This article was written in collaboration with First Draft, a nonprofit organization that provides investigative research to newsrooms tracking and reporting on mis- and disinformation.
When we picture the entity behind a network of disinformation websites, a few archetypes spring to mind: shadowy figures intent on interfering with democracy, Russian agents, Macedonian teens. Not usually included: a gamer from a suburb of New York City who sells coffee beans with his wife at the local farmers market on weekends. But that’s precisely who was behind three sites that, until last week, were pumping out misleading, hyperpartisan Spanish-language content on both the left and right. They were just a few sites in a broader ecosystem of misinformation — and disinformation — that spreads such narratives to millions of Americans. But their story has something to tell us about the misinformation industrial complex overall.
Sean Reynolds, a YouTuber, gamer and entrepreneur, was the owner and operator of three websites and affiliated Facebook pages that peddled in misinformation, predominantly in Spanish. The existence of the network was first reported by Politico last week,1 but an exclusive interview with Reynolds revealed why he started the sites.
Namely, he said, he saw an opportunity.
“These websites and the content on them do not reflect my personal political leanings,” Reynolds wrote in a direct message on Twitter. “I am non-discriminating towards opportunities where there is demand and no supply, which in this case, there was no political opinion pieces written in Spanish on Facebook, so I found writers (ghostwriters) interested to fill that demand.” Reynolds did not respond when FiveThirtyEight asked whether he speaks Spanish but did say he does not personally write the content on the sites. In a video he posted on his gaming channel, he identified as half Jamaican and half German.
Since 2017, Reynolds has operated the three websites and their affiliated Facebook pages: PoliticaVeraz.com, which published right-leaning content, AlertaPolitica.org, which published left-leaning content, and LeftOverRights.com, a left-leaning site which initially ran English-language stories but switched to publishing in Spanish this August. When all three sites were active, they would each regularly publish 5-10 stories per day and then spread those stories through Facebook, where they would typically attract thousands of shares. After FiveThirtyEight contacted him, Reynolds took all three sites and their Facebook pages offline.
A FiveThirtyEight investigation found multiple links that tied Reynolds to the sites, including a common server and IP address among his personal website and his other confirmed businesses, the same Google AdSense and Analytics code for his personal sites and these pages and corporate records listing Reynolds as a process agent for both Left Over Rights LLC and Alerta Politica LLC (there was no record of an LLC for Politica Veraz). Reynolds also confirmed to FiveThirtyEight that he ran the sites.
Much of the content these sites published was misleading and hyperpartisan. A recent story on Politica Veraz, for example, claimed that Joe Biden had “forgotten the words to the Pledge of Allegiance,” when in actuality he quoted part of the pledge for emphasis in a speech. Meanwhile, recent stories published on Left Over Rights deployed spin from a left-leaning perspective, such as a story about the vice presidential debate declaring Sen. Kamala Harris had “destroyed” Vice President Mike Pence by asking him not to interrupt her.
The disinformation on Politica Veraz, in particular, often echoed messaging that was already circulating in far-right communities online and among followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, pushing it towards a more mainstream audience. One article claimed that President Trump’s life was in mortal danger after he gave a speech at a Whirlpool Corporation Manufacturing Plant in Clyde, Ohio, where he said he had many enemies and that “this may be the last time you see me for a while” when discussing lower prices for pharmaceuticals. And while Reynolds said the sites’ content had minimal reach, that story was shared more than 6,000 times on Facebook, according to social media data tool BuzzSumo, and received nearly 40,000 interactions (reactions, shares, and comments combined). Similar messaging had been amplified by right-leaning users on Twitter before the Politica Veraz piece was published, including a tweet from an account that regularly shares theories associated with QAnon that was retweeted or quote tweeted more than 12,000 times.
Reynolds’s sites are far from the only source of misinformation targeting the Latino community. There are sites, Facebook pages and YouTube channels that operate on the margins, attracting little mainstream notice while garnering audiences in the hundreds of thousands. Their stories — rife with misleading spins on the news and outright falsehoods — are shared across social media and privately in messaging apps. They target communities that have fewer trusted sources that cater directly to them, according to media experts we spoke to, and amplify misinformation originating from extremist communities. And experts say this kind of misinformation can lead to voters not only being misinformed, but also feeling disillusioned by the political process.
