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Disinformation Can Function as Voter Suppression. Organizers Are Fighting Back.

Disinformation can dissuade otherwise eligible voters from exercising their right to vote.

Long lines of citizens wait to enter the Wayne K. Curry Sports & Learning Center on the first day of early, in person voting, in Landover, Maryland, on October 26.

Disinformation cannot be ignored or hoped away, it must be consistently disrupted. Earlier this week, participatory media organizations MediaJustice and the Disinfo Defense League launched a week of action to put good information and tools directly into people’s hands ahead of Election Day. Led by Black and Brown organizations, DisruptDisinfo offers a mixture of trainings, webinars, and other resources. ReFrame and PEN America developed a disinformation toolkit for organizers and advocates as a part of this effort.

“We wanted to make sure that there was a place where people could come [to] learn about the different ways that misinformation and disinformation impact our communities, and how they could fight back,” said Erin Shields, national field director for MediaJustice. “The election serves as a flashpoint, but obviously disinformation impacts our communities across a whole range of issues.”

MediaJustice views disinformation as a part of the larger work at the intersection of race and technology. Given the entrenched white supremacy underlying decision making and experiences across multiple sectors, the increased reliance on technology in sharing and processing information requires a racial justice lens. Getting social media platforms to recognize the impact of disinformation and the role they play in spreading it is a part of MediaJustice’s larger platform accountability work.

“Platforms have a real responsibility to not have their platforms be used to spread mass disinformation, whether that’s about health, climate justice or about the election,” Shields said. Shields explained that disinformation and the ways in which social media platforms have prioritized profit over stabilizing information have put Black and other communities of color at risk.

State Officials Must Put Process Over Party When Democracy Is at Stake

Administering elections is challenging work even under the best of circumstances. But with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and targeted disinformation, state election officials have had to contend with political actors at the highest levels — including the president — weaponizing this moment.

In his official capacity and as a candidate for reelection, Donald Trump weaponizes disinformation by sowing seeds of confusion and uncertainty around mail-in voting, instigating concerns about election outcomes.

“We have faced these relentless and ridiculous attacks from the president of the United States spewing all kinds of nonsense and lies about our vote-by-mail law in Pennsylvania,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. As the state’s top lawyer, Shapiro has spent time in court this cycle defending Pennsylvania’s vote-by-mail system from lawsuits brought by the president in his capacity as a candidate for reelection. Shapiro recently warned the Trump campaign about filming voters dropping off ballots at a drop box, indicating that it could be considered a form of voter intimidation. The videotaping effort was a part of the Trump campaign’s ongoing practice of attacking vote-by-mail and making unfounded claims about fraud.

Fear mongering about voter fraud, a practice which is virtually nonexistent, has been used to push through restrictive policies that limit people’s ability to vote. It has also been used to justify lawsuits and attacks in states like Pennsylvania. But the increased politicization of election administration combined with rampant disinformation has made some voters leery of an otherwise safe process.

Shapiro pointed to the case of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, where an administrative error from a seasonal election worker triggered an investigation into the handling of several overseas ballots. The politicization of the incident was almost immediate. “[The] president and his enablers went to work to try and create a narrative [about] fraud,” said Shapiro. “[But] the facts didn’t bear that out. And it created hysteria at a time where we need calm.” Both the president and U.S. Attorney David J. Freed, a Trump appointee, commented on the incident without disclosing the full facts. Freed’s initial press release had to be updated because of incorrect information. A review found the incident was more likely a result of confusion, and not nefarious intent as was alleged.

Shapiro is not the first state official who has had to tackle the president’s antics head on. Back in May, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson took Trump to task, disputing claims she was enabling large-scale voter fraud in her state through vote-by-mail. Benson pointed out that her efforts were no different than her colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia. All four states have Republican secretaries of state.

Despite these attempts to undermine voter trust in election results and confidence in election administration, early voting updates show record-breaking voter turnout across demographic groups. But recognizing that disinformation networks target Black communities and other communities of color is important to understanding how to engage people with the right tools and information.

Removing Roadblocks, Combating Election Disinformation and Protecting Democracy

While it is just one of several roadblocks to free and fair elections, disinformation is particularly insidious in the way it can be spread easily by trusted sources. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, conversations around disinformation primarily focused on foreign entities, often ignoring the growing domestic disinformation landscape.

Disrupting disinformation is a crucial element in combating the rise of fascism, according to organizers. “Disinformation, and the destabilization of how [one] can know what is true, is a piece of what we see as the ascension of things like fascism, authoritarianism and right-wing movements in our country and also globally,” said Shields. This is a common theme among democracy defenders, as a recent episode of the Truthout podcast “Movement Memos” illustrates.

Part of undermining democratic process and destabilization has shown up in the targeting of communities of color. As a tool of voter suppression and intimidation, disinformation can dissuade people otherwise eligible from exercising their right to vote. The DisruptDisinfo week of action is empowering voters and nonvoters alike to understand how to source information and protect communities from provocateurs, according to organizers. Shields pointed out the need to distinguish between genuine community conversation about issues and fake accounts created to drive chaos. “We’re hyper-focused on making sure that our communities are protected from people who don’t actually want us to tackle these questions and prefer for us to be in conflict with one another, and divided so that they can continue to march forward with their organizing that will actually harm our communities, both physically and online,” said Shields.

For the Democracy Initiative, a coalition including voting rights and labor organizations, disinformation is one of 10 roadblocks to accessing the ballot. Others include late arrival of mail-in ballots, failure to sign a ballot and other signature issues, and voter suppression.

Part of combating disinformation and removing the roadblocks is sharing the work done by member organizations across the country to expand access to democracy. Similar to the tales of ancient hero quests, recounting the victories and successes of groups engaged in democracy building can help others feel like their participation actually matters.

Fighting Disinformation on Election Night and Beyond

“When you hear issues or conversations about fake news about vote-by-mail [and] fraud, make no mistake, what you’re hearing is a song [that] has been sung before, orchestrated by those folks who are powerful and with privilege,” said Corey Wiggins, executive director of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP, during an early October press conference held by the Democracy Initiative. “At the end of the day, it is a philosophy that is baked in ensuring that we create less access to the ballot.”

During the Democracy Initiative press conference, Nse Ufot, the New Georgia Project’s CEO, stressed the need for media partners to share good information throughout the election cycle but especially on election night. “A part of our voter education work is to make sure that young people and first-time voters know that we may not have election results on the night of November 3,” said Ufot. “We need to soberly and with full transparency make sure that we use our platforms to be able to protect the process but also to protect each other.”

Ufot stressed the need for platforms and outlets to uplift the truth of the moment. Notably, the demographic shifts and political engagement of Black, Brown and young voters are critical to fundamentally changing the current political landscape for the better. “The voter suppression attempts that we see are targeted at those communities, because they inherently have the ability to fundamentally change what’s possible in the rest of the country,” Ufot said.

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