Howard U. researchers: Black voters getting flooded with election disinformation

Black voters are being flooded with targeted disinformation and racialized messages attempting to suppress the vote in the final days of the election, researchers from D.C.’s Howard University said.

The Brookings Institution Governance studies, in partnership with the historically Black university, reviewed how misinformation is disseminated, and what campaigns and elected officials can do to support those communities.

Dr. Keesha Middlemass, an associate professor of political science at Howard, said that oftentimes, the messaging preys on voters’ fears.

“If you have a mail-in ballot, your information will be used to collect back child support that’s in arrears, or if you vote by mail, the government will use that information to get you on an old warrant,” said Middlemass of the type of robocalls, pamphlets or social media posts that target Black voters.

She said robocalls in battleground states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania are known to adversely impact voter turnout.

“We know from 2016 you shave off 1% or 2% in a few communities, and that can literally change the outcome of an election,” said Middlemass.

“No single group of Americans was targeted by Internet Research Agency information operatives more than African Americans,” says a 2016 Senate Intelligence Committee report outlining how Russian interference in the election used race and related issues to divide voters.

Dr. Bahiyyah Muhammad, a sociology professor at Howard University, said social media bots drive a lot of the disinformation: “These are programmed mechanisms that look at the different information that is tweeted out, the language that you use, scouring through your posts, and then replicates it.”

She said it is crucial to counter those efforts to ensure a fair contest and public confidence in the election results. One way to do that is to start by checking social media accounts.

“Go through your list of followers and you will identify at least 20 to 30 bots that are following and are posting,” said Muhammad.

Researchers found nearly 19% of all tweets in 2016 related to the election were generated by bots.

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