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After the storm, the scams, lies and misinformation flood in


As in any other moment of crisis, many of us have taken to the internet to try to understand or process the scale of the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Ian. Along with videos of sharks swimming in the streets, memes have exploded on social media. And some of them are bizarre, and some of them are even funny. But there are also many spreading lies and misinformation. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has specifically warned residents across the state to be on the lookout against potential financial scams that often seem to follow the paths of disasters. Here he is talking about that.


RON DESANTIS: And it just hasn't worked out well in the past in Florida. Unfortunately, when you have disasters, there are some people that want to prey on people when they're in vulnerable situations, and we do not want that.

MARTIN: To talk about these meme scams and misinformation, we're joined now by Lesley Cosme Torres. She is a reporter who reports on misinformation and disinformation in Spanish for The Miami Herald. Lesley Cosme Torres, welcome. Thanks so much for talking to us.

LESLEY COSME TORRES: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: I'd like to start off by asking about some of the things that we've seen online. There's this video circulating on the internet. It has over 13 million views now. It shows what seems to be a baby shark swimming along a Florida highway. In a few memes, we see alligators wading in floodwaters inside people's homes. Is there a way that we can know which images are real and which are fake?

COSME TORRES: The thing with memes and old videos resurfacing is oftentimes when people browse through social media, it's pretty casually and passively, meaning that even if it's the same video of the shark that reappeared in 2016, like, people don't take the time to realize that it's old. We don't really take the time to know where the posts originated and what year. And for someone who's more inclined to believe in conspiracies and misinformation, they won't look in - or research if it's real.

But it's not an issue of, like, people not believing it. It's that people don't have time to fact-check everything they see on social media. So it's always important to look at the origin of the video. See how far back you can trace it. And it's also important to look to two to three trusted sources to see if they've reported on it or if they've debunked it because sources like PolitiFact and Poynter, they fact-check these things. And they'll say on their websites, like, hey, this thing that spreading, it's not real. So that's always a good thing to do.

MARTIN: What about memes? I think it's interesting to a lot of people how quickly memes pop up after something like this. And as I said, you know, some of them are bizarre, and some of them are funny. What do you think about that?

COSME TORRES: Yeah. I think, like, memes and posts that resurface can be harmful in cases of hurricanes because hurricanes in Florida can have really devastating impacts, from people's own personal safety to really important items like their houses, their cars, their entire life. So when a hurricane comes, the trajectory isn't always certain. So people are sort of, like, glued to social media - myself included - like, local news sites, TV, to keep track of where it's going, like, what kind of impact it's had. So if you're out there spreading misinformation or sharing a video that actually happened, like, three years ago, five years ago, it can cause a panic. It can make - it can lead people to make rash and quick decisions that they wouldn't if they had the right information from trusted sources.

MARTIN: Oh, I see what you're saying. So you're saying that while people may think they're just spreading something fun or they're just being creative or whimsical, you're saying that this can actually be really harmful because it's distracting people from the accurate, real-time information they need to make good decisions.

COSME TORRES: Exactly. In English, these posts - like, they'll eventually be taken down if they're on popular websites like Twitter and Facebook. It's just important, I guess, to - you yourself, as a user, you can be a part of solutions. So, like, if you see something that looks fishy or you see something that you know isn't true, you can report it and save a lot of harm that it can cause because it might be, like, a cute meme for someone who doesn't live in Florida. But, like, there are people who are, like, severely impacted by these hurricanes. And it's important that they know exactly what's going on.

MARTIN: As we heard earlier, the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, has warned people of financial scams that prey on people who are affected by storms and, you know, prey on people - they prey on people wanting to help people who have been affected by disasters. Are there some tips that you can share to help people - to prevent people from falling prey to these scams?

COSME TORRES: Yeah. So it's really important to realize that when someone is asking you for your personal information or for money, it's most likely an imposter scam or someone who's using this horrible incident to get money from you - posing as the government, officials or inspectors, someone who's asking to see your ID or personal information. So no one should ever ask you for - no one should ever, from a number you don't know, ask you for that information. And FEMA, for example, doesn't charge application fees or anything like that. So it's always important to see, just to make sure who is calling you is the person they say they are.

MARTIN: And I want to focus on an area that you focus on in your reporting, which is people who speak and read Spanish. Are we seeing similar things particularly targeted toward Spanish-language platforms that you want to highlight?

COSME TORRES: Yeah. I guess I do want to say that in Spanish, we know that content isn't as easily verified or fact-checked. There just aren't enough resources from social media companies and larger media organizations as much as they do in English. So we've found - I've found specifically that in Spanish, it's a lot of content that's been taken from English, like, badly translated into Spanish or just, like, not thoroughly fact-checked. And, like, a large way that this information is spread is through WhatsApp or YouTube - mostly WhatsApp. And WhatsApp is more dangerous because there are private groups and private messages, so it's much easier to go unmonitored and undetected for much longer.

So in English, we will see, like, if a post on Facebook or Twitter - like, it's more likely to be taken down sooner. But if something spreads to WhatsApp and it's in private groups or it's forwarded, like, it's nearly impossible to monitor that or take that down. And then I've also found that when these things are pulled from social media sites and spread throughout WhatsApp, it's a lot of people spreading it throughout their family. And you know, you trust your family and your friends, and so you assume that what you're they're sending you and what they're forwarding you is true. And so you're more inclined to believe it. And that's not to say that your family members are trying to deceive you. They're just - they genuinely believe in this information, too. And it's just not a place where there are fact-checkers.

But I know WhatsApp is trying to make moves to - for people to contact certain numbers. Like, I know there's - Univision and Telemundo are providing their users with accurate information. They have numbers that you can contact. And if you see something that you think might be misinformation, you can text them. You can WhatsApp them and see if it's true or not.

MARTIN: That was Lesley Cosme Torres. She's a reporter for the Miami Herald who covers misinformation and disinformation. Lesley Cosme Torres, thanks so much for joining us.

COSME TORRES: Yeah, thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.