Nevertheless, Reynolds said his goals weren’t necessarily to inform, misinform or disinform, but to make a little bit of money. So little money that he didn’t think twice about taking the sites down as soon as he was contacted by a reporter.
“I will say, though, that these websites (all three) were scheduled to be fully closed after the months of not posting and not generating any income to keep them running,” Reynolds wrote. (Two of the sites stopped uploading new posts in August and September, respectively.) “But now I’m getting contacted about them, and I just don’t have time for anything else, so I will have their closings sped up.”
Reynolds’s sites represent a brand of misinformation fueled by the ease and profitability of building an audience on social media, according to Joan Donovan, a researcher of disinformation at Harvard University.
“Social media companies have incentivized disinformation by rewarding it with financial dollars,” Donovan explained. “The fact that he was targeting Latinos with Spanish-language disinformation or misinformation from either side of the aisle shows a kind of willingness to create chaos so long as it makes money.”
It’s not as if the content was simply a translated version of English-language misinformation, either. It clearly targeted the Latino community, playing into existing fears such as worries about socialism, given its history in authoritarian Central and South American governments.
“Some of the key narratives are around the perceived threat of socialism coming into the United States, and connecting that to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” said Jacobo Licona, a disinformation researcher for Equis Labs, a Latinx voter research group. “Another one we often see is trying to discredit Black Lives Matter and paint them as violent. Since the murder of George Floyd, we’ve seen an increased effort by these bad actors in Latinx spaces to fuel racial tension in Black and brown communities.”
Politica Veraz regularly posted stories that played into these threads, like one that called the Obamas “Marxists” or another that inaccurately reported two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies shot in Compton were “ambushed by Black Lives Matter.”
This misinformation is being seeded in the midst of an election where Latino voters represent a powerful voting bloc. While Trump is trailing Biden among Latino voters in national polls, the margin is narrower in the key battleground state Florida. In a Univision poll released on Sept. 28, 52 percent of Latino voters nationally said they planned to cast a ballot for Biden, compared to 19 percent who were committed to Trump. But in Florida, 36 percent of Latino voters said they favored Trump.
Reynolds said his content was not effective and that the sites were not profitable or popular, and that he had been planning to shut them down before he was contacted by FiveThirtyEight. But data tells a different story. Combined, the three site’s Facebook pages had nearly 1 million likes and followers, and Politica Veraz alone attracted more than 500,000 interactions on its Facebook posts since July, according to data from Crowdtangle.
The allure of sensational, emotionally provocative misinformation is well documented. But this content was also able to appeal to an audience facing a dearth of targeted media, according to Randy Pestana, the assistant director of research at Florida International University’s Institute for Public Policy.
“The media outlets that appeal to Hispanics are limited. There are not a lot of them out there, and the ones that are out there more recently have been called fake news,” Pestana said. “There’s this movement where everything is ‘fake news’ if it doesn’t align with your opinion.”
He also noted that many Latino Americans consume news through social media, including Facebook and WhatsApp, making it easier for this kind of content to spread. The share of Latino Americans who get their news from the internet is higher than that of the U.S. population overall, according to surveys from the Pew Research Center. In a 2016 survey, Pew found that 74 percent of Latino respondents got their news online on a typical weekday, whereas a 2017 Pew survey found that 43 percent of the total population “often” got their news online. And while social media platforms have been cracking down on English-language misinformation to a certain degree, Spanish-language disinformation doesn’t always receive the same treatment, Pestana said.
Reynolds’s sites are now shut down, but there are plenty of other misinformation sources targeting Latino Americans. As we head into the final weeks of an election, many members of one of the most influential voting blocs continue to be bombarded with false information.
“The worst examples of the potential consequences of this is what we saw in 2016: People felt so disenfranchised by the political process that they opted not to participate in it,” said Steven Renderos, the executive director of MediaJustice, a nonprofit that focuses on racial inequality in communications. “That’s the risk we’re facing here today, that people will just opt out of engaging.”