Women wearing face masks fill out vote-by-mail ballots at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office on October 15, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via AP)
Back in 2016, “no single group of Americans was targeted by [the Kremlin’s] disinformation operatives than African-Americans,” the Senate Intelligence Committee report into Russia’s election interference concluded.In 2020, the situation is even worse.“I would say that we're seeing more disinformation,” Rai Lanier, an organizer at Michigan Liberation, an activist group and super-PAC focused on criminal justice reform in the greater Detroit area, told reporters during a conference call on Tuesday.
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.
“It’s obviously evolved and more sophisticated since we all know it went down in 2016. As for whether it’s foreign or domestic, I would have to say it's a mix,” Lanier said.Activists in Black and Latinx communities across the U.S. say they’re facing an unprecedented surge of disinformation designed to persuade voters not to cast their ballots in November’s election — using social media, telephone calls, messaging apps, and even billboards to suppress the vote.“We're seeing Black and Brown voters being heavily targeted with [disinformation] that says vote-by-mail is fraudulent, or voters being told that they would be added to a national watch list because they're registering to vote — really using some of these old school tactics, but in new school ways with the weaponization of digital media,” Ashley Bryant, of Win Black/Pa’lante, a network of activist groups that are coordinating to counter disinformation against these communities.While Donald Trump’s campaign actively tried to depress the Black vote in 2016 using social media disinformation, in 2020 those conducting the campaigns are using new tactics, including playing on voters’ concerns about the pandemic.“There's been an extraordinary amount of disinformation, particularly targeted at Black Georgians, or Black Twitter and Instagram users, around COVID,” Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, said during the call.
Some disinformation campaigns target vulnerable members of the community by telling them they could catch the virus if they vote in person, while other campaigns said that if voters cast their ballots they are automatically given the coronavirus vaccine — even though one doesn’t exist yet.These campaigns are especially effective in Georgia, given the fact that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. “80% of the people who've been hospitalized in Georgia, due to COVID are Black and Brown, while 50% of the people who've died due to COVID-19 are Black or Brown,” Ufot said. In Florida, much of the disinformation targets the large Latinx population, which poses problems for social networks on which it is spread. “We're 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,” Bryant said.But it’s not just social media platforms. Fake WhatsApp messages that appear to come from grassroots community groups are, in fact, targeted disinformation campaigns.Bryant said a number of these disinformation campaigns focus on religion and faith, using audio, video, and images to push “this narrative of not being able to be a democrat and a Catholic, or you can’t be a good Christian and a Democrat.”
And now, the disinformation and voter suppression campaigns have moved offline and are operating IRL.Santra Denis, Interim Executive Director of Miami Workers Center, highlighted that one of the biggest concerns among minority communities is a “heightened police presence at polling sites.” An example of this was seen Tuesday, when an armed police officer was pictured at a polling station wearing a Trump 2020 mask. The Miami Police Department condemned his behavior and have promised to address the situation.The threat of police intimidation is particularly of concern in Florida, Denis said, among voters who are new to the country and to voting.“We are specifically dealing with a community that is very diverse in terms of not only race, but ethnicity, and there are new arrivals to the country who may have maybe their first time voting.”In Texas, organizers have been facing a billboard campaign that targets Latinx voters. “They have been seeing a lot of billboarding, and signage about vote-by-mail, saying that vote-by-mail is either illegal or saying people shouldn't participate in vote-by-mail, they shouldn't use the postal service to return their ballots because that's not a safe way to do it,” Andre Banks of Win Black/Pa’lante said.For the moment, it remains unclear who is behind the campaigns.“It's very, very hard in real-time to understand where these threats are coming from,” Banks said. “Even people who have every research tool at their disposal, can't tell on the day whether an attack is coming from a bot, from a paid troll, from a campaign, or from a foreign agent, it's almost impossible.”
And waiting to find out who is targeting these communities is simply not an option this time around.“If we wait to learn where the threat is coming from, in order to act, we have completely missed the ability to get our folks educated. Make sure that people have the information they need, and they're getting out and we're pushing back,” Banks added.Here’s what else is happening in the world of election disinformation.
The Election Integrity Project, a network of researchers working to mitigate the impact of attempted voter misinformation and election delegitimization, discovered a pair of connected websites churning out voter disinformation that is being picked up by pro-Trump Facebook groups.One site billed itself as “a civil rights NGO” and the other posed as a news site that “stands for the truth all the time.” Both published articles with inaccurate claims about voting in the American presidential election. While the sites don’t appear to be connected, both of them have Facebook pages with Nigerian administrators, and their social media accounts boost each others’ stories. While Facebook has removed ads with false claims about voting, one of the ads is still visible in several pro-Trump Facebook groups, and posts using the same text as the ads are also still up.
Two websites with Nigerian administrators are churning out U.S. election disinformation
As support for the QAnon conspiracy theory grows among Republicans, many of those who are peddling the theory are now trying to cash in. More than a dozen QAnon influencers who have been kicked off Facebook or YouTube are turning to Patreon to fund their efforts.An investigation by Media Matters for America has found that at least 14 QAnon grifters are monetizing their popularity among followers, with some making as much as $7,000 a month from divining the cryptic messages coming from Q. And of course, because Patreon takes a cut of all subscriptions, it’s also benefiting from the QAnon grift.
Here’s how the QAnon grift works
The FBI commented on the controversy surrounding the laptop that allegedly belongs to Hunter Biden, saying that it had “nothing to add” to the comments made by the Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe on Sunday.Ratcliffe told Fox News that the emails from the laptop, which were leaked to the New York Post by Rudy Giuliani, were not part of a disinformation campaign. Democrats hit out at those comments, criticizing Ratcliffe for politicizing the ongoing FBI investigation.So on Tuesday, in response to a demand for more information from Congress, Assistant Director of the FBI, Jill Tyson, issued this carefully worded response:“Regarding the subject of your letter, we have nothing to add at this time to the October 19th public statement by the Director of National Intelligence about the available actionable intelligence. If actionable intelligence is developed, the FBI in consultation with the Intelligence Community will evaluate the need to provide defensive briefings to you and the Committee pursuant to the established notification framework.”