Inside the info warfare in opposition to black voters


In August, approximately 12,000 Detroit area code 313 cell phones received taped messages from Tamika Taylor. She claimed to be a member of a civil rights group called Project 1599 and called to warn that applying for a postal vote could result in people's personal information being entered into a public government database. Her tone of voice and language made the audience believe she was a black woman, and she informed the largely black audience that the database would be used to reconcile pending police orders, collect credit card debts, and individuals prior to a mandatory vaccine being released to pursue.

But Tamika Taylor wasn't real, and the warnings were false too. You were part of a campaign to suppress the black election in Swing Counties in five Rust Belt states. Earlier this month, the Michigan Attorney General indicted the founders of Project 1599, notorious right-wing political activists Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl, for suppressing voters in violation of the 1965 Suffrage Act. They pleaded not guilty.

Black voters in the Midwest, especially Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, are vital to the outcome of the 2020 election. And these communities are deliberately addressed with messages of confusion, intimidation, and disinformation in order to dissuade them from voting.

Black Americans tend to be very politically active and form a voting bloc that leans to the left, but voter turnout among this population lagged in 2016, causing earlier democratic strongholds such as Minnesota to wrangle. While today, as in 2016, one side is trying to mobilize the black voice, the other side is trying to suppress it through an information war. Such activities may be illegal under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and some experts have called for new laws against voter suppression in the Internet age.

"It was hard"

The Detroit Robocall campaign followed up suspicions among black voters in Michigan and across the country. "They just said things that were said on the street and summed up in a phone call," says Rai Lanier, organizer at Michigan Liberation, an activist group and SuperPAC focused on criminal justice reform in the greater Detroit area.

For nearly a year now, Lanier has been reaching the same mostly black neighborhoods that callers were targeting in Wayne and Oakland Counties, trying to convince people to come up and vote. She says many voters saw effective disinformation messages or received robocalls aimed directly at the fears of black Americans – especially at a time when government concerns for their well-being are in doubt. Black Americans are more than 2.5 times more likely than whites to develop Covid-19 and twice as likely to die from it.

“They have all these insecurities floating around in people's minds like, 'Can I trust my government to make sure they don't force a vaccine on me when we have the Tuskegee Institute experiment in black collective memory? & # 39; ”says Lanier. "Here's this robocall saying all of these things out loud."

Michigan is a political battleground for most years, but 2020 was especially tough, according to Lanier. "Given the amount of misinformation out there and the fact that only people feel they don't know who to turn to, there is no precedent that we as a society hold onto. It was tough," she says.


On the other side of Lake Michigan, Wisconsin is also a hot spot. In 2016, black voter turnout dropped almost 20% from the previous election. This was part of a turnaround that made Donald Trump the first Republican since Ronald Reagan to win the state. In late September, a British Channel 4 News report found that a dataset obtained from Cambridge Analytica had identified 3.5 million black Americans in battlefield states as ripe for "deterrence". The report says Americans were divided into eight groups that indicated how the Trump campaign should target them through social media. Over 54% of those labeled "deterrence" belonged to people who were found by the database to be minority groups. Of the Wisconsinites in the dataset, 17% of those labeled "deterrent" were rated black, even though black people make up only 5.4% of the state's population.

It's unclear whether the 2016 campaign put off black voters in Wisconsin or elsewhere at all, or whether this type of individual propaganda will take place in 2020. What is clear, however, is the intent of the Republican campaign last time to strategically suppress the Black Voice strategy.

Tighter voter ID laws and increased requirements for early voting were passed by the Republican-controlled state government before 2016. They claimed this was an attempt to reduce electoral fraud but, in practice, to lower black voter turnout. Milwaukee, Wisconsin is one of the top cities in the 2020 race and is nearly 40% black. In the spring of this year, many Milwaukee residents said they had not received their requested postal ballot papers, and a shortage of poll workers led to the closure of all but five of 180 polling stations in the city. And a challenge to a Republican-sponsored voting list clearing effort, a flawed process of updating a voter registration database, still lies before the Supreme Court.

