Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinions at CNN.
Tuesday’s double-barrel run-off in Georgia is a battle for control of the US Senate. But it’s also been a fight for the minds of the state’s voters, with a half billion dollars in campaign ads surging onto airwaves – in addition to the disinformation campaigns that have become depressingly commonplace in Trump-era politics.
In November’s general election, disinformation campaigns aimed at Spanish-speaking voters were rampant on social media in South Florida, tarring Democrats as socialists and even communists in an ultimately successful attempt to swing enough Hispanic voters to Trump in Florida.
A similar effort has been underway in Georgia, where the Hispanic population is more than 1 million strong. An analysis of various “Latinos for Trump” Facebook pages directed at Georgia was provided to me by the Alethea Group, which tracks disinformation campaigns online. As with the Florida disinformation, these pages claim that socialism and communism will come to America if Democrats win; they also pass around Spanish language translations of articles from fringe right-wing sites.
The conservatism of many Latino voters is, of course, completely legitimate. But these false, fear-fueled narratives do great damage to our democracy by undermining our ability to reason together.
In the general election, Joe Biden won Hispanic women in Georgia by a margin of 69% to 30%, according to CNN exit polls, while Trump won 48% of Hispanic men in the Peach State. Two weeks later, The New York Times magazine devoted a cover story to the efforts by the libertarian Libre Initiative to win Hispanic votes for Republican senate candidates in the runoff with a free-market message.
But its the fear market that many of these pages appeal to – actively pushing President Donald Trump’s baseless conspiracy theories about the election being stolen, including bonkers allegations from a fake, right-wing news site about the Mafia dropping off 300,000 ballots for Biden in Philadelphia and amplified memes that echo calls from Sebastian Gorka (a former deputy assistant to Trump) to “break down the doors of those polling stations and stop the crimes being committed.”
They’ve promoted Covid-19 conspiracy theories and even strayed into QAnon promotion territory – illustrating the way this whole crazy quilt is connected. Disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories are intimately entwined. Even comparatively small Facebook pages can achieve big reach, with some posts reaching hundreds of thousands of people.
They’re also echoing some of the themes seen in Republican candidates’ television ads, advancing false claims that the Democratic candidate Rafael Warnock invited Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to a church in Harlem where Warnock served as a youth pastor 25 years ago and restating the GOP talking points insisting that the election is about not just saving the senate for Republicans but saving America itself.
While social media networks tried to crack down on conspiracy theories in the weeks ahead of the general election, Spanish language disinformation remained relatively untouched, by comparison. This gap in our disinformation defense prompted Florida’s Poynter Institute to bring together a coalition of fact-checking sites to combat misinformation in Spanish.
The efforts in Georgia are just the latest evidence of the need to combat disinformation campaigns seriously in every community, as they aim to spread conspiracy theories unchecked with an eye toward dividing to conquer in elections where every vote counts.