. There was a lot of hand-wringing about it, and of course, they use this same kind of language about “Oh, he’s too conservative.” It’s obviously a foe attack, a pretend attack. It’s different to see it happen in a top-two primary, but Schiff is not the first California Democrat to try to do this. The current attorney general, Rob Bonta, tried to pull off a similar maneuver in 2022. It didn’t quite work out, but he wound up winning easily anyway. We’ve also seen this happen further down the ballot.
I understand why folks like Porter are really frustrated here, but would they not do the same thing if they were the front-runner with the lead in the polls and a huge financial reserve? I don’t know. The reality is, though, this is yet another reason why the top-two primary totally sucks. We talked about it a ton on the show, including quite recently, and this is a case where Schiff is using it to his advantage. But, as we’re seeing in California’s 22nd District, where Democrats are scared of getting locked out of the general election, it screws us just as often. So it’s a totally bad system and a mess all the way around.
Beard: Absolutely. The last thing I’ll add is that there is a bit of a financial component here. If you have no preference between the various Democrats, Schiff and a Republican advancing means that he does not need to raise a lot more money, because he could probably not spend a single dime after March 5th if his opponent is a Republican, and still sail to the Senate. Whereas if Schiff and Porter, or even Schiff and Lee, advance to the general election, there will be a ton of need to raise a ton of money from Democratic donors as the two Democratic candidates are in basically an arms race in this competitive Democrat-on-Democrat race in the general election if that were to happen. So that’s a factor.
Obviously, they do have different positions. So, if somebody has a preference ideologically, by all means, but from a purely financial perspective, there’s a benefit to Democrats for it to just be a Democrat-vs.-Republican race.
Nir: In addition to these primaries that are suddenly coming into focus, lots and lots of states are seeing their candidate filing deadlines pass, and something absolutely nutty just went down in Indiana that is both completely crazy and completely expected at the same time. A year, fully a year after saying she would not seek a third term in the House, Indiana Republican Victoria Spartz did a total about-face, and said she would run again in the 5th District.
The reason why this total change of heart was not unexpected is because she has spent the last several months publicly hemming and hawing about whether or not she actually wants to run again. On September 18th, she had this public fight on social media with Kevin McCarthy. She blasted him as weak. He was still speaker at the time. McCarthy fired back, “If Victoria’s concerned about fighting stronger, I wish she would run again and not quit. I mean, I’m not quitting. I’m going to continue work for the American public.” I mean, that one, boy—that aged really well.
Nir: Spartz then said, “I wish Speaker McCarthy would work as hard at covering our country as he does at collecting checks, but his wish might come true. I do need to regroup.” But she said she was considering running again. But then just a few days later, she was at a town hall and a constituent was complaining to her about her alleged lack of responsiveness for constituent services. She said, “And listen, you don’t have to worry. I’m not running again.” So this was just a few days after that whole blowup with Kevin McCarthy. It was even really funnier about that. Howey Politics, which is this local tip sheet that covers Indiana politics, reported at the time, “So abrupt was the congresswoman’s decision”—meaning her initial decision not to run for reelection all the way back in February of 2023—“that her husband, Jason, was heard at a recent Republican Party dinner saying that he had just bought a condo in Washington the day before she announced she wasn’t going to run.”
Nir: I mean, right?
Nir: How nuts is that? Talk about being out of the loop
Beard: Let me tell you, condos in Washington D.C., not cheap.
Nir: Yeah, especially with interest rates these days, huh? So then things got way nuttier because the next month, in October, she said she might resign from Congress. She said if Congress didn’t pass a debt ceiling commission—man, she went straight up martyr here. She said, “I will not continue sacrificing my children for this circus, with a complete absence of leadership. I cannot save this republic alone.” I mean, what delusions of grandeur, right?
Beard: Yeah. I’m sure everyone was just like, “Feel free,” at that point. I bet a bunch of even Republicans were like, “If you have to resign, just go ahead, and we will get somebody a little more normal in here.”
Nir: Oh, man. Then, a few weeks later, some unnamed House Republican, a member of Congress, after a caucus meeting, told Axios reporter Juliegrace Brufke, “Spartz gave an emotional and tearful incoherent speech, where, I think, she told everyone she’s leaning toward running again.” Does that not just sound perfectly like Victoria Spartz?
