Black voters are a strong political force with the power to make or break critical elections. In 2012, Black voters turned out in record numbers to elect President Obama, securing a monumental win for the history books. And this year, Black voters in South Carolina secured Joe Biden’s ascent to the Democratic presidential nomination.
In 2016, a notable absence of Black votes helped make way for a significant political upset: the election of Donald Trump. And while political and media pundits were fixated on the role Midwestern working-class, white voters played in electing Trump, a far more sinister, but familiar device emerged in the story of his election: Black voter suppression. And in 2020, Trump is taking note.
Voter suppression tactics are not new to Black communities. From poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses during Jim Crow to strict voter ID laws and limited polling locations in Black neighborhoods today, Black people remain a relatively reliable voting block despite obvious obstacles set up by the white political elites.
But in 2016, a new form of voter suppression emerged from outside America: rampant misinformation spread on social media by foreign agents targeting Black and Latinx people.
These outside groups posed as Black activists and influencers online and built large followings while emulating how we speak, copying our jokes, and talking about the issues we care about. And when the election rolled around, they spread false information about how and when to vote, and encouraged people to sit the election out. It worked.
Today, the misinformation tactics have evolved. Foreign and domestic groups are using the current racial unrest and calls for social change to sow political discontent online with a single objective: discourage Black and Brown voters from showing up to the polls in November.
Digital media is now the weapon of choice for foreign and domestic bad actors to suppress the Black and LatinX vote and further their own political agenda. They take how we speak and manipulate it, allowing their messaging to sound authentic.
Now that we know the tricks, we must be vigilant in recognizing and combating them.
The Win Black / Pa’Lante campaign, which I co-lead alongside Andre Banks and our firm, is working with progressive and grassroots organizations nationwide to dismantle misinformation schemes and provide factual counter narratives.
In a post-fact world, we’re building a model to win and track information attacks on Black and brown communities, and respond quickly with accurate, inspiring content that keeps us focused on what’s really at stake in November.
Let there be no mistake: misinformation campaigns are a form of voter suppression. With only months from the most consequential election of our lifetime, too much is at stake to ignore these blatant attempts to suppress the Black and Brown vote.
Full agencies across the country have been popping up to run digital media misinformation campaigns to target Black and Brown communities. Although it’s not always easy to identify them, there are some key attributes that we need to share through our organizations to help individuals determine whether these social media accounts are legitimate:
- Do they have the coveted blue check mark? And is it real? Often, accounts dedicated to misinformation use an emoji check to trick people into believing they’re legitimate. Double check to make sure verified accounts are actually certified.
- Beware the trolls and Bots. Misinformation accounts often insert themselves into conversations naturally happening on the internet by trolling the comment section and trying to stir up outrage where there isn’t. These accounts often play both sides to rile people up. Remember, their goal is to confuse and create anger, not have productive debate.
- Check their followers. Accounts dedicated to misinformation often don’t have a lot of real people following them.
Just this week, as Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanu praised President Trump during a White House event and quickly, public figures like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) and Lin Manuel-Miranda began to publicly condemn the company and call for a boycott.
Right-wing bots then let loose across Facebook and Twitter with one agenda: To pose as members of the LatinX community and distort and radicalize conversations that were otherwise civil and mundane.
Our content operation developed a content strategy to mobilize groups across the country by educating voters on how bots work and why we won’t be distracted.
As we mark the anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act next month, we must stay vigilant. Black and Latinx people have an outsized influence in culture, entertainment, and politics.
Our opponents know this and are exploiting COVID-19, our calls for justice, and the internet to divide us. But this year, we’ll be ready. Our protests have already won meaningful changes for Black people across the country in just the last few months. We’ll carry this momentum into November, and secure another victory that recognizes the essential role Black people play in American politics.
Ashley Bryant is a Principal at A/B Partners and helps to lead the firm’s Win Black / Pa’Lante campaign against misinformation. She is a 2020-2021 Technology and Democracy Fellow for the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School and an advisor to Higher Heights for America.