Black and Latinx People Are Primary Targets for Disinformation. We Must Fight Back | Opinion

In 2014, pockets of Black women on Twitter noticed something strange—social media accounts that appeared to be operated by other Black women they'd never heard of, spreading divisive messages about Black people.

But something about the way the accounts spoke didn't seem quite right. They tweeted like people doing bad impressions of Black women, saying ridiculous things and mangling basic elements of African American Vernacular English. "Obviously racist word salad," was how internet activist Shafiqah Hudson described it this summer in an episode of my podcast about internet culture and marginalized voices.

She was right. The accounts were just pretending to be Black women in an attempt to spread confusion and mistrust in Black online communities, and to foment racial animosity in American society. Hudson repeatedly brought the issue to the attention of Twitter's higher-ups, but nothing was done. Eventually, she created a hashtag to identify and stamp out these bad actors herself.

A Senate inquiry in 2019 confirmed that same tactic—impersonating Black people on social media—was used by Russian assets in an attempt to spread distrust during the 2016 election. Posing as Black Lives Matter activists online, these bad actors attempted to inflame anger around police brutality and racial injustice in an attempt to influence Black voters to either vote for Donald Trump or to stay home on Election Day. The inquiry found that in the lead-up to the 2016 election, no single group was a bigger disinformation target than Black social media users.

It's impossible to say how things might have been different if social media companies had listened to Hudson and moved aggressively to identify and shut down fake accounts spreading disinformation. Instead, they did nothing, allowing bad actors to refine their technique and use it to influence the 2016 election.

Since then, the threat of disinformation to our elections has only grown. This month, the intelligence community's top election security official, William Evanina, said in a statement that multiple foreign states are continuing to use "covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters' preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people's confidence in our democratic process."

It poses a particular threat to Black and Latinx communities. Disinformation doesn't just play out online; it can translate to real-world consequences, especially around voting behavior. And since Latinx and Black communities are key voting blocs in the upcoming election, these communities continue to be targeted by foreign and domestic bad actors seeking to shift the outcome of the election. Jacobo Licona, disinformation research lead at Equis Labs, explained how disinformation targeting the Latinx community preys on confusion, distrust and fear to keep people from voting.

"Spread this like wildfire," a Facebook post warned in February. "I.C.E. will be at every polling station on Nov 3rd 2020."

Another post featured a doctored image purporting to show Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arresting voters outside a polling place. However, ICE told PolitiFact, "ICE does not patrol or conduct enforcement operations at polling locations. Any flyers or advertisements claiming otherwise are false."

A common tactic of disinformation is inflaming and exploiting communities of color and our very real fears of things like state violence and oppression. It's effective in part because our fears are valid. But bad actors prey on that fear to spread confusion. "It can really stop people from going out to vote," Licona said.

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a new wave of disinformation meant to confuse voters about how they can vote. "In attacking vote-by-mail efforts, we're seeing the far right pushing that voting by mail isn't safe, or that it's going to lead to fraud," said Licona. "Voting by mail is a safe way to vote. And yet they continue pushing these types of narratives."

A boycott led by the Stop Hate for Profit coalition in July prompted more than 1,100 companies to pause ad buys and brought considerable publicity to the issue of disinformation on social media, and companies have made some effort to combat it. In August, for example, Facebook took down a network of phony accounts posing as Black Trump supporters and Black QAnon supporters. In May, Twitter drew the ire of the president by adding a disclaimer to his unsubstantiated claim that mail-in ballots lead to voter fraud. And both platforms recently removed a video Trump shared containing inaccurate information about the spread of COVID-19.

Yet social media giants have largely failed to curb the spread of disinformation on their platforms. In their absence, others have stepped in. Advocacy groups like WinBlack/Pa'lante have set up disinformation "war rooms" that train Black and brown voters to spot and curb disinformation. Activists from UltraViolet and Free Press have banded together with academics to share what kinds of disinformation they're seeing in their respective online spaces and learn best practices to combat it.

Twitter and Facebook
This combination of file pictures shows photo illustrations of Twitter and Facebook logos. Nicolas Asfouri and Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty

If social media companies won't step up, it's up to all of us to inoculate our own communities against harmful disinformation, particularly as it pertains to voting. Make sure your people—especially the elders in your community, who might be less savvy when it comes to suspicious social media activity—have the information they need to vote.

Because algorithms reward engagement, amplifying disinformation, even to correct the record, often only makes it stronger. "Don't engage with disinformation or suspicious activity directly," Licona said. "When you retweet, reply or share a post, even to disagree with it, you're helping to amplify the original message and allowing it to reach more feeds and more people." Focus instead on uplifting positive, accurate information.

Social media companies have demonstrated they have the tools to combat disinformation. They simply lack the will. We must keep demanding they take responsibility for the havoc they are unleashing on our democracy and our communities—and do something about it. But until they do, we have to fill the gaps in their leadership and arm our communities against this dangerous threat to our health, safety and right to vote.

There's simply too much at stake in the upcoming election to do anything else.

Bridget Todd is the host and creator of iHeartRadio's There Are No Girls on the Internet podcast. She works with feminist group UltraViolet to build a more inclusive internet.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.