Black Voters Under Cyberattack

Concern about election security is a top priority as the country moves toward the 2020 elections.

During the 2016 election cycle, intentional misinformation — so called “fake news” — was pushed out online and African Americans were a prime target. In some cases, Russian operatives masqueraded as Black grassroots organizers, using fake social media accounts. In other instances, they aligned with White nationalists groups online, using them to spread hate and fear.

The cyberattacks were designed to create division throughout the country and specifically within the Black community to stop voters from turning out at the polls, said NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson.

“We must be clear as African Americans that the target community was us,” Johnson said.

Bots — automated algorithmic messaging programs – reached 128 million American voters in 2016.

Fake overseas accounts were “marionetting” by pretending to be real American accounts on Facebook and other social media apps, said Malcolm Nance, a terrorism expert and author of The Plot to Betray America.

“This nation is facing a peril that we’ve never had to deal with before,” said Nance, who is also an MSNBC commentator. “The U.S. was attacked in a deep, wide-ranging information warfare attack. Within our own community, one of the components of 2016 was using disinformation, lies, propagation of false narrative to suppress the African-American vote. It was the plot to destroy democracy.”

Nance said that the false propaganda has “infected the mindset” of one-third to as much as 40 percent of voters in the United States. “That’s where our community is susceptible,” Nance said. “By [trolls] telling the other side that we are the bogeyman and we’re the actual threat.”

The impact of fake news in suppressing the Black vote was evident in the 2016 presidential election, which recorded the first decline in Black voter turnout for a presidential election in 20 years.

“We have to push back on social media,” said Cheryl Contee, chair of the Netroots Nation board of directors. “Invest in digital and create a steady stream of communication with members of our communities. We should raise an army of influencers.”

The good news, Contee said, is that there was a historic surge of voters in 2018. More than half of eligible voters in the U.S. cast a ballot. It was also the most ethnically diverse voting population in United States midterm history. Generation X as well as young voters — milliennials and Generation Z — turned out for the midterm elections.

These generations are also most active online and report that social media is their primary source of news and information.

“This trend lends clear urgency for us to do online outreach to voters for 2020,” Contee said. “That means we need to stop clenching our pearls and reach for our keyboards.”

— Maria Morales