How Disinformation Is Used To Suppress Votes
Voter suppression tactics have been used against the Black community since Black people first won the right to vote.
While most people associate voter suppression with strict identification requirements, gerrymandering, physical intimidation tactics and racist laws, mis- and disinformation are also used as a form of digital voter suppression. Political ad targeting, bots and sockpuppet accounts are just some of the ways people sow mis- and disinformation online to suppress votes.
Sockpuppet accounts are fake social profiles created to deceive other users. Sockpuppets can be real people or bots that pretend to be part of a particular community so they can build trust and later use it to spread disinformation. These tactics are exacerbated by tech companies that fail to adequately moderate and remove false information and fake accounts. A prominent example of this occurred during the 2016 presidential election cycle, when sockpuppet accounts on social media were used to build trust within Black communities and then leveraged to share disinformation. These accounts, with names that indicated they were run by Black activists, were actually run by Russian operatives in a practice that Deen Freelon, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, refers to as digital blackface.
According to a British Channel 4 News report, Cambridge Analytica, the research firm co-founded by Stephen K. Bannon, who served as chief executive of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, profiled 3.5 million Black Americans in 16 swing states and categorized them for “deterrence” to dissuade them from voting for Hillary Clinton—or from voting at all—by targeting them with disinformation campaigns.
Shireen Mitchell, who has been researching media manipulation and disinformation on social media for years, described several of these sockpuppet accounts—many of them led by Russian operatives during the 2016 election campaign—in her report, A Threat to American Democracy: Digital Voter Suppression.
All of the disinformation campaigns during the 2016 election cycle leveraged issues that are important to the Black community—criminal justice, maternal mortality, reparations and systemic racism—and leveraged sockpuppet accounts to suppress the Black vote. This was done with the knowledge that these issues are key for Black women voters in particular. As Shireen Mitchell writes:
“This is why fake accounts pretending to be Black women matter. Not only in the disinformation campaigns but in every election. There has been a consistent number of fake accounts posing as Black women since 2013. These fake accounts, who pretend to be Black women, seem to be real people with real concerns. They connect with the American Black community online attempting to learn Black vernacular and key issue areas. Once the election ramps up they've gained enough following and trust that's when they begin to share disinformation. The goal is to make sure they have enough of a following before the shift to disseminate the disinformation.”
Digital voter suppression was not limited to the 2016 election. Disinformation was used to suppress votes in the Georgia runoff election in 2020 with an Avaaz analysis of Georgia-related election misinformation on Facebook finding that 60 percent of detected mis- and disinformation posts reached thousands of voters without fact-check labels. One of these campaigns included 20 posts falsely claiming that the NAACP issued a warning in Georgia that white supremacists would be targeting Black men for violent acts.