Four years ago, Russian operatives targeted Black and Latino voters to suppress turnout.
Now these deceptive online campaigns have returned, with activists reporting a surge on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and on private messaging apps like WhatsApp.
The aim? To persuade voters of color to sit out the heated race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. But this time activists are fighting back.
On Wednesday, NBA champion LeBron James unveiled a new push called Under Review to challenge attempts to confuse, intimidate or misinform Black voters and dissuade them from casting their ballots.
Over the next two weeks, “Shot Clock” content from comedy duo Desus & Mero, podcast host Jemele Hill and "Breakfast Club" radio host Charlamagne tha God will teach young Black voters how to spot bots and trolls and push back against false or misleading narratives seeking to depress turnout.
“Misinformation is the newest staple of the voter suppression playbook,” Michael Tyler, executive vice president of public affairs of LeBron’s More Than A Vote, a voting rights organization to improve voter turnout in the Black community and reduce voter suppression, said in a statement. “With early voting underway, we’re already seeing the same nonsense we saw in 2016 targeting Black voters.”
Under Review is a collaboration with Win Black, which combats disinformation campaigns, foreign or domestic, targeting Black and Latino communities with countermessaging.
“Black and brown voters are being intentionally, heavily, disproportionately targeted with disinformation,” said Ashley Bryant, co-founder of Win Black, a nonprofit formed by A/B Partners, a multiracial creative studio led by Bryant and Andre Banks.
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The pair launched the Win Black/Pa’lante campaign in 2019 to fire back at voter suppression campaigns with posts, videos, GIFs and internet memes, particularly in battleground states where online campaigns to sway Black voters could tilt the election.
Banks says Win Black/Pa’lante's counteroffensive draws heavily on lessons learned during the 2016 election when the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy organization with ties to the Kremlin, attempted to manipulate the presidential election by using accounts such as “Blacktivist” and “BlackMattersUS” to further inflame racial tensions.
“The IRA created an expansive cross-platform media mirage targeting the Black community, which shared and cross-promoted authentic Black media to create an immersive influence ecosystem,” a report for the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian disinformation efforts said in 2018.
Social media companies, whose platforms were used to amplify falsehoods, conspiracy theories and inflammatory rhetoric in 2016, have been preparing for November’s presidential election for years.
Still, a report released in July by civil rights auditors warned that Facebook’s failure to rein in racist content and misinformation could have serious repercussions on the presidential election including depressing voter turnout.
Last week, Twitter suspended a group of accounts claiming to be Black Trump supporters for violating its rules on spam and platform manipulation. A review by wire service Reuters showed the accounts, some of which had attracted tens of thousands of followers, used images of real people that did not match their names and posted identical messages such as: “YES IM BLACK AND IM VOTING FOR TRUMP!!!”
Black voters are crucial to Biden's chances of prevailing in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Florida and scoring upsets in traditionally Republican states like Texas and Georgia.
More than 200 organizers in 21 states who are working on the Win Black/Pa’lante campaign say the tactics they are seeing in this election cycle which has been made more complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic are more sophisticated and subtle and shift frequently.
“We have seen a lot of disinformation in many forms,” said Rai LaNier, Wayne County director of Michigan Liberation.
Much of it, she says, is aimed at “breeding a lot of doubt about the integrity of the election process” such as mail-in or absentee voting.
Other campaigns, such as one encouraging Black voters to sit out the election until reparations are made for chattel slavery, are "designed to dissuade people from participating,” says Nse Ufot, who runs the New Georgia Project. “A lot of it is: Democrats are trash. Republicans are racist. Withdraw from the system.”
Other memes directly promote Trump’s reelection, such as a doctored photo of rappers Ice Cube and 50 Cent in “Trump 2020” hats which circulated widely on social media Tuesday, fueled in part by a tweet by Eric Trump.
“Two great, courageous Americans,” Trump’s son tweeted. He removed the tweet after being called out by Ice Cube.
“Having to contend with folks who are not plugged into this every day and who don’t understand how Photoshop has gotten really, really good recently I think are challenges and things we need to message around,” Ufot said.
In Florida, the nation’s largest and most hotly contested swing state, Spanish-speaking residents are being flooded with messages intended to depress turnout especially in immigrant communities, Bryant said.
“We are seeing a ton of Spanish-speaking disinformation, which presents a challenge because a lot of the platforms have really only been focused on flagging or trying to remove English language content, and really has been lacking on the Spanish language content,” she said.
Murphy Bannerman, deputy director of Election Protection Arizona, a nonpartisan organization, says she started seeing a flood of memes in Facebook groups for Black people in August. “Why should Black people vote for Biden? He’s not going to do anything for you. Obama didn’t do anything for you. Why vote for Democrats?”
More recently, she says, the messages have shifted to: “Both parties are terrible and the whole system is a mess so don’t even bother."
But people's reactions have changed, too, Bannerman said.
“What I am seeing here in Arizona is that a lot of people are really on alert for that kind of stuff," she said. "When there are these memes being shared about how Black people shouldn’t vote, they call them out.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LeBron James, Black activists fight voter suppression on social media