Misleading Translations and Falsehoods Are Swirling in Non-English Languages on Social Media

From an Inside the Times column by Megan DiTrolio headlined “The Misinformation Beat, Translated”:

Facts are facts no matter the language in which they are shared. Ahead of the midterm elections, misleading translations and blatant falsehoods about topics such as inflation and election fraud are swirling in non-English languages on social media — and multilingual fact checkers are struggling to keep up.

The Times journalist Tiffany Hsu tackled this topic in a recent report. After spending several years on the media beat for The Times, she joined the team covering disinformation and misinformation this summer. (Disinformation means a coordinated campaign by people or organizations that generally know the information is false; misinformation, as Ms. Hsu puts it, is when your uncle repeats something he read on Facebook, not realizing the post wasn’t factual.) For the article, Ms. Hsu spoke with about a dozen researchers — and spent time on Google Translate — to understand how the spread of falsehoods may target immigrant communities and affect the vote.

In an interview on Thursday, Ms. Hsu shared more about her recent reporting. This conversation has been edited.

When did you start to hear about misinformation in other languages?
My family is from Taiwan, and for several years now there has been this interesting flow of content from not only Taiwanese producers, but also Taiwanese American producers and mainland Chinese producers that reaches immigrants like my parents in this country. Often a lot of that information is twisted or is just flat-out wrong.

Misinformation, especially in Spanish, was a big problem in 2020. Jennifer Medina wrote a great couple of stories for us on this during that election. I was talking to researchers and many of them were pointing out that the problem had not only not gone away, it had gotten worse. We were entering the midterm season with more fact checkers working in different languages, but also with more misinformation on more topics in more languages on more platforms.

Do you spend a lot of time on fringe services?
For this particular story, because it covered so many different languages that I’m not familiar with, the researchers were a fantastic lifeline. I would reach out to them and say, “This narrative is circulating in English language communities. Are you seeing this in Spanish or Chinese or Vietnamese or Hindi?” They would tell me if they had, and often, they had.

Generally in my reporting, I spend a lot of time on various platforms like Gab, Telegram, Truth Social, Rumble and TikTok. This morning, I was commuting on the train, and I spent an hour scrolling through TikTok, looking at videos that were tagged with the midterm hashtag and seeing quite a lot that were not fully factual.

Has your work changed the way that you use social media?
Absolutely. I had been on Facebook for a while. I was on Instagram for a long time, and I used to look at it just as entertainment. But ever since taking on the media beat and now the misinformation beat, I’m hyperconscious of what’s being served to me. Covering this beat has personally been helpful to me because it’s trained me to stop and think about what it is I’m seeing on these platforms and to not take everything at face value.

In your reporting, you already have to cut through what’s true and what’s not. Now you have to do that in languages that you don’t speak. What tools did you use?
Every time a researcher, tipster or my editor sends me a post, I try to find it myself either on one of the platforms or through Wayback Machine, which often can find deleted posts. I try to confirm for myself the post does in fact exist in the form that it was sent to me.

And a lot of Google Translate. I’m lucky in that I know a lot of people who speak these popular languages, so I run a lot of the content by them. A lot of what ended up in the story had already been independently fact-checked by many excellent fact-checking groups like Factchequeado and Viet Fact Check. The key with all stories is to find the authoritative sources and then try to double check them.

What audience are you thinking about?
I don’t think about audience per se, because I’m not coming into this with an angle. I’m not trying to convince a disbelieving audience, and I’m not trying to back up what a supportive audience might think. What I’m trying to do is look at the content that’s out there and determine whether or not it’s accurate. If it’s not accurate, I’m trying to prove why and then explain what some of the consequences might be. My job is to lay out the evidence and readers will determine for themselves whether or not that’s convincing to them.

As we approach the midterms, what most concerns you?
There’s a lot of chatter still on a lot of these platforms and in other mediums about the integrity of elections. That, from everything I’ve heard, is very dangerous. There’s a piece of research that says that new voters are most likely to be Latino. Primarily Spanish-speaking voters are at risk of being exposed to disinformation about voting. There have been changes in voting policies that make the election process confusing, even to a native English speaker. To have this doubt swirling in the environment heading into a really consequential election is problematic, especially when so many diasporic communities are going to become or are becoming very powerful voting centers.

The midterms are important, which is why a lot of our coverage right now is focused on political misinformation. But misinformation is everywhere. It touches every single topic you can think of: Parenting groups, education, crime. I really do think it’s important to have a lot of reporting firepower behind it.

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