Beard: Yeah, I can imagine it. It’s exactly what you would expect.
Nir: It’s vivid. Then, in early December, she tells the Indianapolis Star, “I still feel like I need to take some time off to regroup.” So this is where she was maybe a couple months before the filing deadline, and she still kept saying the same thing in early January. This is remarkably consistent, that for an entire month in early January, she said, “I would like to take some time off to get my sanity back.” Well …
Beard: I mean, that’s the best thing she said. The whole stretch of these comments is, “Absolutely, you need to do that.”
Nir: Well, I think that ship might have sailed, Victoria. Good luck finding it. In any event, she’s decided that she doesn’t want her sanity back, because a week before the filing deadline, she said she was going to run again. Here’s the thing, you can’t really pull this kind of bullshit in politics, because in the year since she said she wasn’t going to run again, a whole bunch of Republicans launched bids to succeed her. It’s a conservative district, and they figure that they have an easy shot to Congress, and they are so fucking pissed at her. One of them, it’s pretty funny. It’s actually a former McCarthy aide named Max Engling. He slammed Spartz for having a well-documented history of waffling on the issues and reelection campaign, which is a great combination of things.
Beard: I mean, that’s fair. That’s fair. He is right.
Nir: He’s not wrong. State Rep. Chuck Goodrich attacked Spartz for flip-flopping and putting America last. He even rolled out an endorsement the same day from a local mayor who called for stable leadership. I think that was a pretty obvious subtweet there. But here’s the thing, it’s not just about pissing off the other candidates. Spartz doesn’t really have any money. In the fourth quarter of 2023, she raised $0, $0 and 0 cents, not a penny. She only has about $300,000 in the bank. Goodrich, meanwhile, he’s rich, and he self-funded a million bucks. He still has $700,000 in his war chest. Maybe he can self-fund some more. So I think there’s a really good chance that Spartz does not wind up being the nominee again. Maybe the name recognition is enough to carry her through, but I can’t imagine she’s capable of putting together a solid campaign at this point. And the amazing thing here is that this is like the campaign-trail version of the chaos that we see every freaking day in the United States House of Representatives on the Republican side. And man, I mean this is like a mini version of what the hell went down with that totally insane, failed impeachment of Alejandro Mayorkas. Victoria Spartz is the poster child for Republican dysfunction.
Beard: Yeah, and maybe Spartz is maybe at the far end. Though you’ve also got Lauren Boebert, who didn’t bail from Congress but did randomly switch districts across the state and similarly get into a situation where there’s already other Republicans running for that seat. So it’s just wild that they’re doing this. I do agree that, particularly if there’s two real candidates, you could end up with a situation where Spartz gets 30% and the two challengers each get 25 or 20%, and she’s able to squeak through. But the money is a big issue. The reason why incumbents are so strong and are so hard to defeat is they have a headstart on so much. They have the name ID, they’re generally reasonably popular with their own party’s voters, they get to raise a ton of money—and then you’re going up against all that. But Spartz has already lost a bunch of that. She doesn’t have the money advantage. It sounds like a lot of her own constituents are tired of her. So I think there’s every chance that she loses this primary that she decided at the last minute to jump into.
Nir: So we have to switch gears. And this next story unfortunately feels like a very sad one, but it doesn’t seem to have gotten a lot of attention. So, back in December, Erin Covey, who at the time was reporting for Inside Politics, pointed out that Democratic Congressman Danny Davis’ team had posted what were very clearly AI-generated images of Davis on his campaign website, and they had all the hallmarks of AI. They had totally messed-up hands, which you see in lots and lots of AI images, but they also show the congressman looking much younger and slimmer than he really is. Davis is 82 years old. Fast-forward to this week, ABC 7 Chicago’s Craig Wall reported on this race mostly highlighting one of Davis’ top challengers in the Democratic primary, gun-safety activist Kina Collins. But at the end of his piece, Wall included this really troubling bit of reporting.