The manipulation of trust

According to Lanier, trust is the most effective way to counteract this type of manipulation. Michigan Liberation and TakeAction Minnesota, both part of the Win Black network, rely heavily on strategies such as face-to-face visits, face-to-face video calls, and partnerships with local churches and community leaders. The campaigns were successful. Kenza Hadj-Moussa, public affairs director for TakeAction Minnesota, says repeated knocking on the door in minority communities was key to recruiting first-time voters, the winning strategy behind the election of Congressman Ilhan Omar.

But fake versions of trust-building tactics have been used online to infiltrate black digital spaces. In 2016 the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) used trolls who misrepresented themselves as black, liberal Twitter users to deal with the mainstream “Black Twitter” before the elections. A recent study by the University of North Carolina found that tweets from IRA accounts with black presentation show far more engagement than trolls without black presentation. Last week, Twitter banned a number of accounts allegedly Black Trump supporters for breaking rules on spam and platform manipulation.

Black women in particular are often disproportionately affected by disinformation. At a congressional hearing last week, Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation expert at the Wilson Center, shared an analysis her team carried out during the Vice Presidential debate on October 7th. She tracked the number of messages on the Parler and 4Chan platforms related to sexualized disinformation or violence. Against Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic candidate, they saw increases of 631% and 1,078%, respectively. According to Jankowicz, this type of online abuse is intended to "undermine the participation of American women and minorities in the democratic process".

Legal repression and campaign strategy

Both the Biden and Trump campaigns implemented specific communication strategies for black voters. In particular, the Biden campaign speaks to black communities more often, and the Trump campaign tends to speak to white voters about black communities. Perhaps the greatest advertising focus for President Trump was on "law and order". As of September 1, more than 60% of its ads were about crime. Although Biden has also spent advertising money denouncing looting and rioting, most of his ads over the same period have focused on the coronavirus crisis.

"Law and Order" is a direct reference to the protests that followed the May 25th murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer, the August police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and subsequent protests in the USA there was fatal shooting of protesters by a white 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse. Lanier says racially motivated political messages resonate most strongly with whites. There have been many calls for whites to "be ready to do what it takes to defend their families and communities," she says, "which seems scary and a little more intense than saying," Hey, Can you vote on November 3rd? & # 39; ”

In Minnesota, the summer of the protests was similarly used for news primarily to whites. Hadj-Moussa says that for black voters, "the problems with policing and the murder of George Floyd are very independent of what is going on in the electoral world." But she admits the two are related, and she says the events of the summer contributed to a “nervousness” she feels on the spot.

"Making sure we're one step ahead"

While the Voting Rights Act protects against intimidation tactics such as armed citizens at polling stations, it does not specifically protect against election fraud, one of the most common tools used for online repression.

In 2006, Barack Obama, as a US Senator, introduced the Voter Prevention of Fraud and Intimidation Act, which failed to make it into law. The online voter deception increased dramatically in the run-up to the 2016 elections and has continued, not least because of President Trump's actions. In March 2019, the House passed the For the People Act, which contains many of Obama's original anti-fraud safeguards, but has not yet been passed by the Senate.

In June last year, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ben Cardin tabled a stand-alone bill, also yet to be passed, called the 2019 Voter Prevention of Cheating and Intimidation Act, with the prosecution's mandate to criminalize voter deception Says Ian Vandewalker, Senior Counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. 15 states currently have laws that specifically protect against election fraud.

Lanier and Hadj-Moussa both say an early mail-in vote is critical to avoiding the likely onslaught of disinformation, intimidation and repression that will target black voters from now until the election. Activists remain vigilant: Just before election day four years ago, citizens of Somali immigrant communities in the Minnesota suburbs received text messages with disinformation about how to cast their votes. With around 3.3 million ballots already cast in all three states, both Lanier and Hadj-Moussa are confident that black voter turnout is high.

Lanier says her confidence came in part from the events of this summer and the lessons they reinforced about being black in America.

"I think we'll definitely turn out. We talk a lot about why blacks are so committed, and I think that's because we ultimately have to be," she says. Black political participation "doesn't happen because it is nice thing, but literally because our survival always depends on the rule of law. "


Steven Gregory