Democrats Warn Texas is Next Target for Disinformation Aimed at Latinos

In a race viewed as uphill by Texas political strategists, Beto O'Rourke's most powerful opponent may not be Governor Abbott, but his own previous statements — taken in and out of context.

As of now, the posts coming from Latino conservative activists and Trump supporters have been going after O'Rourke on guns, a result of his statement at a debate during his short-lived presidential run that "we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47."

And those comments are being amplified on social media.

According to CrowdTangle, a video of O'Rourke being confronted by a Trump-supporting Latino man in a cowboy hat named Robert Longoria yelling, "Don't come back, we don't want you here!" over O'Rourke's support for gun control has garnered 1.2 million views.

And five of the top 10 posts about O'Rourke over the last month on Facebook are not positive stories about his campaign launch but of this confrontation.

The massive social networks are used by Latinos in huge numbers, with a recent UnidosUS poll of Latino parents in Texas, Florida, Arizona, and California showing the top sources where they get their information are Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, followed by TV and then news programs.

The knowledge of the grip the social networks have on Latino voters, as some have moved towards Republicans, is particularly concerning for Democrats who saw Spanish-language disinformation campaigns play an outsized role in Florida and who fear Texas is next.

"It's clear that 2020 was a wakeup call and Florida was a warning," San-Antonio based Democratic strategist Joaquin Guerra told Newsweek.

"They're going to try to get Beto with guns, some of it due to his stances," said Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino.

She said the real trap for Beto lies in trying to explain the gap between the accusations and his actual stances.

"The challenges with disinformation are the moment you need to clarify nuance, that is when they get you," she said.

His opponent, Greg Abbott, who is also making a play for Latino voters in south Texas, has also taken to declaring that O'Rourke supports defunding police, with his campaign releasing a video that chopped up O'Rourke's statements to make it seem like he was giving a full-throated endorsement of the activist-led policy.

But when it comes to spreading disinformation, Democrats fret, truth isn't correlated with the effectiveness of misleading attacks.

"'Defund the police,' that's what Spanish speakers are opposed to, and that's what would hurt Beto," a top Texas Democrat told Newsweek.

Thus far there doesn't appear to be the same level of sophistication and coordination in efforts to reach Latinos with misleading posts in Spanish or English in Texas on behalf of conservatives, but Democrats who monitor disinformation say it can pick up quickly.

Kumar, whose organization Voto Latino launched a $22 million "Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab" along with Media Matters in early 2021, saw disinformation coming out of Florida in March 2019, then south Texas in September 2020, which the group flagged for the Biden campaign.

The messaging then was around defund the police, claims the Biden administration would take away coal and gas jobs, and "Abolish ICE," because a lot of people on the border, including many Latinos, are border patrol agents.

Biden never supported such policies, but the disinformation still pounded away at his campaign.

"We saw the firestorm coming," Kumar told Newsweek, also warning that while "disinformation coming out of Florida is the experimental pot for how to target Latinos in urban areas, disinformation out of Texas will be the experiment on how to target rural Latinos."

Early threads for such a campaign are already emerging.

"The narratives are Beto wants to open the border, defund the police, bring socialism, and kill the oil and gas industry," said Manuel Grajeda, who works on policy and monitors disinformation for UnidosUS out of Austin. "It's about bringing out the base with red meat — and all are things he can't do as governor, by the way — but it's about getting the message out there."

Stephanie Valencia, the co-founder and president of EquisLabs, a Democratic research firm which is monitoring disinformation in Texas and nationally, said Texas doesn't yet have a closed media ecosystem perpetually feeding off of itself like Florida does, which includes Spanish-language radio, YouTube, and WhatsApp.

"In Texas that infrastructure isn't built yet, but it feels like that could be Republicans next target," she said, "or a prime target for Democrats to build something similar to counter-act it."

One piece of disinformation shared by Republicans in Texas that has been ripe for sharing online is that O'Rourke is "lying" to Latinos about being Hispanic, with his adopted nickname "Beto" as part of the ploy.