He said that in an interview with Davis, that Davis had “downplayed” his age, but then Wall mentioned those AI photos that Covey had first called attention to. And he included this line, this is a direct quote from Wall’s piece, “His media person”—meaning Davis’ media person—“admitted she generated the AI photo because she had a hard time getting Davis to get well-groomed for a photoshoot.” Now why a comms person would ever say something like that is completely beyond me. If it’s true, it’s concerning in its own right. But I checked out some recent photos of Davis at the Capitol from December, and he was perfectly well-groomed. So is this comms person making excuses for the congressman to hide something else, or did she just make a bad excuse for her own poor decision of posting this AI image? We just don’t know.
Beard: This comment from this person is somebody who should never work in politics for any elected official again. It is insane to voluntarily say that you could not get your candidate well-groomed for a photo shoot, because it’s such a basic thing. Any competent adult would be able to appear somewhere looking good enough for a photoshoot. It is not hard. It is not demanding really in any way, shape, or form. And as you said, if there are photos from December of Davis looking perfectly normal for a congressman doing his job, then it’s even crazier that this person seemingly made it up. Or I don’t know if he just didn’t want to do the photoshoot, and that’s what she meant or what, but it is the wildest comment I’ve seen in a long time about a congressman that somebody representing them nominally would’ve said to a reporter.
Nir: It’s completely, completely wild, and it hasn’t gotten a ton of attention, I feel, in part because it appeared at the end of this piece that Wall wrote. But I guess what’s really concerning to me is the possibility that this staffer is just trying to cover for Davis. He’s 82 years old now. He may be completely up to the task, but we shouldn’t have to worry that he might not be. We saw such a sad situation unfold at the very end last year with Dianne Feinstein. We might be seeing the same thing happening again, with Georgia Congressman David Scott, another Democrat. We see it happen all the time, all too often with elected officials who stay in office well past a point when most people should.
Now it’s very fair to ask what about Joe Biden? Joe Biden is close in age to Danny Davis. The reality is that Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee for president, no matter how you or I might feel about it. But Davis, by contrast, he’s been in office since 1997, and Illinois’ 7th District is safely blue. So, if he were to retire, another Democrat, like Kina Collins or one of his other challengers, or maybe yet some other politician, would take his place. That’s a guarantee. Now I would much rather have a party whose members love Congress than a party whose members clearly seem to hate it as so many Republicans obviously do, and that includes Victoria Spartz. But we still need to be able to strike the right balance and not wind up as a total gerontocracy.
Beard: And I’ll add, as far as I know, no one has said that Joe Biden couldn’t appear to photoshoot well-groomed. Regardless of what you think, he’s clearly out in public in a suit so clearly better than whatever this comms person is claiming about Danny Davis, which I’m still not over. But yes, to your broader point, I don’t know if there’s any easy answers, how to get someone who has spent decades on Capitol Hill, who’s been a huge part of their life, I’m sure, and they’re hugely proud of the work they’ve done and the service that they’ve done—how to get that person to understand when it’s time to retire, whenever that may be. I’m not talking about anything specific, but it’s tough. We’ve seen it over and over again, and I feel like it’s better to go out on your own terms and to be able to have that final term in office and get all those congratulations.
But a lot of people would prefer to hold on, no matter what. It feels like they don’t know how their lives would be after no longer being an elected official. And so they just hold on, no matter what. And it’s really unfortunate in some cases.
Nir: Well, we’re going to wrap up with a different story about when it’s time to call it quits against your will. Very, very different indeed.
Beard: Yes, we’ve got some Oregon Republican state senators who haven’t quit so much as been told that they can’t run for reelection. So let me go back to the beginning here. Voters in 2022 passed a constitutional amendment blocking lawmakers with 10 or more unexcused absences from running for reelection. Now they did that because there’s a history of members walking out and boycotting sessions in order to prevent a two-thirds quorum from being reached, which prevents any sort of legislation from being considered or moved. Now this has been a very popular tactic for Republicans in Oregon—particularly the Senate in recent years—to block Democrats from being able to pass legislation as they’ve had a trifecta with both the House and the Senate and the governor’s office in recent years. So Republicans have repeatedly used this tactic, and voters in 2022 passed this amendment to stop it from happening.
