As the United States commemorates Juneteenth more than 150 years since the official emancipation of Black Americans from slavery, our country is still marked by systemic inequality, structural racism, and an ongoing struggle for civil rights that prevents Black Americans from participating in democracy on an equal footing. In recent years, the crisis of weaponized online disinformation and hate speech have placed a modern lens on our history of slavery and unveiled a new online playbook for marginalizing Black communities and preventing our democracy from realizing its full potential.
Outlined below, we highlight several examples of how deceptive and racist online content amplified by irresponsible social media platforms has limited participation in our democracy and jeopardized Black Americans’ safety.
Voter Suppression Efforts
Online efforts to disenfranchise Black voters are just the latest installments in a long, ugly history of voter suppression, much of it targeting Black communities. In both the run-up and aftermath of recent elections, conspiracy theorists and lawmakers seeking to limit Black voters’ participation made use of a sophisticated online toolkit to advance their agenda, including:
- Microtargeting digital ads to depress Black voter turnout. In 2016, former President Trump’s campaign targeted Facebook ads to Black voters in swing states in order to deter them from voting in the election. Narrowly tailored digital ads remained a key tool in 2020 to target users in swing states with misleading information about mail-in voting and question the legitimacy of the election.
- Utilizing “digital blackface” accounts. Black voters were targeted in 2020 by disinformation using fake accounts on Twitter that purported to be Black people who had abandoned the Democratic party for Trump. The fake accounts were accompanied by an uptick in ‘copypasta,’ where posts were copied and pasted verbatim and then tweeted out across multiple accounts. These efforts mirrored 2016, when Russian operatives used disinformation to engage in voter suppression efforts targeting Black individuals in particular. In just a few days, these so-called “digital blackface” accounts generated more than 265,000 retweets before Twitter suspended them.
- Distorting reality and taking information out of context. In one instance, the conservative dark money organization FreedomWorks promoted a disinformation campaign about vote-by-mail by using an image of NBA star LeBron James and taking comments from James out of context. Facebook deleted the page after James — who advocates for Black voting rights — tweeted about it. Google, however, chose to leave up advertisements from the group.
- Promoting content to convince Black Americans that voting is futile: During the 2020 election, Black voters were also subjected to ‘voter depression’ campaigns that used viral memes and networks of social media influencers in an attempt to discourage them from voting while stoking inaction and apathy.
- Using Trump’s “big lie” to fight a landmark voting rights bill and advance voter suppression efforts at the state level. Opponents of the For the People Act, which would protect voting rights as well as limit the influence of money in politics and crack down on gerrymandering, have used online ads filled with disinformation in an attempt to block the widely popular bill. Additionally, GOP state lawmakers passed voter suppression bills to supposedly prevent nonexistent election fraud. In March, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a wide-ranging voter suppression bill which will disproportionately affect Black voters. In May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also signed into law a series of new voting restrictions during a ceremony broadcast live on Fox News. The Brennan Center keeps track of a full list of voter suppression efforts at the state level.
Online Hate Speech Leading to Offline Violence
During the last year, we witnessed a more mainstream presence of white supremacist and militia groups online, many of which saw Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric as a source of encouragement. Throughout the year, there were several episodes of online anti-black hate and white supremacist theories spilling into the offline world and leading to violence against Black communities and their allies:
- Kenosha, WI: Following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August of 2020, armed militias clashed with protestors and 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two people and wounded another. According to a report by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, posts on Facebook and Reddit groups planted the seeds of violence by encouraging “militiamen and other armed individuals to head to Kenosha, ostensibly to protect local businesses from protesters.”
- Michigan: As the Electoral College certified President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, there were reports of electoral disinformation leading to real-world violence. Michigan had to close its legislative buildings due to threats of violence, while the week prior armed protestors surrounded the Secretary of State’s house, and a Black Michigan lawmaker that criticized Rudy Giuliani’s voter fraud claims received lynching threats.
- Washington, D.C.: On January 6th, a disinformation campaign amplified by social media platforms culminated in the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building in which racist symbols traveled from the computer screen and into the halls of Congress.
Weaponized Conspiracy Theories
Online conspiracy theories impacting Black Americans have covered a range of topics in recent months, including attempts to delegitimize the Black Lives Matter movement and presenting challenges to public health.
- Black Lives Matter: In May, the Intercept reported on right-wing journalists who captured many of the viral videos of rare violence at Black Lives Matter protests. They write that, despite the fact that the protests are overwhelmingly peaceful, these images have “helped create the false impression, relentlessly driven home by Fox News and Republican politicians, that the nationwide wave of protests that erupted after George Floyd was killed was nothing but an excuse for mindless rioting.” Separately, Dr. Joan Donovan of the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School outlined how far-right livestreamers making “riot porn” have fueled a backlash against the movement for Black Lives.
- COVID-19: Conspiracy theories amplified online about COVD-19 have also had a profound impact on Black communities. In a paper for the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center, Brandi Collins-Dexter breaks down COVID-19 conspiracy theories circulating in Black communities online, which further threaten the health of people who are already disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Additional reporting has outlined how anti-vaxxers target ethnic minority communities with conspiracy theories and that official information about COVID-19 is reaching fewer Black people on Facebook than those from other demographic groups
Attacks on Critical Race Theory
With Fox News taking the lead, a conservative disinformation campaign has aimed to discredit critical race theory, the academic framework that looks at the impact of slavery and ongoing institutionalized racism in the U.S. The current conservative narrative falsely claims that critical race theory is “racist,” “Marxist,” and punishes people for being white.
- 1619 Project: Attempts to manipulate the narrative around slavery and use disinformation to undermine Black civil rights gains are prominent online. Writing for Columbia Journalism Review, Brandi Collins-Dexter and Joan Donovan outlined how white nationalist groups are using “keyboard squatting” to promote the term 1776 as a rejoinder to the 1619 Project, which looks at Black Americans’ role in helping to create the nation. Not coincidentally, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the professor and journalist who oversaw the 1619 project, was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina after herself becoming the subject of a disinformation campaign.
- Public Education: The backlash against critical race theory has also made its way into state legislatures. Earlier this month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill known as the “1836 Project” to promote “patriotic education” that many historians and educators argue is propaganda aimed at erasing slavery’s role as a factor in the Texas Revolution.
Disinformation Targeting Black Politicians
Online disinformation campaigns against Black politicians at the local, state, and federal levels highlight how Black political leaders are frequently targets for vitriol in order to stoke racial divisions and negatively impact Black participation in the democratic process.
- Federal Level: During election season, Vice President Kamala Harris was the subject of online disinformation campaigns that questioned her heritage, cast doubt on her eligibility to hold office, and mischaracterized her positions on key issues.
- Montevallo, AL: At the local level, Joyce Jones, a candidate for Mayor of a small town in Alabama, saw her campaign derailed by false online claims that she planned to “defund the police.”
- Stockton, CA: In Stockton, California, Mayor Michael Tubbs lost re-election after an online blog posting racist disinformation and memes about Tubbs rose to prominence as funding and readership for more reputable news sources dried up.
Online deception against Black communities is not just about spreading disinformation; the artificial intelligence and machine learning systems that social media companies use to decide what content to show are often biased against Black users. As long as social media companies and lawmakers allow Black communities to be routinely targeted by online disinformation and hate speech, both public safety and the integrity of our democracy will continue to suffer.