After the 2016 election, many—including Donald Trump himself—were stunned. The nation’s most reliable poll, the K-12 “Scholastic News Student Vote”, which had been right in the last 13 presidential elections, was dead wrong this time. The postmortem analysis was that Panera moms in the suburbs were too ashamed to admit to their kids they were voting for a man who seemed like the adult version of every 80s villain in a teen comedy.
But the election wasn’t due to a comedy of errors chock full of oopsies and ouches. Nor was it quite as black and white as the so-called “silent majority” rising up to take back their country. In the following days and years the country discovered what people in places like the Philippines and India already knew- that the machines and platforms we rely on everyday to communicate with family, apply for jobs, or engage with democracy have become a dangerous melting pot of propaganda, media manipulation, misinformation, and disinformation. What’s clear now is that it will take a massive cultural shift, government intervention, cutting edge research and possibly an earth-shaking calamity to create lasting change.
As pointed out in Friedberg & Donovan’s article, this is a 21st century twist on an old problem. Electoral fraud, deception, threats of violence, and the use of race and fear as wedge issues are all tactics that have been used since the Civil War and Reconstruction. Even the salacious storyline of Russia leveraging race to take down the US is nothing new. In the 1920s, Communist International, an organization in Russia, approved a $300,000 (nearly $4M today) fund for propaganda purposes in Black America. Black leaders and artists were invited to Russia to hobnob with Lenin and other officials in the Kremlin. In the 1936 film Circus, Soviet film director Grigori Aleksandrov used the plot device of a secret (but adorable) Black baby to critique capitalism and the social, racial and gender inequalities on full display in Jim Crow America. Indeed, nearly a century of practice has given Russians more insight into how to appeal to Black people than any party in the US.
Even though the USSR under Stalin wasn’t exactly tolerant, they saw the US’s racial animus as emblematic of a flawed and hypocritical culture. Their power—and the power of bots, pseudoanonymous influencers, and figureheads of the new post-Charlottesville multiracial right—comes from their ability to use kernels of truth that can be persuasive to just enough people. While their end game is to leverage identity politics to reinforce existing power structures, there are certain things in what they say that are... not wrong.
For example, professor Michelle Alexander’s article on the Clintons and their role in the skyrocketing incarceration rates of the 90s was true: Bill Clinton passed and Hillary Clinton championed policies like the crime bill and welform reform, which did massive harm to Black America. But what Alexander couldn’t have known at the time was that Russian companies would make her article one of the most read articles during the election cycle. Russia-backed vehicles masquerading as movement sites — Blackmatterus, Woke Blacks and Blactivist — weaponized Alexander’s words as a tool of voter suppression to encourage Black voters to sit out of the election or vote for third-party candidates. Many blamed her and took away the lesson that we have to lock up our truths for the greater good, as opposed to looking at all the failed systems that collided to let Black people down.
Similarly, you have to wonder if the folks who opened up an overdue conversation about Reparations, knew that it’d be used to perpetuate nativism, racial hostility and aggressive attacks on Black leaders by remixing the birtherism frame used to undermine President Barack Obama. While the online movements and campaigns we’re observing now may appear to come from different perspectives, the end goal is still the same—to keep Black people disenchanted and away from the polls in 2020. And now, just like then, because kernels of truth persist—the racial wealth gap is real and members of the Democractic Party have let down Black voters—it will become harder and harder to sort out people with good intentions who use hashtags from others who have a more cynical purpose.
So where do we go from here? The answer partially lies in a striking anecdote from Friedberg & Donovan’s article that highlights how Black women scholars, including Shafiqah Hudson, To I’Nasah Crockett, and Shireen Mitchell, are on the front lines. They’re attacked in vile and dangerous ways while calling out efforts to manipulate the Black community. But while Black women are often the canaries in the coal mine, at every decision-making point the people who have the most to lose if the wrong decision is made are not at the table from the beginning. It is the collective duty of all those who believe in equity, dignity and democracy, both on and offline, to listen to their calls and act now before it’s too late.