It said that lawmakers, they hit this threshold and then they couldn’t run for reelection. I think the idea behind it was to incentivize those senators to not do this. It didn’t quite work out that way. The Republican senators in this past session just went ahead and did it anyway. They did that boycott. They delayed or blocked legislation from being passed, and they went well past the 10-unexcused-absence limit. Now they then claimed, in a very strange reading of the specific text, that the amendment actually meant that they couldn’t run for the reelection in the following cycle after the one they were going to run for. So the idea being that they could run in 2024 for reelection, and the amendment actually applied to 2028. Now I’m not going to get into the legal details here, but basically, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the clear intention of the amendment was to block the immediate reelection, i.e., the reelection in 2024, not one years and years down the road.
So that means that those senators are not going to be able to run for reelection, as clearly the voters intended when they passed that amendment. However, these are all pretty GOP districts. It’s very likely that the new senators will be of the same political persuasion. I would not be surprised to see these new senators execute the exact same walkout in a future session and then also get barred from running from reelection. And then, of course, you could see the old senators come back in the next election. So really, I don’t think this amendment has been proven to solve the problem that it was meant to solve. And we really need to see, or again, eliminate this two-thirds quorum requirement entirely so that a majority of the Oregon House and Oregon Senate, it can meet and pass legislation that a majority of each house supports.
Nir: There’s a reason why very few state legislatures have this kind of quorum requirement in the first place because it is anti-majoritarian. It’s essentially like a filibuster. I think that the measure that voters approved in 2022 was almost the first step here. It passed by a wide margin. It was widely seen as promoting good governance. I mean, insisting that your paid elected representatives actually show up to work is something that almost everyone agrees with. I think that now that it’s been shown not to prevent these blockades and these walkouts, I think that organizers and activists would have a much better shot at putting an amendment on the ballot—because that’s what you would need, you would need a constitutional amendment—to eliminate the quorum retirement. So hopefully that’s something we see happen soon.
Beard: Yeah, I think you’re right that this has proven that you need the next step, and the next step is to eliminate the quorum requirement, and hopefully, we’ll see that coming in the future, and Oregon voters will agree.
Nir: Well, that does it for our Weekly Hits. Coming up on our deep dive on “The Downballot,” we are joined by Roberta Braga, who is the founder of a new organization devoted to combating disinformation in Latino media and building resiliency in Latino communities. It is a fascinating interview, so please stay with us after the break.
Nir: Joining us today on “The Downballot” to discuss disinformation in politics, and especially in Latino media, is Roberta Braga, the founder and executive director of the Digital Democracy Institute of the Americas. Roberta, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Roberta Braga: Thank you so much, Nir. It’s a pleasure to be here with you both.
Nir: So why don’t we start off with you telling us about how the Digital Democracy Institute was founded and why it was created.
Braga: Sure. So the first thing I’ll say is we fondly refer to it as DDIA. It’s much easier to remember.
Nir: Much appreciated. That will shorten this interview considerably.
Braga: And for the Spanish speakers in the audience, we call it De Dia, which is a play on words. It means “in the light” in Spanish as well. So you can tell already how much I like words and narratives. So, essentially, DDIA was born from the very basic recognition that strengthening a healthy internet is very crucial for democracy. But at the heart of what we do is also the understanding that Latinos and our experiences need to be at the center of conversations about the future of the online world, essentially. Our communities are incredibly diverse. We’re also some of the most digitally connected in the U.S., but unfortunately, more often than not, we’re treated a bit like afterthoughts or stereotyped in decision-making spaces. And so I’ll talk a bit more about the trends later, but I wanted to say that false, misleading information, these online harms, digital discrimination—these are all challenges that, for Latinos, are very much cyclical and borderless, and they can’t really be addressed in silos. And so, essentially, what we’re trying to do—and, I think, is a little bit different than other organizations in the space—is we’re really trying to bring together public opinion research with analysis of narratives, to shape resilience-building programs for communities. So: by Latinos, for Latinos.
We want to study the root causes of belief in behavior in Latino communities. And we really want to connect the dot, and I think this is a little bit still lacking. We want to connect the dots between work that’s being done in the United States with Latino communities in the U.S., and really creative and innovative stuff that’s happening in Latin America, because we recognize that these groups are not talking enough to each other, and there are really creative things we’ve implemented in Brazil, Mexico, Columbia that could be implemented in the U.S. as well. So yeah, I’ll leave it at that.
Beard: Great. And I definitely want to ask you more, particularly about those Latin America experiments and stuff, but first, I know a lot of our listeners are very familiar with Fox News and what Fox News does in the English-language media in the United States. They may not be as familiar with how disinformation spreads in Latino media and in Latino community, so could you give us an overview of that problem?
