On Monday morning, the team at A-B Partners, a Washington, D.C., 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-organization 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 program. 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, D.C., 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 organization 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.”
Influence campaigns are not, by any means, new. Rashad Robinson, president of the racial-justice organization Color of Change, speaking on behalf of the group’s PAC, says he recalls decades of efforts to depress the Black vote with dis- and misinformation. “I can remember during my first political campaign in 2002, seeing signs posted all over Black neighborhoods in New Orleans saying Election Day had been moved to Wednesday,” says. But nefarious attempts to stop people from voting are illegal offline.
In 2020, The Guardian reported that the Trump 2016 campaign had identified 3.5 million Black voters to target with “negative” ads about his opponent Hillary Clinton. The primary goal was to render these voters too discouraged to vote at all. But in 2020, Trump took 12% of the Black vote, compared to 8% four years prior. That figure included 19% of the Black male vote, up from 13% four years earlier. What happened in the intervening years has been explained in many ways, but one factor that Bouzy and Banks both think has not garnered enough attention is the role of influence campaigns. After 2016, all of the major platforms eventually made commitments to try to tamp down and remove disinformation, but current laws governing social media are such that false statements about voting can fly around the world in the time users wait for a platform to remove the post.
Of course, not all the gains Trump made with Black men can be attributed to disinformation. The vast majority of Black Americans may have voted with Democrats since the middle of the 20th century, but a small but growing share, driven by male voters, has been moving toward the Republican Party since at least 2004, when 11% supported George W. Bush for President. Some Black voters do like Trump’s politics or those of other Republicans before him.
In the run-up to the election, Black male voters in Georgia appeared in one September poll to be less supportive of Stacey Abrams than they had been of other Democrats on the ballot in recent election cycles, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. LaTosha Brown, a veteran political tactician whose work with Black Voters Matter has been credited with helping to turn Georgia blue in 2020, has spent the last month on a bus tour around Georgia making contact with more than 80,000 college-age voters and has attempted to figure out what’s behind those headlines. She says that she heard the same ideas over and over from men: that Kemp, Abrams’ competitor, is “good on business,” and some variation of “Stacey doesn’t like men” because she’s unmarried. To her, the fact that she heard those ideas expressed repeatedly using the same language was a signal that perhaps voters were repeating messaging they had heard or seen somewhere specific.
She readily admits that some sexism is in play. However, to Brown, the idea that Black men weren’t “down with Stacey” is a bit shaky. But the idea that Black men have been targeted by political misinformation that speaks directly to their deepest insecurities and material concerns, to worries that often revolve around the obstacles they encounter in making a living and being regarded as contributing leaders at home and in society—that, Brown says, is not. When she asked young men where they got these ideas, many said something she also heard from her own nephew: “I saw it somewhere online.”
Duchess Harris, a professor of American Studies at Macalester College and the author of Black Feminist Politics From Kennedy to Trump, says that one reason for this shift is that, while women appear to be committed to something political scientists refer to as “linked fate,” men’s political activity tends, on average, to be driven by what’s good for themselves rather than what’s good for the group. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that zero-sum political messaging—the idea that when one person gains, someone else automatically loses, the exact logic in play with the questions HIT Strategies observed in conversations about the anti-lynching bill—would help draw men away from Black America’s traditional voting patterns.
In that Monday meeting, it was Ashley Bryant Bailey, co-founder of Win Black, who turned the conversation to why so much of that zero-sum messaging—which some might brush off as mere politicking—is actually mis- or disinformation. Black voters are often targeted with the idea of the Democratic Party’s alleged deference to other demographic groups. She thinks, even when the idea is passed along by someone who thinks it’s true, it inherently obscures the facts of what the parties really have and have not done to help African Americans. And like all misinformation, the key is to stir up an emotional response, leaning on various anxieties. In this case, Bailey said, news reports and the team’s own research suggest the originators of the idea, at least, know exactly what they’re doing.
“They are really trying to draw that correlation of ‘Well, the Dems have been putting all of this money and spend on Ukraine but they are not putting any spend’” into Black communities at home, she says. “These are things that are coming from Russian disinformation [campaigns] to draw that correlation.”
During the Monday meeting, Kahlil Shepard, a narrative strategist at A-B and Win Black, told the team about a few new “social-proof, cinematic” videos meant to drive home the group’s message. One theme he was drawn to, he pointed out, had to do with fatherhood “and Black men taking responsibility in that way, and how they always have.” (Contrary to widespread stereotypes about absentee fathers, Black men, while more likely to be unmarried, have long reported higher volumes of time spent on child-raising activities than other men, in both federal studies of time use and research produced by the University of Kentucky in 2021.)
Another video planned for the post-election period would focus on wins, and one would focus on how to build on the power of Black voters and continue to challenge false claims of voter fraud, Shepard explained.
With the Georgia runoff certain, the time for those videos has come.
And while Abrams lost by nearly 8 points, Banks points out on Wednesday after the results are in, she didn’t experience the significant loss of Black male support that many had predicted. Exit polling data available early Wednesday indicates she won 84% of Black men’s vote in the current election compared to 88% in 2018. She won 93% of votes cast by Black women this year, compared to 92% in 2018. But even the rosiest interpretation of those numbers also reveals small gains by Kemp. In 2018, he claimed 12% of votes cast by Black men. This year, that figure climbed slightly to 14%.
Win Black was so ready for this possible outcome that, before I even got off the phone with Banks and his team Wednesday morning, they shared a link to one of the videos they hope to spread online to fend off Republican efforts to target Black men with misinformation in what will be an intense runoff Senate campaign in Georgia.
I clicked on it and watched.
A narrator speaks over images of Black men, and Black men only, playing sports, talking, giving one another dap and, of course, voting. The opening lines: “Every year Black voters show our power at the polls and shift the nation. With a runoff announced, those who don’t want us to vote are feeding us lies.”
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