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Understanding Disinformation Targeting Communities of Color

Overview

Protect Democracy has partnered with Prof. Samuel Woolley, the Director of the Propaganda Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, to conduct an original qualitative research study that will explore the effects of online propaganda and disinformation upon marginalized groups during past election cycles and leading up to what looks to be a highly contentious 2022 election. 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 policymakers looking for solutions. It will seek to uncover the local and specific harms caused by this focused form of digital propaganda that racist and anti-democratic actors are using to try to undermine the political power of people of color. 

The study will also provide recommendations and resources to help communities of color cope with the unique disinformation challenges they face, centering their voices, experiences, and expertise across these solutions. 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. We hope this project will help to break the cycle of propaganda that perpetuates 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.

The Nature of The Threat

At The Epicenter: Electoral Propaganda in Targeted Communities of Color

By Samuel Woolley (Director, Propaganda Research Lab, University of Texas at Austin) & Mark Kumleben (Disinformation Researcher)

To read this white paper, 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.

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