Braga: Sure. So this is both good news and very bad news, but essentially, if you understand what’s spreading on Fox News, it’s likely that you already understand some of what’s spreading in Latino spaces. I think this might sound obvious, but because Latinos are both English dominant and Spanish dominant and very frequently multilingual, we’re encountering disinformation in much the same ways that other communities are. And a lot of what often starts or originates in these English-language, very extreme spaces, then appear in Spanish-speaking media and spaces. And so really what you see in the broader ecosystem is likely also going to be seen in English and Spanish and Latino spaces. I think what’s unique is for U.S. Latinos, we’re coming across and we’re being targeted by disinformation from both domestic and foreign actors. The bad actors are very much connected, and I think extremist movements are very much connected and amplifying each other.
We see this in the U.S. and Brazil, where I’m originally from. Also, for Latinos, I mentioned this earlier, narratives are really borderless. So a young person that’s watching a YouTube video in the U.S. might actually be seeing content that’s hosted by a Latin American infotainer or influencer. And the last thing, I would say, that’s interesting about how disinformation spreads in Latino spaces is where they’re spreading. So, in the United States, Latinos really over-index on consumption of YouTube and WhatsApp. And that, combined with English- and Spanish-language information voids in these spaces, can really open up a lot of opportunity for bad actors to fill it with noise and disinformation.
And so what a Latino person might see on YouTube may be very low budget, quote, “news analysis” videos that might come from the U.S. but might come from Latin America, some hybrid celebrity gossip, some talk shows that reference politics. And then really well-organized reeducation programs of sorts that really twist a grain of truth to become this very misrepresented larger conversation. And then, at the end of the day, WhatsApp is encrypted, so it’s just really hard to see where something is starting and who’s spreading it and who it’s impacting. I can talk more about this. We’re actually monitoring about 700 public Latino WhatsApp groups in the U.S., but even still, public groups are a really small percentage of the overall number of groups on WhatsApp. And so they’re not always indicative of conversations happening at scale, essentially.
Nir: So, if Fox News maybe can be viewed as the super-spreader of disinformation in English-language media, is there any rough equivalent in Latino media, especially Spanish-language media, or is it really just much more distributed, as you were saying, about YouTube and WhatsApp?
Braga: So we do see, I would say, what’s really notable in Latino spaces are what I referred to as infotainers earlier. Essentially, not journalists, they’re not trained journalists, but they might be pundits who are processing news and information through their lens and lacing in opinion with it. Sometimes they might talk about different issue areas, they might reference and co-opt some broader news content. So we often do see, for example, Fox News, we used to see Tucker Carlson content that gets then translated to Spanish or has subtitles in Spanish put over it. And so we do see that engagement between the two. There are a few specific channels that I’m hesitant to name because I don’t want to draw more attention to them.
Nir: Totally good with that. Totally good with that.
Braga: But there are a few. And then I would also say there’s some well-known ones that do play in Latino spaces, like PragerU, for example, has an Americanos channel. And so there are a lot of also misleading framed channels that are in this space too.
Nir: So you talked a couple of minutes ago about monitoring these public WhatsApp groups, but earlier you spoke about building resiliency among Latino communities. So can you talk a little bit more about the ways that your organization, DDIIA—I’ve learned the brief acronym—is working to counteract these disinformation streams?
Braga: Yes, absolutely. So the first step in counteracting is knowing what’s spreading, but more importantly, how it all connects. Essentially, and I think you all know this very well, anything you go looking for on the internet, you’re likely to find. And people’s first reactions are usually to go into fix-it mode. We saw this lie, we need to correct it immediately, but not everything is worth engaging in. And if you get too bogged down on the specific claims, you often miss the bigger picture. And so what we’re doing is we are tracking what we call master narratives, or metanarratives, because those don’t change that often. Often, what changes are the claims underpinning those metanarratives.
So, for example, election fraud is a metanarrative, and the claims underpinning that might be dead people voting, Sharpie-gate, some of the things we’re pretty familiar with. Those don’t change even across countries. We’ve seen some of the very same things. So we’re both tracking and connecting the dots between these metanarratives, but we’re also helping people understand, of the things that are spreading, what is actually spreading and having an impact? What is spreading largely enough that it’s worth engaging with? And what should you not engage with? And most often, you actually should just close your mouth and not engage with certain things, even though they might seem incredibly urgent or salient.
