Monday morning, the team at A-B Partners, a Washington DC political-communications firm that works with progressive groups, gathered on Zoom. They had less than 24 hours before the Election Day polls opened for a series of contests around the country that Democrats, at least, were billing as a last chance to sustain a functioning democracy.
A-B Partners is home to the minds behind the 501(c)(4) known as Win Black, a multi-organisation project founded in 2020 aimed at muting what A-B Partners founder Andre Banks describes as “racist disinformation.” And this week, much of the focus in that Zoom room was on Georgia, home to major races involving Black candidates – Republican Herschel Walker and Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock facing off for Senator, and Democrat Stacey Abrams making another run at becoming the first Black woman to be a governor – and an electorate with a substantial number of non-white voters.
Misinformation and disinformation are now a part of the American political atmosphere. The former is inadvertent and the latter intentional, but the results can be the same: rendering voters so cynical or anxious that they see no value in voting at all. Since the 2016 election, investigators have found proof of those campaigns, some of it virtually out in the open, some more shadowy, in groups created by operatives abroad but bearing titles like “Being Black in Arizona.”
According to a Senate report, in 2016, “no single group of Americans was targeted by [Russia’s Internet Research Agency] information operatives more than African-Americans.”
So sometimes Win Black’s work means, as it did in 2020, amplifying real content posted by people at a location where false rumors of “BLM violence” or “voter crackdowns” are circulating – the kinds of ideas that, research shows, can depress turnout.
It can also sometimes require live efforts to contradict misinformation, with response posts that are carefully designed to go viral; in the Win Black memes library this week were dozens of possibilities, ranging from a serious black-and-white portrait of an African-American man holding a flag to a gif of unlucky-in-love R&B diva Mary J. Blige saying “I can’t trust you.”
Of late, the work also involves trying to hunt down the originators of misleading information and the often-futile battle to get social media platforms to remove it, all while pushing counter-messaging cognizant of the complex social truths at hand.
“We are in our final stretch,” Banks told the assembled staff on Monday. “We are going to run this programme. Tweak it as we go and then be prepared for anything in the next 48 hours.”
By the end of that two-day period, a much-prognosticated red wave had not arrived, but Abrams had lost to Republican incumbent Brian Kemp, and the Senate race between Walker and Warnock was set to go to a runoff.
That means several more weeks of campaign activity are to come. And Georgia is of particular interest to Democrats, as a key swing state and one that shines a light on some of the party’s ongoing obstacles. Democrats can’t win there without bringing a maximum number of Black voters into the process, but the state is also home to about 120,000 Black male registered voters who – despite Abrams’ famous voter-mobilization effort – sat out the last few election cycles, Banks says.
Those voters, then, are a prime target for disinformation and for Democratic campaign efforts. So inside shops like Win Black, the fight continues.
Jermaine House, senior director of communications at HIT Strategies, a Washington DC, firm that runs focus groups and surveys that sample large numbers of Black voters – who are often underrepresented in polling – says he has seen evidence that misinformation is still contributing to a long-term pattern of a small but growing number of Black men who either do not vote at all or vote for conservatives.
For example, he says, in focus groups held since the anti-Asian-hate-crime bill passed in May 2021, he has been surprised to hear people who are only occasional voters recite by heart the law’s precise vote count and specific features of the policy, and then ask the same question: ‘‘Where is Black America’s anti-lynching bill?”
“What we interpreted from that is, hey, somebody is pushing this information to them,” House says. “And the way they did it was in messages [that said things like], ‘OK, the Asian Americans got their bill and the LGBTQ [Americans] got their bill, but when are we going to get the anti-lynching bill?’ Now, mind you, the Congress passed an anti-lynching bill and [Biden] signed it into law. But these same men in focus groups don’t know about that.”
That’s where Win Black and other emergency response projects like it come in.
“It’s definitely real; it’s definitely happening,” says A-B’s Andre Banks on Wednesday afternoon, about targeted disinformation. “The effects are serious, but we’ve also gotten smarter since 2016.”
One of the first things Christopher Bouzy makes clear when we talk by phone a few days before the midterms is that influence campaigns are easier to pull off than most people think. Bouzy is a software engineer who founded the nonpartisan organisation Bot Sentinel, which tracks inauthentic activity online. In this midterm cycle, Bouzy and his team have picked up on a handful of what appear to be political influence efforts with a specific aim of encouraging Black voters to think of elections as pointless or dangerous and their participation as unnecessary.
That’s not to say that every person who tweets about being concerned about potential violence at the polls is a plant, Bouzy cautions. But “the average person overestimates how much money or sophistication is necessary to circulate information the poster knows to be false,” he says – and the average person also fails to understand how social-media creators can make money by jumping on trending topics, even when those trends are based on hateful or false ideas.
He cites, for example, Bot Sentinel’s finding that only 83 individual Twitter accounts were able to spark a massive coordinated campaign of hate content about Meghan Markle.
“These were not sophisticated people or operations that did this,” he says. “Many of them were [individual] middle-aged white women.”
While Democrats certainly engage in influence campaigning, he says, the vast majority of election misinformation and disinformation that he has seen in circulation appears to serve conservative interests. These messages have been in heavy circulation in places with hotly contested races, like Georgia. And because most Black voters tend to vote for Democrats, that makes them a target.
“I don’t have any data that say people of color are more vulnerable to misinformation than their Caucasian counterparts,” he says. “People in general are just vulnerable to this stuff. But the folks who do this, do these campaigns, they know exactly what to say, what to tweet, to get Black folks to either disengage or to engage.”
- A Time report