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With days left, Black voters face orchestrated efforts to discourage voting

Black voters are being discouraged from voting at all
Image: A Black man holding a ballot tries to enter a voting booth but is blocked by digital hands and browsers.
Black voters face orchestrated efforts discouraging them from votingGlenn Harvey / for NBC News

At Joe Biden’s town hall meeting on Thursday, Cedrick Humphrey, a young Black man from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, asked a question central to some of the most recent misinformation tactics at play in the election.

“Many people believe that the true swing demographic in this election will be Black voters under the age of 30, not because they’ll be voting for Trump, but because they won’t vote at all,” he said, adding that he shared this sentiment. “What do you have to say to young Black voters who see voting for you as further participation in a system that continuously fails to protect them?”

Biden answered by pointing to the importance of voting, and to the need to give Black Americans the means to amass wealth and improve access to education.

The question Humphrey posed to the former vice president and the Democratic presidential nominee is part of a broader trend unfolding in the final days before the election. Among all of the social media disinformation campaigns that have preyed on voters in the run-up to Nov. 3, one domestic-originated tactic has become particularly troubling. Some Black social media influencers as well as Black community groups on Facebook who are more progressive than Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, are targeting Black voters less by deceiving them and more by what experts describe as voter depression.

Voter depression isn’t about giving voters the wrong information that would keep them from making it to the polls, like discrediting mail-in ballots by disparaging the postal service.

Rather, with voter depression, the goal is to make people who would otherwise vote feel that there’s no reason to do so, stoking inaction and apathy.

This approach has been a particular challenge for the Biden campaign, while the same voter depression tactics aren’t being used as much on Republican voters, said Jacquelyn Mason, a senior investigative researcher at First Draft, a nonprofit that provides research and training for journalists.

“The absence of enthusiasm around a candidate can really contribute to interference in the form of voter depression,” Mason said. She added that since many progressive Black voters might not be excited about voting for Biden, it raises questions about what the point is of voting at all.

Memes and Micro-influencers

Earlier this month, an Instagram account with over 19,000 followers posted a video of a young Black man asking a series of questions: “Can we vote out systemic racism? Can we vote out police violence?,” before answering, “The obvious answer is no.”

“Don’t vote,” he concludes.

That video is one of thousands of posts in an increasingly popular genre of social media content aimed at discouraging Black people from casting their ballots this election cycle. One of the most prominent examples of voter depression has been the attacks on Harris and her prosecutorial record during her tenure as the district attorney of San Francisco and later the attorney general of California.

In one meme that went viral this month, a mosaic of people’s faces together formed a portrait of her. The meme received some of its most popular shares from accounts of Black conserviate social media influencers. The mosaic claims to be a composite image made up of “all the black men she locked up and kept in prison past their release date for jail labor.” It's been shared over 23,000 times on Facebook with no warning next to it that indicates that the image isn’t actually what it claims to be: A closer look reveals the mosaic actually repeats the same faces over and over again.

These tactics started cropping up before the 2016 election with a clip that went viral of Hiliary Clinton where in a speech she referred to Black youth as “superpredators.” During that election, Russian operatives also ran thousands of fake social media accounts in the run-up targeting Black social media users on Facebook with ads based on their interest in “Martin Luther King Jr.,” “Black is beautiful” and the “African American Civil Rights Movement (1954-68).”

Many of those tactics have extended to the current election season. Just this month, Twitter banned a network of more than two dozen accounts of users pretending to be Black Trump supporters, but were in reality profiles created using stock images of Black people or images of Black people lifted from news stories and recycled to give a veneer of authenticity behind the fake accounts proclaiming allegiance to Trump. These accounts amassed hundreds of thousands of retweets and followers before Twitter removed them. While these examples aren’t explicitly voter depression tactics, they are part of a larger disinformation ecosystem that has focused on using Black identity as a way of manipulating the election.

But this election, many of the voter depression memes and posts circulating on social media aimed at dissuading Black people from voting in 2020 are not based on entirely false information.

What makes voter depression narratives so appealing and difficult to dislodge is that there can be “a grain of truth to them,” Mason said.

Voter depression targeting Black communities online are picking up momentum because, according to researchers, they’re coming from accounts people already have relationships with and appear to be authentic.

“Some of the tactics we worry a lot about and are seeing more of are from micro-influencers, like on Instagram Live,” said Jiore Craig, a vice president at GQR, a Democratic research firm, who advises campaigns on disinformation.

Micro-influencers engaged in voter depression may have as low as 10 to 30,000 followers and often speak to them directly to the camera, denigrating the value of voting.

“They are speaking to issues that present pathways to take what either candidate is saying about the voting process and saying instead, ‘Isn’t this just kind of BS?’ Planting the question is a part of the strategy,” Craig said.

“It’s a communication strategy, chipping away at what appears to be a preconceived belief. The name of the game in so many ways is about erosion of trust,” Craig said.

The end goal is to get their audience to then pose questions about the value of voting to their family or friend group––turning their audience into messengers and making the concept more legitimate.

Rebuilding Trust

Some Black advocacy groups are working to undo voter depression efforts with similar tactics, focusing on sharing relatable information from individuals voters trust.

One group leading this work is the political action committee run by the online racial justice organization Color of Change, which has for years conducted advocacy campaigns aimed at large social media platforms, like Facebook, where disinformation and hate speech flourish. This year the group is also working to engage Black voters who are most likely to be targeted by voter depression efforts, in part through a grassroots volunteer program where members are reaching out to friends and family to encourage them to plan their vote.

One of the ways the group is creating a narrative about the importance of voting is by talking about more local races in person and on social media, like district attorney seats, which are also on the ballot in many communities across the country.

“While many, especially irregular Black voters or voters who might be prone to not turn out to vote, might not see the importance of electing a president and the impact on their lives, we are having a conversation with them about the daily decisions that prosecutors make that are causing harm in black communities,” said Arisha Hatch, the vice president and chief of campaigns at Color of Change. “And when we engage in that conversation their mentality begins to shift.”

Greater accountability

In the past six months, Color of Change has been in multiple closed-door meetings with social media companies, like Facebook, Google and Twitter, to talk about what the companies need to do to ensure that their platforms aren’t being used to disenfranchise Black voters ahead of the 2020 election.

While those conversations have been useful––Facebook has promised to expand the definition of content it prohibits because it engages in voter suppression––Color of Change is calling for the company to enforce its policy changes consistently and transparently. NBC News reported in August that Facebook has given special exception to its rules against misinformation on conservative pages.

“The tech companies have a real responsibility in correcting some of the shifts we’re seeing about how information moves,” Hatch said. “That is not only influencing public policy but influencing a more polarized culture that just leads to more gridlock and more working-class people being left out of the American dream.”