If you employ what we call strategic silence, sometimes things go away often actually. And so we’re helping people assess that, our partners, through these monitoring reports that we put out. And I think beyond that, we’re trying to move away from just content, to counter-content. And so part of what we’re trying to do is understand what the psychological, the social, the media consumption drivers of engagement with disinformation are. We’re actually trying to understand, who are the people who see and believe disinformation? Is it having an impact on them, on their behavior, for example? And then we’re trying to test out different interventions that address those bigger root causes, that address, for example, polarization. And so we’re studying ways that we can intervene without just using messaging, if that makes sense.
Beard: Now seems like a great opportunity for me to jump into the Latin American studies that you talked about or the experiments that they’ve been doing and how they might come to the U.S. So let’s hear more about that.
Braga: Sure. So one organization that I really love—I mentioned I’m from Brazil. I used to work election-integrity work there during my time at the Atlantic Council. One organization in Brazil that is doing really good work is called the Redes Cordiais—Cordial Networks—and they’ve essentially built a curriculum that trains influencers to depolarize their own information ecosystems. And so they’ve done 18, I think, at this stage, 18 or 19 workshops. They’ll bring together 15 to 20 influencers from all different walks of life. People who cover politics but also people who definitely don’t, who are talking about art and movies and sports from all different sides of the spectrum.
And they’re bringing them together to not just get to know each other, but to understand how can they use nonviolent tactics to lower the temperature on conversations that are happening when they’re engaging their followers. How can they be a part of making those spaces a little bit healthier? How can they take on the responsibility of not spreading disinformation themselves? And so, for me, when I see those success stories, I’m like, well, why wouldn’t we try that here with influencers that are engaging U.S. Latinos, for example? And so I’d really like to use partnerships to bring these things from the U.S. to Latin America, from Latin America to the U.S.
Nir: I’m totally fascinated by those workshops that you were just talking about. I could easily imagine influencers feeling “Well, why do I need to go to this sort of training? Why do I even need to meet these other competitors? What do I care about spreading this information? It’s not my responsibility.” But yet it sounds like, based on the number of folks that this organization has reached, that there is a receptiveness to this.
Braga: Yeah, I think that part of what they’re trying to really communicate to the world is we all have a part in making democracies healthier. And I think that influencers are a huge part of moving conversations, whether they think they’re moving conversations on politics or democracy or not. And even whether they want to be or not, I think this comes up, this is going to come up. And so, to the extent that they’d like to have the skills, that they feel interested in that, then why not try to mobilize them and support them with some of that? So that’s my dream project for the next couple of years.
Beard: Now, of course, immigration and the southern border have become major topics in recent months. Republicans love to bang that drum pretty much anywhere and everywhere that they can. Have you seen disinformation around these issues in Latino communities, and how has that manifested itself?
Braga: Yeah, that’s a great question. So this is going to be one of those metanarratives that I mentioned I think will be really salient this year. The majority of the anti-immigration and border conversations that we see are usually actually happening in the broader right-wing ecosystem, usually among white communities about Latinos, not always in Latino spaces about Latinos. That said, there is a consistent trend that we’ve observed of Latino and Spanish-language accounts amplifying narratives sometimes in the context of Biden. And some of the examples of the things that we see—not to amplify them here, but I think it’s also useful for people to be aware of what they might encounter—emphasis on the notion that migrants are to blame for America’s economic decline, suggestions broadly that migrants are hurting the country, castigating migrants, calling them criminals, and portraying them as a source of increased insecurity.
There’s a claim now that the Democratic Party and that Biden are flying in and bringing in through the border hordes of migrants so that they will vote Democrat in the 2024 election. So this claim that recent migrants will legally be voting, it’s just absurd. And so those are some of the types of things that we see, and this has been around and it’s happening in many different countries, but I think it’s something to keep an eye on for sure.
Nir: That particular claim, which, of course, as you said, is absurd, really, I find so striking because Republicans, at the exact same time that they’re spreading this conspiracy theory, have talked so proudly about the inroads that they claim to be making in many Latino communities. So which is it? Are you trying to welcome in new Latino voters to grow your party and grow your electorate, or are Latinos coming here solely to vote for Democrats? It can’t be both.
