By Nikki McCann Ramirez
Agustín Laje winces in disgust as he tells his listeners, in graphic detail, about a controversial medical procedure young people are getting in America. There’s just one problem: He’s making a lot of it up.
“Fourteen-year-olds who can’t, for example, even have a beer in the United States,” Laje says, are being allowed to “construct artificial penisis made for themselves” by “removing the girl’s skin” and “removing the muscle” on her arm. “You can see the bone, it’s very unpleasant to look at.”
Laje, an Argentinian political commentator with over 1.5 million YouTube subscribers, is describing, in Spanish, an imagined version of radial forearm phalloplasty, a form of gender transition surgery that involves taking a skin graft (not stripping the arm of muscle to the bone) to construct a penis. The surgery is uncommon even among transgender patients, and is generally not recommended for and rarely performed on minors — much less on those who aren’t even in high school yet.
Laje’s star power has made him a de-facto general in the social media batalla cultural, or culture war. He rails against “gender ideology.” He drums up fear about the “indoctrination” of children. He touts debates in which he DESTROYS leftists and feminists. He’s not alone, either. Laje is part of a sea change among Spanish-speaking creators who have ramped up their focus on identity politics, election integrity, and other deliberately divisive content, toeing and often barreling across the fuzzy lines defining YouTube’s policies against misinformation and hate speech.
Outrage-bait narratives — and the easily recognizable, emphatically PUNCTUATED video style they use to push them — may be just as, if not more, effective on Spanish-speaking audiences than they have been on American conservatives. “This is obviously a strategy that they have seen works really well in English, and serves as a blueprint for what they’re trying to accomplish in Spanish,” says Cristina López G., senior analyst at Graphika, a research firm that maps information networks on social media platforms. “These content creators exist and are becoming successful because there is a demand for them. There is an audience that wants this sort of discourse explained to them in their language.”
Promoting false, hateful, or dangerous information can result in suspensions, bans, or YouTube prohibiting a page from monetizing itself, but enforcement is inconsistent — especially when the content isn’t in English. “They are not treating Spanish-language content with the same level of scrutiny,” Stephanie Valencia, co-founder and president of Equis Research told WNYC in December, adding that Spanish-language content lacks “the same level of integrity checks as [there are in] English-language, media, or English-language disinformation in narratives.”
It isn’t just researchers who have noticed the discrepancy. In April, lawmakers in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus pushed YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki to beef up the platform’s capability to monitor Spanish-language content. Following the meeting, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said the platform needed to “define a greater sense of how they specifically deal with Hispanic disinformation,” calling their existing strategy “generic.” In a press call with various Latino groups, Rep. Joaquin Castro (R-Texas) indicated he was “disappointed to see [platforms] tolerate lies in Spanish that would never be tolerated in English.”
Spanish-speaking YouTube creators aren’t just bending the truth to fear-monger about the culture war. They’ve also dedicated enormous amounts of energy to pushing the lie that the 2020 election was fraudulently stolen from former President Donald Trump. YouTube touted its enforcement of non-English misinformation standards when reached for comment by Rolling Stone, but researchers have identified a slew of videos, including from Laje, that appear to amount to flagrant violations of the platform’s electoral misinformation policy. In one video, published the day after the election, Laje tells viewers that there were “clear signs of fraud,” at one point referencing false reports that more people voted in Wisconsin than were registered to vote. In a subsequent video, Laje told viewers that dead people had voted in key battleground states, swaying the election. Both videos are still live.
This isn’t to say Spanish-language channels aren’t being moderated — and, on occasion, banned — for pushing election misinformation, but enforcement remains more robust for English-speaking influencers. Trump allies Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka have been axed from the platform permanently for posting false claims about the election (Trump himself was “temporarily” banned after Jan. 6). Right-wing commentator Steven Crowder, whose channel currently has nearly 6 million subscribers, was handed a two-week suspension in August after Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake pushed election misinformation on his show. In March of last year, he received a one-week suspension and a permanent ejection from YouTube’s Partner Program, cutting off his ability to monetize the channel, after promoting false claims about the 2020 election results in Nevada.
Crowder has also been reprimanded (and not reprimanded) for violating YouTube’s hate speech ban, the enforcement of which is even more inconsistent than it is for its misinformation policies. YouTube in 2019 announced a revamped policy prohibiting white supremacy, sexism, and racism, but enforcement has been unpredictable. The platform has booted the channels of prominent white supremacists and reactionaries, but often as the result of immense public pressure rather than proactive enforcement. As a result, conservative Spanish-language accounts have been churning out hateful content with little fear of reprisal.
Argentinian YouTuber Emmanuel Danann, in one video posted to his 1.5 million subscribers, describes non-binary people as “people whose intellectual capabilities, whose IQ is so low that they’re not capable of figuring out if they’re a man or a woman.” The title of another video screams: “Emmanuel Danann exterminates a leftist feminist.” There are 4.2 million views on that one, a big number but only a fraction of the 250 million views Danann has garnered across his channel.
