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Fortifying Vulnerable Communities Against Disinformation

Overview

Protect Democracy partnered with Professor Samuel Woolley, the Director of the Propaganda Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, to conduct a qualitative research study of the threat that election disinformation poses to communities of color and how to mitigate its effects. Our study—published in June 2022—focused on three battleground states—Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin—and found that online disinformation is just one part of the failures in the information ecosystem that disproportionately harm voters of color. This study follows a November 2021 landscape analysis that Professor Woolley and his team conducted for Protect Democracy.

With would-be authoritarians seeking and gaining power at all levels of government, it is essential that voters have access to reliable, trusted information so they can make their voices heard in our elections. Directly engaging voters is a resource-intensive but vital effort in communities where the legacy of voter suppression and continuing information failures leave them particularly vulnerable to the effects of disinformation. We hope the findings from this project will help to break the cycle of information inequality and false narratives that perpetuate the disenfranchisement of millions of Americans of color.

Protect Democracy is a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to combating the problems related to political culture in the U.S.

At The Epicenter: Electoral Propaganda in Targeted Communities of Color

By Mark Kumleben, Samuel Woolley, & Katie Joseff from the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin

To read this white paper as a PDF, click here.

In 2020, people across the United States faced a barrage of deceptive and divisive information related to that year’s highly contentious election cycle. Social media platforms were plagued by false content about various candidates for office, patently untrue information about electoral processes, systematic efforts to amplify bogus claims about voter fraud, and coercive political messaging tied to COVID-19 conspiracy theories. A great deal of this content targeted marginalized communities and, in particular, communities of color (Facebook: From Election to Insurrection, 2021), (Austin et al., 2021), (Thakur & Hankerson, 2021). In Georgia, African Americans and Hispanic Americans were on the receiving end of sophisticated microtargeting efforts erroneously claiming that then-Senate candidate Raphael Warnock “celebrated” Fidel Castro (Kertscher, 2020). In Arizona, Hispanic American and Native American communities faced a cascade of untrue digital messaging over Twitter about the voting process (Ramachandran, 2021), (Quaranta, 2020). In Wisconsin, multiple communities of color from Madison to Milwaukee were targeted with lies about mail-in ballot fraud and ballot dumping (Heim & Litke, 2020), (Witynski & Christoffer, 2020). Several of these coordinated efforts to undermine voting and the democratic process have continued into 2021 with partisan-motivated, overwhelmingly fruitless audits of election results. There is no indication that these problems will abate during the 2022 election cycle.

While voter suppression and election disinformation efforts targeted at communities of color are not new, technological advances have supercharged the power and reach of those efforts. Such informational offensives are part of a new and innovative wave of highly potent, often anonymous and automated propaganda. Propaganda—systematic efforts to mold society and public opinion via coercive media tools and communication strategies—is now often computational in form and networked in spread (Woolley & Howard, 2018), (Benkler et al., 2018). Today’s influence campaigns are driven by a complex hybrid of political and commercial motivations. They are defined by sophisticated attempts to manipulate media frameworks and reporting practices, launder partisan information, and stoke political apathy and anger. Astroturf or “inorganic” operations are often purposefully seeded amongst the public in social media groups or via peer-to-peer text messages in efforts to get highly biased information to spread in a fashion that has the illusion of being grassroots or organic. Unsurprisingly, the origins of such endeavors are very difficult to trace. Many are defined by disinformation: the purposeful spread of false content. This, in turn, can quickly become misinformation: false content that is accidentally or unknowingly spread at a viral level. 

In partnership with Protect Democracy, we are initiating an original research study that will explore the effects of online propaganda and disinformation upon marginalized groups during recent election cycles and in the lead-up to what looks to be a highly contentious 2022 election. Targeted propaganda has been and remains a key mechanism through which racist and antidemocratic actors seek to selectively disenfranchise voters. During the 2020 U.S. election, these actors actively targeted communities of color with digital disinformation for the purposes of political propaganda, voter intimidation, and voter suppression. These malicious efforts, layered on top of longstanding structural barriers these communities face in exercising their right to vote, can have outsized effects. 

Our upcoming study—to be published in Spring 2022—will be grounded in data from interviews with community leaders who have faced and responded to social media manipulation campaigns and policy makers looking for solutions. It will seek to uncover the local and specific harms caused by this focused form of digital propaganda. The study will also provide recommendations and resources to help marginalized communities cope, centering their voices, experiences, and expertise across these solutions. We will then partner with these groups to create more tailored resources for responding to disinformation that address the unique needs of individual communities in different regions of the country. In order to get the on-the-ground perspective necessary, we will be focusing on three battleground states—Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin—which will allow us to provide a nuanced picture of the situation across the United States without losing focus on the particular realities in individual communities. 

This white paper is a primer for the forthcoming empirical study. It lays out the background and the conceptual foundation that our forthcoming research project will build on. Here, we explain the context of the wider disinformation ecosystem that surrounds elections, discuss how that ecosystem of disinformation has manifested in the three exemplar states in recent elections, and present our research agenda for each of the states covered.

Read the full white paper here.

Electoral Confusion: Contending with Structural Disinformation in Communities of Color

By Mark Kumleben, Samuel Woolley, & Katie Joseff from the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin

To read this white paper as a PDF, click here.

Disinformation poses a complex and corrosive threat to American democracy, particularly in communities of color. While many others have studied the threat posed by digital disinformation as a technological problem with technological solutions, our qualitative research in these communities underscores the fact that both disinformation and propaganda are social and cultural problems first. Efforts to manipulate public opinion are amplified by new media, but they are rooted in a history in which powerful groups have exerted continuous control over both the political franchise and the communication ecosystem (Kuo and Marwick, 2021).

In this study, we analyze interviews with community leaders, activists, journalists, and researchers who work with communities of color at the local or state level in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin to explore how they experience and counteract digital propaganda and other forms of misleading political information. Nearly all these experts identify as members of the Asian, Black, Hispanic, and Native American communities. The majority work for grassroots organizations seeking to address issues that impact communities of color. They provide informed perspectives and actionable recommendations for voting rights groups and other actors to apply during the 2022 midterm elections season and beyond.

We set out to use qualitative interviews to uncover disinformation narratives circulating in these communities, but our interviewees taught us that the greatest problem lies in what we term “structural disinformation”: systemic issues related to the broader information environment, born out of long-term efforts to control minority groups’ access to and understandings of the country’s electoral and media systems. Many interviewees said that individual disinformation narratives have difficulty gaining traction in their communities, but that structural disinformation creates a generalized atmosphere of distrust and disengagement.

Read the full research paper here.

Event Recordings

On June 24, 2022, Protect Democracy hosted a panel discussion with Nora Benavidez (Free Press), Jessica Boling (Asian American and Pacific Islander Coalition of Wisconsin), Shauntay Nelson (All Voting is Local), and Samuel Woolley (University of Texas at Austin). Panelists discussed structural failings in the information environment that disproportionately harm voters of color, building upon the paper titled Electoral Confusion: Contending with Structural Disinformation in Communities of Color. 

Watch the Recording.

On November 9, 2021, Protect Democracy hosted a conversation with Samuel Woolley (University of Texas at Austin) and Esosa Osa (Fair Fight Action). Panelists discussed election disinformation targeting communities of color in the United States, accompanying the paper titled At The Epicenter: Electoral Propaganda in Targeted Communities of Color. 

Watch the Recording.

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