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To fight bad information, a project taps trusted messengers in immigrant communities

Scarlett Lanzas, second from right, and other information navigators do an exercise in which they use orange string to symbolize how communities are interconnected, at a Nov. 8, 2023, orientation for a pilot project on combating bad information.
Keyvan Antonio Heydari
Scarlett Lanzas, second from right, and other information navigators do an exercise in which they use orange string to symbolize how communities are interconnected, at a Nov. 8, 2023, orientation for a pilot project on combating bad information.

Updated July 03, 2024 at 05:01 AM ET

Late last year, Scarlett Lanzas was chatting with neighbors — a group of fellow immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean — at the community pool in their housing development in Miami. That’s when Lanzas heard a neighbor say something in Spanish that was not true.

The woman asked the group if they had heard that the presidential election was not going to happen in 2024.

“And I was like, ‘What?’ ” Lanzas remembered. “‘Where did you get that from?’ ”

As it turned out, Lanzas had been preparing for this exact scenario: the opportunity to spot rumors and falsehoods, and correct them with factual information.

On top of her normal day job running a Miami-based nonprofit, Lanzas was chosen to be a bilingual information navigator as part of a pilot project designed by researchers at the Information Futures Lab at Brown University’s School of Public Health.

Amid shrinking news outlets and viral conspiracy theories, the researchers are exploring new ways to get credible information to those most likely to need it, including Florida’s diaspora communities.

Lanzas’ role was to answer a brief weekly survey and pass on the questions and concerns she was hearing in her networks to the research team, which in addition to the Information Futures Lab also included the Spanish-language fact-checking site Factchequeado and the Miami-based communications agency We Are Más.

The team then sent back factual posts over the messaging app WhatsApp that could be easily shared.

Lanzas, who came to the U.S. from Nicaragua as a child, said while the false rumor about the election was shocking to hear, she wasn’t surprised that some immigrants might believe it — especially those who fled countries where there is precedent for elections that are delayed or canceled.

That day, Lanzas told her neighbor the election was still on.

“‘Listen, I'm going to report this this week,’ ” Lanzas said she told the woman. “‘So that next week I'm going to show you the right information.’ ”

A viral rumor about the election

The research team figured out that the rumor had originated with a video on social media in which an Alexa device seems to say the 2024 election will not take place.

It was popularized by Alex Jones, who has a history of spreading conspiracy theories.

“It was translated into Spanish, and it took on a life of its own,” said Stefanie Friedhoff, professor of practice and co-director of the Information Futures Lab. “Spanish-speaking communities were already being targeted with campaigns to try to prevent them from voting, basically.”

Two other navigators also alerted the team to the same rumor. Just this month, it resurfaced in Spanish again.

The research team created shareable text messages and videos to alert people that the election is indeed happening Nov. 5 and to watch out for rumors circulating to try to confuse people.

Lanzas forwarded the information on to her neighbor over WhatsApp — which Friedhoff says is exactly how the project was designed to work.

“We know that people trust information more when it comes from sources or from cultural contexts that they already know,” Friedhoff said.

The group of 25 information navigators included a YWCA leader who told NPR he was interested to join the effort after hearing political falsehoods repeated on Miami’s Spanish-language radio stations, and a hair stylist from South America who has clients who share content in Spanish on social media about the QAnon conspiracy theory.

“They understood that something wasn't quite right with our information world, and they wanted to be part of the solution,” Friedhoff said.

An information crisis

Friedhoff said the idea for the project came out of observing confusion during the pandemic, how hard it was for people to access quality information and the spread of conspiracy theories.

But it came as a surprise to the research team that of the more than 500 questions received during the six-week pilot that ran last winter, less than 20% were about rumors.

“We realize that it wasn't just about the mis- and disinformation affecting our communities,” said Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, the founder of We Are Más and a fellow at the Information Futures Lab who helped run the pilot from Miami.

Instead, community members had questions or concerns about needs in their daily life. Some of the queries were hard to find answers for, especially in Spanish.

“They didn't understand how government worked. They didn't understand where to get a mammogram,” Pérez-Verdía said.

Community members asked about Florida’s restrictive immigration law that took effect last year, whether undocumented immigrants can get medical care, and how much their landlord could raise the rent.

Friedhoff says the pilot revealed that some immigrant communities are dealing with huge unmet information needs.

“There's information inequities, there's paywalls, there's language barriers, there's literacy barriers,” Friedhoff said.

It is difficult to evaluate the impact of a project like this one, but at the end of the pilot 78% of the information navigators reported that they felt the factual posts the research team provided were more culturally appropriate than what is available from other sources, and said those materials helped them communicate with community members better.

Now Friedhoff is exploring what it could look like to expand the use of information navigators. She is interested in developing a toolkit to help existing community organizations recruit navigators to listen to people’s concerns and enlist local experts to help answer their questions.

As for Scarlett Lanzas, the experience of serving as an information navigator has prompted her to think about how her own nonprofit’s civic engagement work in Miami’s Latino community can incorporate lessons learned from the pilot.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jude Joffe-Block
[Copyright 2024 NPR]