One Facebook post by Natalia Godoy, who goes by the name Red Pill Latina and works in Hispanic engagement for the Republican National Committee in San Antonio, showed a couple in Texas with a sign that read "'Beto' is not Latino. He is 'Robert O'Rourke.' Irish-American lying to get your vote and money."

In a follow up post Godoy wrote of "Beto posing as a Latino to manipulate and deceive our people!"

Godoy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Both Media Matters and EquisLabs, which are monitoring disinformation aimed at Latinos around the country, said O'Rourke being a "fake Mexican" was a popular narrative being pushed on social media in Texas.

Democrats watching in Florida see similar bricks being laid in Texas to the ones that led to a fortress of disinformation in their state that was impossible to topple by election day.

Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a Democratic strategist and expert on combatting disinformation campaigns aimed at Latinos, compared the goal of current disinformation to the infamous line often attributed to the chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels: "Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth."

She said from Miami to the Rio Grande Valley, the main issue vexing Democrats now is that disinformation is "borderless."

"It's digital, it doesn't matter where they are," she said, noting that main targets are often foreign-born immigrants.

"If I can give a recommendation to Beto, he needs to have a strong digital team to see what is being said about him in English and Spanish," Pérez-Verdía said. "He needs a strong campaign out there that is not waiting for the community to find him, he needs to go out there and find the right message."

Democrats in Texas emphasized that they don't believe socialism has the same salience in their state as it does in Florida, because most Hispanics in the state are of Mexican descent, which doesn't have the same history with socialism as other Latin American countries do. But it does serve to reinforce the message that O'Rourke is "not one of us," even though he is not a socialist.

But Mayra Flores, a Republican congressional candidate for the 34th congressional district being vacated after Filemon Vela's retirement, insists she and fellow Republicans aren't peddling disinformation in south Texas, but are instead trying to open the eyes of Latino voters like her parents, who voted for Democrats for years, because she says they were told to by media networks like Univision and Telemundo.

Although Flores is opposed to vaccine mandates, she said that as a respiratory care practitioner she supports the COVID-19 vaccines themselves.

But she argued that when "the squad" group of progressive lawmakers is pushing to defund the police, "the problem is when the Democratic Party doesn't stand against that."

"It's silence," she told Newsweek. "To me it's the same thing, you're not criticizing them for the disrespect toward our law enforcement."

Flores also noted that many Hispanics are border patrol agents in south Texas, and were angered by the photos of horse-mounted agents wielding long reins like whips in rounding up Haitian immigrants, which drew outrage from around the country.

But she had a very different reaction to those incidents.

"My husband, my uncle, and my cousin are border patrol agents," she said. "An attack on our border patrol agents is an attack on our families, so we take it personally."

Jacobo Licona digs up opposition research by trade, having done so for the Democratic Party and its top super PAC, as well as for Michael Bloomberg and even O'Rourke during his presidential campaign. Currently, he's using his skills to track disinformation aimed at Latinos for EquisLabs, such as the most popular videos talking about O'Rourke on Facebook.

Licona argues Democrats will need to make a serious investment in creating content, building trust with Latinos, and lifting up the voices of trusted messengers to deliver fact-based information to help create skepticism about what they read from the other side.

He said they could take a lesson from what the Trump campaign did in Florida from 2017 to the 2020 election.

"The Trump campaign never left Florida. They were there for four years producing content, and Trump would go there over and over again,"Licona told Newsweek. "It is very much what Abbott is doing with the Texas-Mexico border to communicate a narrative that the border is out of control."

Like many other Democrats monitoring the current environment online in Texas, he is sounding alarm bells.

"We are seeing a lot of disinformation spreading in the region, and it's something to warn Democrats of," Licona said. "We don't want to try to solve this problem after it's too big, like happened in south Florida."

beto austin
Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks during a campaign rally at Republic Square on December 04, 2021 in Austin, Texas. O’Rourke launched his campaign on November 15, where he announced his run in the 2022 Texas gubernatorial race against Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott. O’Rourke has since begun statewide tours that will allow him to meet with and listen to Texans across the state. Brandon Bell/Getty Images