Braga: Right. Yes. I think, in the disinformation world broadly, there are always these contradictions that are incredibly fascinating and that sometimes people just either don’t see or they don’t care to see. People just choose what reaffirms their beliefs oftentimes, so, yeah, it’s interesting stuff.
Nir: You alluded to this earlier. We’ve generally been using the phrase Latino community, but of course, we know that the Latino community itself is very diverse. We had a terrific discussion on this topic last year, with Carlos Odio of EquisLabs. And to name just a few of the largest communities in this country, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cuban-Americans—all very different, with different information streams. So how does that complicate your work at DDIA, and how do you tackle it?
Braga: Nir, this is one of my favorite questions. It’s like the million-dollar question. This diversity among Latinos is a huge part of our work. It’s a huge part of what I try to communicate to the world every day that we’re talking about this type of thing that we’re doing. Latinos are not all the same. We’re complex. We have different issue preferences, different lived experiences. For many Latinos, our identities are really nuanced and multidimensional. I, for example, am Brazilian, like I mentioned, but I grew up in the north of Wisconsin. I’ve been in the U.S. for 25 years. I’m a U.S. citizen, and I spent a huge part of my life working with Venezuelans and Cubans and learned my Spanish from them, which means I have a very odd Caribbean accent, by the way.
But I think that Latinos are not all engaging in disinformation the same way. Actually and more importantly than any of it is this understanding that the majority of Latinos are familiar with disinformation, but they’re actually not believing everything they see. They’re very skeptical. The people that do come across, and this is based on research we’ve done also with Equis when I was directing the counter-disinformation department there, is the people who do tend to see more disinformation and believe it more often are not the people that we stereotypically think would be the ones to engage disinformation. It’s not low-education, low-access-to-information folks. It’s actually often people with very high levels of political interest who often are college educated and affluent.
We have so much more work to do to understand of the people. We did a poll in 2022 that we reanalyzed, and we’re doing two more this year to understand this, but 53% of Latinos of the 2,400 sample that we had, they were familiar with 16 different narratives that we tested. Each person saw eight, and they were familiar with them, but they were not 100% sure one way or the other, whether the things were true or false. There was a very high level of skepticism. And then, of the 47% who believed at least one, 22% believed one, 25% believed two or more. Of those groups, we actually developed a typology, a six-part typology, that kind of breaks down who are the people who see a lot of disinformation and believe it a lot, see a lot but don’t believe it often, see very little and believe it a lot, see very little and don’t believe it at all. Because, I think, that really helps determine what counter-strategies mean for those different groups.
I think the core part to the diversity question is we are all very different. We don’t make decisions based on disinformation alone—very infrequently, actually. Whatever the counter-strategies might be, or the resilience-building interventions might be, they’re not going to be the same for everyone. I think we need to understand, at what part of the spectrum are people … Are they too far down the rabbit hole already? Because if they are, then it might be something else. I think the solution ends up being fact-checking and inoculation strategies and media literacy and good communication. There are a million things that we should be doing at the same time, and we should do a better job of trying to understand what the subgroups are so that we can get to the folks and listen and talk with them and things like that. Very easy thing that I picked to work in.
Beard: Yeah. I’m just like, maybe we should let you go now so you can get to work on it. It sounds like a lot.
Nir: I want to make things even more complicated, actually, because, Roberta, since you mentioned that you’re from Brazil—obviously, definitions of Latino or Hispanic … There’s so many possible ways to define these terms, and I feel like Brazilians and Brazilian-Americans are often left out of official definitions, but I think a lot of people would include Brazilian or Brazilian-Americans under Latinos. It is part of Latin America, after all. Do you see this same problem arising in the Lusophone community in the United States?
