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Damaging stories that engage in fear mongering about Latinos can spread widely when unchecked. A June article from the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigration website, contains inconsistencies and a misleading headline was shared broadly on social media. Photo credit: Pixabay

How do racist ideas about U.S. Latinos and immigrants begin and spread? Often, they are disguised as run-of-the-mill news stories, like a recent article with the headline, “Mounting Evidence Points to Covid Refugees from Mexico as a Major Factor in Border-State Spikes.”

The story comes from an official-sounding website, the “Center for Immigration Studies.” And, like many stories related to COVID-19 and immigration, it spread quickly and widely in late July on social-media platforms such as Facebook.

The problem? This story is largely untrue, with information taken out of context. The article engages in familiar fear mongering about Latinos crossing the border and bringing disease with them. It’s full of contradictions and inconsistencies, unnamed Border Patrol sources, and one important piece of context missing: many U.S. citizens are said to be crossing the border in the other direction or crossing state lines to seek cheaper medical care and drugs. 

Linking the virus to a group of people, is like slurs and harassment targeting Asian-Americans during the pandemic. What can you do when you encounter stories like this online being posted by family members, friends, or other people you don’t want to cut ties to on social media?

Here are a few ideas for countering stories meant to marginalize Latinos or other groups:  

  • Counter bad information with better data: an out-of-date article, an article with no named sources or a story making the rounds that hasn’t been confirmed can be countered by a more recent update or a fact-checking site such as PolitiFact, Snopes, or FactCheck that have done the work to find the real truth.
  • Be polite, don’t fight: no one likes to feel foolish about something they’ve posted online or belittled for believing information they didn’t have time to properly verify. Be kind in approaching someone about a story that is poorly sourced or that has an offensive point of view. Avoid name-calling or responding with anger. One strategy health professionals use is called “priming”: correcting misinformation with evidence without engaging in a debate about the incorrect postings.
  • Report stories that cross the line: social networks continue to take measures, however slowly, to eliminate false information on their platforms, especially untruthful medical information that could harm people. If a story is blatantly false and spreading misinformation, report it to a group administrator or to the social networking platform itself.

Omar L. Gallaga is a freelance journalist living in Central Texas who has written for NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Engadget, Hispanic Magazine, CNN, MSNBC, and The Washington Post. He was a longtime technology and culture writer at The Austin American-Statesman, where he helped launch the newspaper ¡ahora sí! and two podcasts.