June 21, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: Juneteenth, Racism, and Digital Deception

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins & Viviana Padelli

On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill marking June 19th or ‘Juneteenth’ as a federal holiday celebrating emancipation. Even as Biden signed the bill though, attacks on the rights of Black Americans are sweeping through the country. From voter suppression efforts, to attacks on education, to anti-vaccination campaigns, racism pervades so many aspects of digital disinformation. While celebrating our newest national holiday, this Decoder also takes a look at the many ways digital deception props up and propagates the racism that is so ingrained in American society, as well as highlighting the work that is being done to fight it. Know someone who might be interested in a weekly roundup of digital deception news? Ask them to sign up! 

  • Finally: On Thursday June 17, President Joe Biden signed into law a measure many have been working towards for years — the creation of ‘Juneteenth,’ a new national holiday celebrating emancipation. The passage of the bill was shockingly bipartisan. It passed unanimously in the Senate, and 415-14 in the House. Despite the new bill, a New York Times poll found that most Americans know very little about Juneteenth. If you find yourself in their number (or honestly even if you don’t) it’s worth checking out this Washington Post visualization of the history of the holiday.
  • Critical Race Theory & education: The creation of the holiday came as attacks against teaching about systemic racism are heating up. Texas, where Juneteenth originated, just this week passed a law regulating how educators can teach about the impact of race and racism on America’s social & economic structures. Media Matters for America has found that mentions of the term ‘critical race theory’ have risen exponentially over the past few months on Fox News, and that many of its critics receiving air time are also Republican activists
  • Origins: In The Washington Post, Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey write about one of the figures driving the anti-CRT campaign, while Julia Carrie Wong points out flaws in a similar article in The New Yorker. As we’ve noted before, protests against so-called critical race theory are both supported and spread by disinformation campaigns, as well as being explicitly linked to astroturfing campaigns. The contrast between the passing of the Juneteenth bill and these attacks on teaching racism has been noted
  • Voter suppression: The Juneteenth signing also comes as voter suppression bills are sweeping across the country. In the New York Times, Nick Corasaniti and Reid Epstein report that some of these laws are resulting in the removal of members of color from local election boards. While Democrats were hoping to pass the ‘For the People Act’ to secure voting rights for all Americans, Mitch McConnell has vowed to block the legislation, despite Democratic Senator Joe Manchin proposing a compromise he hoped would move it past partisan gridlock. Meanwhile, for CNN, Fredreka Schouten reports that despite personal threats, the organization Black Voters’ Matter began a new mobilization campaign for voting rights on June 19th.
  • Deception & democracy: Decode Democracy has a new retrospective looking at the ways in which digital deception has worked to block Black Americans’ full participation in democracy. The report chronicles how digital disinformation repeatedly targets Black Americans, including through online hate speech, disinformation targeting Black politicians, voter suppression efforts and narratives, and through racist conspiracy theories. The retrospective shows that online disinformation remains a threat to Black Americans’ safety, freedom, and civil rights.
  • Anti-Vaxx: In Salon, Nicole Karlis reports that prominent members of the anti-vaccine movement are co-opting Juneteenth in a series of events that will focus on the freedoms that have supposedly been taken away from anti-vaxxers. Commenting on the events, Imran Ahmed of the Center for Countering Digital Hate noted on the role social media has played in allowing the anti-vaccination movement to, “market to each other for free — and that’s happening because they’ve been tolerated on those platforms.”
  • Stop hate for profit: It has been one year since Color of Change launched the Stop Hate for Profit campaign. The campaign saw advertisers pausing their advertisements on Facebook for the month of July in 2020. The organizations involved have published a progress report on what the campaign has achieved so far, but the campaign is still ongoing. You can sign the petition urging Facebook to address voter suppression and calls for violence on its platform here.
  • Research: A new paper out in New Media & Society looks at how memes are used on social media during Canadian elections to create in-groups, and reinforce partisanship. In Harvard Magazine, a new piece by Jacob Sweet looks at disinformation, and Dr. Joan Donovan’s work in researching it, especially focusing on her categorization of an ‘algorithmic economy’ in which users have ceded control of their content consumption choices to social media algorithms. Speaking of the algorithmic economy, a new paper from Adrian Rauchfleisch and Jonas Kaiser looks at whether far-right voices that have been deplatformed from mainstream social media can find similar reach on alternate channels.

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