For years, Shireen Mitchell has felt like she’s screaming into the void. As a Black woman and entrepreneur whose expertise is in media manipulation, she’s been researching disinformation in social media for years, well before the 2016 presidential election.
Then on Monday, a report from Britain’s Channel 4 News claimed that Cambridge Analytica — the now-defunct research firm co-founded by Stephen K. Bannon, the chief executive of President Trump’s 2016 campaign — disproportionately identified Black voters in swing states to dissuade them from voting for Hillary Clinton or at all.
Mitchell says the story underscores her warnings about digital vote suppression aimed at Black people ahead of Nov. 3.
The British broadcaster says that Trump’s 2016 campaign worked to deter 3.5 million Black Americans in 16 battleground states from voting by bombarding them with negative Hillary Clinton Facebook ads in an effort called “deterrence.” Channel 4 said the information comes from a leaked copy of an election database used by the Trump campaign in 2016.
Tim Murtaugh, a Trump reelection campaign spokesman, dismissed the report as “fake news” on Monday, adding in a statement to The Washington Post that Trump’s record gave him a “relationship of trust with African American voters.”
“I’m quite annoyed right now,” says Mitchell, who founded Stop Online Violence Against Women. “Thirty days out we’ve got all this data that proves that Black voters — and Black women specifically — are targeted, and nothing will be done about it, that protecting our votes is not important enough which means no one’s votes are.”
In 2016, Trump narrowly eked out a win in several of the states in which Black voters were allegedly marked for “deterrence.”
What particularly bothers Mitchell and other Black feminists is that many of these campaigns co-opt the language and images of Black women to manipulate Black voters.
“Black women change the tide in elections. We saw it in 2017 with Roy Moore in Alabama, we saw it in South Carolina which made Biden the nominee,” Mitchell says. “We do not get defended in this space, yet we are the most targeted.”
She notes that fake accounts pretending to be Black women, some by foreign actors and some by other Americans, spend years gaining trust by crafting online identities and followings.
“They connect with the American Black community online attempting to learn Black vernacular and key issue areas,” Mitchell says. “Once the election ramps up, they’ve gained enough following and trust. That’s when they begin to share disinformation. The goal is to make sure they have enough of a following before the shift to disseminate the disinformation.”
Shafiqah Hudson, a critical race scholar and writer, notes that as the election grows closer, misogynoir has been on the rise.
“People have realized that in terms of social justice that Black women are a force to be reckoned with. We’ve managed to harness power online and take it offline for the last six or seven years,” Hudson said. “The fact of the matter is they’re scared.”
The swarm of disinformation doesn’t surprise former counterintelligence officer Cindy Otis. In fact, she says, these social media campaigns are just the descendants of propaganda historically used in the United States before tech platforms were born.
“In the civil rights era after World War II, rumors ran rampant throughout the South preparing for this ‘revolution’ — the most ridiculous rumors. … False information that was then used to justify violence against Black people,” says Otis, who just published a book on disinformation campaigns.
She says false information has always — regardless of the form it takes — been used against marginalized communities.
More recently, “so many of the false narratives we see surrounding the protests over police violence in the past couple of months play on those fears that we’ve seen throughout history — that this marginalized community is coming to get you, that they’re armed and rioting and looting,” Otis says.
“Russia sees this as an opportunity to push this narrative that there are dangerous rioters and looters and they’re Black as a way of playing to racism,” she adds. “We know from declassified reports that racism and racial tensions are a perfect target for their disinformation.”
Mitchell hopes that increased awareness around digital voter suppression — especially during a pandemic when so many people turn to social media to connect with their friends and community — will enable Black Americans to exercise their hard-won right to vote.
What Mitchell fears most, she says, is a “dismantling of trust in the voting process because our votes weren’t considered important.”