Disinformation: A Racist Tactic, from Slave Revolts to Elections

November 4, 2022 | 4:56 pm
A man holding a sign that reads, "Black Votes Matter"Edmond Dantès/Pexels
Shireen Mitchell

In the months leading up to the midterm elections, there have been major efforts to disrupt what is the most basic right in functioning democracies: voting. Black women and men are the first and second most powerful voting blocks in this country. None have been more affected and targeted by disenfranchisement, a theme that extends back centuries when colonizers first enslaved and brought Africans to this country. To truly understand the seeds of discord being sown today, one has to go back in time, when slave masters first learned that disinformation was a powerful tool.

Revolts against slavery required sophisticated organizing by enslaved people who engaged in elaborate, long-planned efforts to liberate themselves from slavery. However, because slavery revolts had the potential to neutralize slave masters quickly and effectively, they especially frightened the people who benefited most from slavery. Slave masters, therefore, had to control the way that enslaved Black people were perceived by non-Blacks.

When Nat Turner led one of the deadliest slave revolts in 1831, lies about its impact and the fears about its aftermath were used to frighten non-Blacks into believing that Black people were inherently violent, and that slavery was needed to control Black people from threatening others. These lies led to special emergency sessions in state legislatures in the United States aimed at strengthening laws to limit education, and the movement and assembly of enslaved people.

The racist trope of the hostile and aggressive Black person who must be controlled persists to this day and is being magnified in the lead-up to the current election. Just like in Turner’s time, the tool is disinformation. But disinformation in the current age is highly sophisticated in terms of how effectively a kernel of truth can be twisted, exaggerated, and then used to amplify and spread lies.

Take for example, the narrative around two Black men: a celebrity and a former star athlete. News and images ridiculing the arrogant, unintelligent, and at times violent behaviors of these men have been easily manipulated by White supremacists, groups like the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and those that showed up in Charlottesville where protesters were violently attacked and one person died. Mainstream media have amplified these stories, ignoring the efforts by Black people to hold these two Black celebrities accountable, in addition to the tireless work of Black, Latine, Native American, Asian, Middle Eastern, disabled, and LGBTQIA2S community organizers who are diligently rallying and encouraging record breaking voter turnout for the midterms. The strategy is a familiar one, with images, tweets, news reports, politicians, and pundits elevating, circulating, and amplifying a centuries-old narrative: Black men must be controlled, Black communities must be oppressed, and Black people who are easily manipulated by White masters get rewarded in order to promote divisions in Black communities. 

Black communities have had to regularly challenge negative stereotypes while consistently being the top targets of hate crimes in the USA. Njeri Mathis Rutledge, a professor of law at South Texas College of Law Houston, recently commented regarding the amplification of these problematic behaviors of Black celebrities:

“The greatest Black leaders of yesterday and today were intelligent, dignified and honest. While even some of the greatest Black leaders have made mistakes, they could not be labeled an embarrassment. The idea of being judged by the worst examples in your community is not a burden with which most Americans are familiar.”  

The repetitive news and images of these problematic celebrities have harmful consequences. In 2022, according to the Center for Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, anti-Black hate crimes remained the most frequent bias, and anti-Black crime rose 46% in the FBI’s nationwide totals from 2020. The Center says, “2020 had the highest months for anti-Black FBI reported hate crime since 1991.” And so far in 2022, anti-Black hate crimes are higher than they were in 2020. Hyperfocusing on the problematic behaviors of Black celebrities weeks and days before an election is a major distraction from focusing on the solidarity that Black people need to reduce anti-Black hate crimes.

Since time immemorial (and since first being brought to the Western Hemisphere by colonizers), a range of tactics have been used by Black people to overcome oppression. Organizing communities has remained the most powerful and effective of these. Organizing has been and is the antidote to despair in the work to overcome the oppression of slavery, family separation, Black codes, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws, segregation, lack of labor protections, poverty, discrimination, mass incarceration, and disproportionate brutality by police. Because Black people in the United States have been innovators in developing strategies and tactics for overcoming oppression—often with little to no resources beyond their own bodies—backlash, even violent backlash has been a constant force to overcome this work for progress towards full liberation from the oppression of colonial forces in the United States.

Driving this backlash is disinformation.

Disinformation is an important tool used to divide and distract people from working in solidarity with Black people, demoralize people from working for liberation, and delay accountability for the harms that the oppressors cause—not only to Black people, but also Indigenous people, women, immigrants, religious people, disabled people, LGBTQIA2S people, veterans, and the houseless and most vulnerable.

Disinformation is used to distract and redirect, bait and switch, and encourage the fear of free Black people.

Disinformation is intent on dividing the Black community itself from voting in solidarity with free Black men and women.

Disinformation is intent on demoralization through sowing doubt and disbelief that true liberation can be accomplished.

Disinformation ultimately delays accountability for the harms that colonization has caused to the oppressed and the most vulnerable people.

You, we, all of us have a choice about whether to amplify division, distraction, demoralization and/or delays in accountability—or elevate and amplify solutions needed to accomplish liberation and equity in the next federal, state, county, and city/town legislative, executive and judicial sessions.

Solidarity is essential. What is your plan to promote accurate, aspirational and actionable information about the solutions needed to protect your/our freedoms regarding the 2022 midterm election? Early voter turnout for this midterm election has been record-breaking. Are you spreading the news about how this historic voter turnout for a midterm election is a result of highly adept and resilient organizers who have managed to overcome some of the most harmful voter suppression laws in decades? Are you listening to why the adept and resilient organizers have organized for this record breaking voter turnout despite the onslaught of oppressive voter suppression laws? 

Do you have a voting plan to be a part of the record breaking early voter turnout for the 2022 midterm election? Are you sharing your joy for casting your vote to be a part of the solidarity needed to protect your/our freedoms for bodily autonomy, fair wages, worker protections, child care access, health care access, scientific integrity, environmental justice, voting rights, etc?

Further resources for protecting the vote and countering disinformation can be accessed at Stop Online Violence Against Women and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Shireen Mitchell is an award-winning social entrepreneur, and founder/president/senior digital strategist, and data scientist at Stop Online Violence Against Women Inc. (SOVAW), a leading research organization based in Washington, DC (and parent to the Stop Digital Voter Suppression TM project). SOVAW’s research has revealed extensive tactics used against Black identity in the United States, and how it has been especially exploited within disinformation campaigns in (and beyond) 2016. Mitchell and her team were the first to recognize Russian digital threats that directly targeted Black American voters (all too successfully suppressing the democratic voice of thousands).

Mitchell’s work has defined the term ‘digital voter suppression’ and landed it in front and center in the voter suppression space. Her research involves deep cross-collaboration with activists, data scientists, civil rights organizations, and legislators to create a safer and saner Internet culture—inclusive of women and girls of color facing gendered and race-based threats. A member of the independent Real Facebook Oversight Board, Mitchell also founded the organization Digital Sisters/as, the first organization to specifically focus on women and girls of color in technology and digital media.

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