Braga: The Brazilian community in the United States is not as large as some of the other communities of Latinos that we’re studying. I think 70% of the Latino vote … And I say Latino vote, you know what I mean? Like Latino communities’ vote. Seventy percent are Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans. I think only 6 to 7% are Cubans and Venezuelans, and I don’t know what the percent of Brazilians is, but I’m guessing it’s much lower than 6%. That said, disinformation is a huge issue in Brazil and I think you all saw we had our own insurrection on January 8th, two years after January 6th. They invaded all three seats of power, and Brazil is going through a very similar pattern right now that the U.S. went through. They banned Jair Bolsonaro from running—our Trump of the tropics, as they said—from running again. But the problem hasn’t gone away, and it’s a huge country, like the United States, and really diverse as well. I think that seeps in. Even for non-Lusophone communities in the U.S., the far right, whether they’re Latinos or not, are engaging with content from Brazil. There’s really very, again, cyclical, borderless touches to it all.
Beard: Yeah. It’s definitely something that I’ve observed thinking more in English-language media because I tend to follow elections in other English-language countries: the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and American politics. And, of course, Canada—don’t want to forget Canada. American politics has seeped in, in various ways, into those countries. In some cases, it has also come back the other direction. Obviously, with the internet and the way that we’re all interconnected, this is going to continue to happen, particularly where the language creates seamless abilities to talk across borders, like you said.
Braga: I mean, Brazilians have a really close connection to the U.S. culturally. They consume a lot of media, music, movies coming out of the U.S. They’re watching some of the same infotainers that I mentioned, and the pundits and the observers and the far-right-wing commentators in Brazil very much amplify and engage with some of their counterparts in the U.S. It really doesn’t … Neither language nor borders seem to stop those cycle of disinformation.
Beard: One last question I wanted to ask you. It’s about having Latino candidates on the ballot. Do we think that helps with the disinformation issue? Are they more familiar with Latino media and able to maybe counteract some of these issues? Obviously, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell comes to mind as likely the Democratic nominee for the Florida Senate race later this year.
Braga: Yeah. No, I think the first point I would make here is that Latino candidates know that they need to be communicating with Latino constituents. I think they see the value of our communities and democracy. One of the things I mentioned earlier regarding YouTube and what people might come across on YouTube, that kind of what we call uncontested communication, it’s a little different than disinformation. It may not be outright false content, just very misleading or twisted content. YouTube is rife with it. There is a lot of infotaining happening, and Latino candidates know that they should be filling those information voids in both English and Spanish and really listening and speaking with communities.
The second part of my answer to this, and I think it’s a little bit more lighthearted, I suppose, is that, by and large, all of us want to see ourselves and our experiences reflected in the people who represent us. So many Latinos feel like guests in this country even after being here for decades. Research really shows that, including research from Equis, many don’t see how policies implemented at the top really influence their own day-to-day lives. Having candidates on the ballot like Debbie who share in that understanding of Latinidad, as we call it, and all of its complexities and who prioritize engaging our communities but who don’t other Latinos and who recognize … Latinos identify as Americans and Latinos, and we’re engines of the U.S. economy and we’re core to the heart of what makes this country great. All of that, I think, is core to proactively countering disinformation.
Oftentimes, the solution that is most effective is just proactive, contextualized communication that puts out there the values of democracy, of what we want to see it be. I think that’s the role that Latino candidates know that they hold. I’ve heard Debbie talk about this specifically. She’s very aware of the disinformation issues, and so I think it’s part of that is that engagement is really important.
Nir: This has been an absolutely fascinating and enlightening discussion with Roberta Braga, who has joined us on “The Downballot” this week. She is the founder and executive director of the Digital Democracy Institute of the Americas, also known as DDIA. Roberta, before we let you go, you need to tell our listeners how they can find out more about your organization, more about you, follow you on social media, and where they can keep up with the results of all of the work and experiments that you folks have in the pipeline.
Braga: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for the opportunity. To everyone listening, you can visit our website. It’s ddia.org. You can see some of our latest work there. It’s available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. You can also sign up to receive a biweekly readout that we offer that has insights on what’s breaking out in Latino spaces on social media. We’ve also developed a great partnership with a tech startup out of Brazil that allows us to analyze information circulating in WhatsApp groups and Telegram channels. For people who are doing work around this who want to have that insight or that information every two weeks, you can sign up on our website in the “Get Involved” section. And you can find me on LinkedIn, and I’d be happy to connect with anyone who’s interested in learning more about what we do.
Nir: Roberta, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Braga: Thank you.
Beard: That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Roberta Braga for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday, everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcast and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our editor, Drew Roderick, and we’ll be back next week with a new episode.