South Florida’s local media is no stranger to heated talk, especially when it comes to subjects like political repression in Latin America, a subject close to home for its large exile community.
But, the 2020 election campaign has moved into dangerous new territory – ugly conspiracy theories about Joe Biden – and Democrats are concerned that it could be hurting their candidate.
“The rhetoric is out of control, more than usual and no-one is paying attention,” said Frank Mora, a political science professor at Florida International University (FIU), who is working with the Joe Biden campaign. “It worries me. They are just spewing hatred,” he added.
Among the theories floating on the airwaves and social media: that the Democrats are part of global conspiracy by Blacks and Jews to take over the country, and that Biden is a child molester.
Last week Radio Caracol apologized for airing 16 minutes of paid programming in which a local businessman attacked Biden using anti-Black and anti-Semitic language. Then, on Friday, the editor of the Spanish-language sister paper of The Miami Herald, publicly apologized after running a publication called ‘Libre’ as a paid newspaper insert that attacked Black Lives Matter and also presented anti-Semitic views.
"What kind of people are these Jews? They're always talking about the Holocaust, but have they already forgotten Kristallnacht, when Nazi thugs rampaged through Jewish shops all over Germany? So do the BLM and Antifa, only the Nazis didn't steal; they only destroyed,” the ad insert said.
The Herald announced on Monday it is cutting its relationship with Libre, which is produced by a prominent Cuban-American owner of a chain of schools, Demetrio Perez.
The Herald said it had not reviewed the insert prior to publication and said it was looking into “a series of internal failures.”
The incidents come as Trump has surged in polls in Florida arousing the suspicion of some Democrats that the conspiracy theories are no coincidence and are instead part of a concerted campaign to smear Biden’s name. Democratic party strategists warn that Biden is especially weak among the large Cuban-American population in Miami, a former Republican stronghold where Democrats have made gain in recent elections.
Polls show Cuban-American voters are more receptive to Trump’s embrace of religious conservative positions, and his warnings of protest-related violence and socialism.
When asked about his weakness with Hispanic voters in Florida at a campaign event on Monday, Biden said “I am going to work like the devil to make sure I turn every Latino and Hispanic vote.”
He conceded that while he was ahead of Trump among Hispanic voters, he needed to do better to have a good chance of winning a key state where 16% of registered voters are Hispanic. “They gotta go higher.” Someone else asked: “Are the gloves off?” and Biden replied, “Yes.”
That aid could be coming soon. New York billionaire Mike Bloomberg committed over the weekend to spend at least $100 million in Florida to help Democrats, and Biden made his first visit to the state as the Democratic nominee on Tuesday for events in Tampa and near Orlando.
“The Hispanic vote in Florida is a target. My sense is we’re going to hit back,” said former Miami mayor, Manny Diaz, who was co-chair of Bloomberg’s brief presidential campaign. “The Democrats tend to be a little too intellectual, while we (Cuban-Americans) are a very volatile voting group. The people here want a fighter,” he added.
While Diaz said he as equally concerned about the conspiracy theories being promoted in the media, he said part of the problem was that Democrats were not doing enough to discredit them. “The key is the message that’s out there is uncontested. The Republicans have a lot of talking heads out there. You don’t see Biden surrogates as much. When you are only hearing from one side, eventually you say it must be true.”
The Trump campaign denied it was pushing the conspiracy theories. “We have plenty of examples of Joe Biden’s real failures, so we don’t have to invent them," Matt Wolking, the campaign’s Deputy Director of Communications said in a statement to Univision.
He accused Biden of spreading conspiracy theories about the safety of the coronavirus vaccine, the Post Office sabotaging the election, and alleged comments by Trump about veterans.
During her first trip to Florida as Joe Biden’s running mate last week, vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris said "we're looking at foreign interference including misinformation campaigns.”
But some say she should look no further than Miami’s own shores.
“I think it’s being coordinated. You can’t see who is behind it, but it’s very much in our face,” said Annette Taddeo, is Colombian-American, Jewish state senator representing Miami. “They claim Trump was sent by God,” she said, referring to viral images on social media.
Some Democrats fear the Biden campaign is leaving it too late to undo the damage after a concerted campaign on local radio and social media to undermine their candidate.
“This began a few months ago. It was not like this in the past. They're saying we're going to hell with Biden. They're using all the conspiracy theories,” said Roberto Rodriguez Tejera, host of a morning show on Actualidad Radio 1040.
During a brief survey of Miami’s leading Spanish language radio, evidence of conspiracy theories was not hard to find.
On Monday, Agustin Acosta, host of an afternoon show on Actualidad Radio, linked the wildfires in California to the religious theory of 'eschatology' regarding the Day of Judgment and human destiny, warning that the Democratic-run state had brought disaster upon itself by turning against God and “attacking religion and closing churches.”
The efforts to link Biden to some kind of religious punishment are a common theme of conspiracy theorists and have been echoed lately by President Donald Trump, who said his Democrat rival, a devout Catholic, was “against God” in comments last month.
When Univision asked Acosta if his comment on the forest fires was appropriate, he replied: " It is not some weird conspiracy theory. I am basing it on a theological foundation that has thousands of years of history, even if it may seem crazy or crazy or you don't understand."
Actualidad Radio manager Jose Zarpa did not return messages seeking comment on the on-air standards it requires of its hosts.
Radio Mambí hosts Lourdes d’Kendall and Nelson Rubio also propagated myths on their Tuesday morning show. D’Kendall sent her blessings to one caller who advocated that listeners arm themselves with guns to defend their homes if Biden is elected. When another caller said she was worried about voting by mail because the Postal Workers union was backing Biden, d’Kendall told her listeners “esto es peligroso”, advising them to vote in person saying “no se puede confiar en el sistema.”
While it is true that the National Association of Letter Carriers endorsed Biden last month, there is no evidence that the political preference of postal workers interferes with their job. Trump has also stated that voting by mail is subject to fraud, although there is also almost no evidence of that.
When reading the news headlines, Rubio chose to highlight a story that Twitter “censored images of Biden with minors in an official event because they violated their policy of sexual exploitation.” Pro-Trump conspiracy theory websites such as QAnon, have long dangled the accusation that the Democratic Party is connected to a satanic cult of pedophiles. Rather than reject the support of QAnon, Trump has encouraged its supporters, describing them as “people that love our country.”
Radio Mambí is owned by Univision. " Univision Radio is taking special measures during this election season to monitor and ensure that the news and analysis are delivered correctly," said Claudia Puig, general manager of Univision Communications in Miami.
Mora worries that if the rhetoric goes unchecked it could throw the Cuban exile community back into its violent past when supposed sympathizers of Fidel Castro were car bombed.
“When you don’t just discredit, but you dehumanize your opponent, that’s dangerous because it incites violence,” he said. “We had that before in Miami and we overcame it. But now, we’re back to our old ways.”