Cuban content creator Óscar López, known online as “OldHardcore” to his 200,000-plus followers, published a video titled “The Worst of LGBT Progressivism” that features the word “INCEST” in large font over an LGBTQ flag in the thumbnail. Another video on his channel titled “DISNEY te paga el INF4NTIC1D10!!!” — or “DISNEY pays for your [INFANTICIDE]!!” — implements a common tactic of replacing letters with numbers or symbols to avoid automated content filters. The video features a grotesque image of Mickey Mouse over the progress pride flag.
The all-caps style is also employed by Venezuelan YouTuber John Acquaviva, who has just over 215,000 subscribers and largely covered Latin American issues prior to the 2020 election. He forayed into election conspiracies after President Biden’s win, however, and has since been marching in virtual lockstep with the broader grievance politics of the English-speaking right. He’s recently posted defenses of Kanye West and Elon Musk, while bashing liberal politicians like Biden, John Fetterman, and even New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
Rolling Stone flagged six of the Spanish-language videos it reviewed to YouTube that appeared to violate the platform’s hate speech and election misinformation policies. “We removed one video surfaced by Rolling Stone for violating our hate speech policy, which prohibits content promoting violence or hatred against individuals or groups based on protected attributes, such as gender identity or expression,” spokesperson Jack Malon responded in a statement before noting that “more than 20,000 people around the world, including many with Spanish language expertise” review content. Malon later confirmed the single video YouTube removed was from Danann’s account. The rest of Danann’s page remains littered with inflammatory claims and content, including plenty that appears to violate the platform’s policies.
The online spaces being created by Latin American influencers are fertile ground for Republicans looking to continue to make inroads with Latino voters. In the lead up to the 2020 election, Trump made an appearance on the YouTube channel of Alex Otaola, a Florida-based, Cuban-American content creator whose daily livestreams typically amass over 100,000 views. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar told Mother Jones at the time that Otaola and his broadcast were what was “changing the newly arrived Cubans from Democrats to Republicans.”
Meanwhile, right-wing outlets like The Epoch Times and PragerU are making YouTube content for Spanish-speaking audiences. The videos often deliver heavy doses of anti-communist, anti-left sentiment, sometimes with direct appeals to Latin American diasporic communities. PragerU has a playlist of Spanish-language videos featuring titles like “Immigrant, Don’t Vote Like In The Country You Fled” and “Socialism Makes People Selfish.”
There’s a lot of “emotional power” in referencing socialism, corruption, and political repression to people from Latin America, says López G., the analyst from Graphika. “Diaspora communities have huge ties to communities from their countries of origin, and you have incredibly porous borders when it comes to digital content.”
López G. notes that American media has already created toxic content dynamics that foreign content creators can simply “tap into.” Everything from inflation, to the specter of collective economics, to inclusion of marginalized people can be repackaged to say: This is what we don’t want for countries in Latin America. “In a lot of countries in Latin America where civil rights battles are still in very, very early [stages],” she says. “Narratives about progressivism run amok and how terrible things are in the U.S. and how everyone is sexualizing children — those are great boogeymen for all kinds of political petitioning in Latin America.”
Roberta Braga, the director of counter-disinformation strategies at Equis Labs, a research nonprofit that analyzes trends among Latino voters, describes a kind of feedback loop between American influencers, influencers in Latin America, and American immigrants carrying the memory of the political oppression and violence they escaped. “Often what we see is the right-wing, far-right conservative ecosystem setting the narratives, then it gets picked up by these influencers, translated into Spanish, and the videos get edited and circulated for Facebook, Whatsapp,” she explains.
Republicans certainly feel that the doom-and-gloom messaging about Biden turning American into a socialist hellscape is effective. Trump tried to push exactly that during an interview with Americano Media last Friday. “You are going to end up with a Venezuela on steroids,” the former president warned. “That’s where our country is going. The raid on Mar-a-Lago, people were disgusted by it. Hispanics saw that and … they said that’s what happened from where they came, and they don’t want that.”
Republicans might be right about the impact of the strategy. The GOP made gains among Latino voters in 2020, and Democrats are worried the growth will continue next week, including in traditionally liberal strongholds with large Latino populations like Miami-Dade County. While no single cause can be held entirely responsible for the shift in voting patterns, influencers like Laje stoking outrage by distributing transphobic misinformation while pushing lies about the 2020 election can’t be ignored, especially considering research indicating Latinos are more likely to get their news from social media.
YouTube’s porous moderating of Spanish-speaking spaces isn’t helping. Fact-checking organizations like Factchequeado are trying to do what they can to debunk Spanish-language misinformation, including false claims that Queen Elizabeth privately knighted Trump before her death and that Colorado sent out 30,000 mail-in ballots to undocumented migrants. It’s far from enough, though, and the onus is ultimately going to be on YouTube and other platforms where hate speech and false claims proliferate to step up their moderation of non-English content. “Platforms are already doing what we’re asking for in English,” says Factchequeado Managing Editor Tamoa Calzadilla, citing disclaimers and warnings for potential false content. “We just want them to keep building tools, and for what’s available in Spanish to match what’s available in English.”
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