Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino, a get-out-the-vote nonprofit for the Latino community, was unsettled when her own mother told her she wouldn’t get the COVID-19 vaccine. It took Kumar two months to convince her mother, who works in the healthcare industry and had gotten herself and her children immunized her whole life, to book an appointment. What had held her mother back were videos she’d watched communicating false narratives—particularly one that featured a woman claiming to be a pharmacist, warning in Spanish not to get the shot, Kumar recalls, “because it was a technology never introduced in humans before.”
The spread of mis- and disinformation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine has been common among a range of U.S. populations, including within the Latino community. In an April survey conducted by Voto Latino, 40% of Latinos reported receiving materials saying the vaccine was not effective. In order to urgently break through that, especially as the Delta variant spreads, Voto Latino is using its behavioral learnings for fighting far-right disinformation during the election to rallying people to get the shot—as it did to register them to vote in 2020. For the organization, keeping a large and influential voting bloc healthy and trustful in government is crucial for them to keep exercising their voting rights in the future.
Though the number is improving, uptake of the vaccine by Latinos has been 1.2 times lower than among white people in the majority of states. That’s true of other ethnic groups, such as Black people, with whom Latinos share some of the same barriers to access like frontline work that keeps employees from taking time off, or lack of adequate healthcare. What’s more, like the Black community, Latinos have had their own dark experiences of being subjected to medical racism by the U.S. government—including a history of forced sterilization of women in Los Angeles and in Puerto Rico.
The misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine compounds those already existing fears. Some messages falsely assert that the vaccine is scientifically unreliable, and others that it causes infertility. More outlandish claims include that it contains a microchip—or that it transforms you into a zombie. Part of the reason these myths are so common among the Hispanic community is because Facebook doesn’t clamp down on misinformation in Spanish to the same extent as in English. Once information gets onto WhatsApp, it can then spread virally without any oversight. Among those who said they’d seen “harmful” information about the vaccine, 53% said it had been on Facebook, and 43% on messaging apps.
The promulgators of this misinformation are often individuals or groups that create digital content based on talking points from far-right cable news, radio shows, or politicians, says Ameer Patel, Voto Latino’s VP of programs. These bad actors may then receive donations from followers, which not only funds the wide dissemination of falsehoods, but can allow them to make an entire living from the practice. “One of the things that we’re really seeing is there is this large appetite to fund the circulation of mis- and disinformation,” he says. When a particular message resonates among a certain community, they’ll further tap into that idea; for instance, the infertility myth has been particularly powerful among young Latinos, Patel says, perhaps because of family-oriented or religious beliefs among the population.
With the CDC already reporting that Latinos are 2 times more likely to be infected with the virus than white people, and 2.3 times more likely to die, Voto Latino decided to help combat the false narratives by setting up the Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab with the nonprofit Media Matters. Though Voto Latino focuses on voting, Kumar says that a healthy community that trusts in government is essential for democracy, calling vaccine disinformation “the most morbid form of voter suppression.” She adds: “If you do not trust your government to take care of you and keep your family healthy through a vaccine, what is the possibility that you’re going to be able to convince a person to go out and vote?”
The group is also in a prime position to lend its findings from combatting far-right disinformation during the 2020 campaign. During that cycle, bad actors aimed to suppress voting among certain blocs, and Voto Latino countered with strategies that ended up registering more than 600,000 voters, a record for the organization. They ran explainer ads to educate people about the registration process, used peer-to-peer texting whereby volunteers sent tailored texts to people from local numbers, and encouraged people to similarly reach out to their own friends and family. The idea was that getting messages from people like them, to whom they could relate, would be more persuasive than receiving impersonal, generic memos.
Now, the group is adopting similar behavioral techniques for the vaccine push, with an ad campaign centered around messaging from people like themselves—rather than from an unknown medical professional, for instance. One of the two ads that tested best features a sixth-grade teacher who expresses feeling safe returning to school after being vaccinated, which Kumar says touches on both educational and economic reasoning. The other features a woman who admits being fearful at first, “because it was new,” but ultimately got the shot and said it felt liberating. Crucially, both also emphasize that the shot is free of charge, which many people don’t know or are being told otherwise. Overall, the messaging is “upbeat but practical,” and focuses on the return to normalcy. As with its election strategy, Voto Latino is not mocking any ideas, no matter how preposterous. “If you make fun of someone for their beliefs, they have a tendency of digging in their heels because they don’t want to say they’re wrong,” Kumar says. “That’s the worst way to argue with someone.”
Voto Latino is targeting the 28% of people who claimed they were hesitant about the vaccine, rather than those “that are down the rabbit hole” and harder to convince (again, a similar strategy to the election). “We get into the nooks and crannies of people’s internet,” Kumar says, referring to the targeting technique of showing their ads to people who’d previously viewed misinformation videos. They’re currently running the ads on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
So far, they’ve been effective in driving action: According to the results from Google, released last week, people who saw the ads were 54 times more likely to search “get covid vaccine” than those who didn’t; and there was a general spike in that search term by 7,171% in Florida, 5,856% in Texas, and 4,330% in California—the three states with the biggest Latino populations. And vaccine uptake is increasing: As of July 4, 34% of the people who’d started their vaccinations within the prior 14 days were Latino, even though they account for only 17% of population. Kumar says she believes the same methods could be used on other hesitant population groups, like older white people and immigrant enclaves.
The success so far suggests that simply showing that people care—to “give them love, attention, and information in a way that’s not judgmental”—is an effective persuasion strategy, both for driving vaccines and to keep a growing political voice active in the long term. With her mother, what ultimately worked was the personal message of, “Why would someone not want you to be healthy? Why would someone not want you to see your grandkids?”
Correction: We’ve updated this story to correct the number of voters Voto Latino registered during the last cycle. It is more than 600,000—not 426,964.