As the internet lit up last month with prominent Latinos vowing to boycott Goya pinto beans, Adobe seasoning and other products after the company’s CEO lavishly praised President Trump, a backlash quickly developed on social media.
Accounts identified as belonging to Latino social media users voiced outrage about politically correct “mob” bullying and exploiting people of color.
In an online virtual war room run by a group called Win Black/Pa’Lante, activists immediately grew suspicious.
Close inspection revealed that thousands of the posts were not coming from disaffected Latinos at all, but bots.
The Win Black/Pa’Lante activists cooked up a counteroffensive, including a mock Goya foods label that exposed “recipes” for disinformation and distorting facts.
The ads and a corresponding educational campaign aimed at arming Black and Latino voters with tools to detect and avoid online manipulation were launched into cyberspace with help from a network of more than five dozen advocacy groups, some with massive social media followings.
As a scourge of faux facts, viral hoaxes and social media charlatans continues to afflict American politics, a counter-insurgency is beta testing an arsenal of weapons to fight back.
“This was not happening in 2016,” said Ashley Bryant, a co-founder of the Win Black/Pa’Lante campaign, referring to the intensive surveillance and response to disinformation. We now have this around-the-clock pulse of analysis and targeting.”
Black and Latino voters are a persistent target and primary focus of disinformation efforts, whether from homegrown provocateurs or foreign agents meddling from abroad.
A Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the potent propaganda campaign that Russia’s state-sponsored Internet Research Agency ran during the 2016 presidential race found that “no single group of Americans was targeted by IRA information operatives more than African-Americans.”
Posing as activists for Black Lives Matter and affiliated groups, foreign agents sought to exploit anger over police violence and economic inequality. The orchestrated campaign aimed to alienate Black voters from the political system and, thereby, suppress the Black vote.
The online suppression efforts have only grown since then, experts say, and they are increasingly aimed also at Latinos, as their power to influence U.S. elections expands.
The major social media platforms and scholars who study them, meanwhile, are struggling to get a real-time handle on the ever-more sophisticated tactics of the propagandists, which are constantly shifting, as well as what might work to counteract them.
“We really don’t know what to tell people about what is most effective,” said Kate Starbird, a disinformation scholar at the University of Washington.
Experts are constantly debating what works. Starbird noted that there is disagreement about at what point disinformation should be confronted and when those targeted by it are better served by not calling attention to it. That’s opened the door for a wide range of groups to try out different strategies.
Win Black/Pa’Lante’s strategy is to flood cyberspace with their own counter-programming in an effort to inoculate voters against viral disinformation. Their content has so far reached 400 million views, according to the group’s own tracking.
“These organized disinformation campaigns to stop us from voting take the same path as poll taxes,” said Andre Banks, the other co-founder of Win Black/Pa’Lante. “They are artificial barriers aimed at limiting our political power,” he said. “Fighting this is hard. But it turns out to be pretty easy when compared to losing our political power.”
The challenge is vexing. Calling out misinformation and disinformation runs the risk of amplifying it, so the group’s campaigns often avoid specific mention of the propaganda they are fighting.
And it is not always clear who the enemy is. Rooting out the source of propaganda — whether it is a troll farm in the Philippines using hundreds of aliases or homegrown activists operating in the open — can take days or weeks, time that the organizers don’t have.
Several days a week the campaign’s war room of nearly a dozen activists assembles over Zoom, where they comb through the latest data about what disinformation is taking hold and hatch strategies for rapidly combatting it.
In a recent session that took place soon after Kanye West announced he’d run for president, the organizers assumed he’d be the focal point of that day’s blizzard of propaganda targeted at Black voters.
Instead, tracking reports showed the followers of conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer, who is running for Congress as a Republican in a heavily Democratic district in Florida, had reached 10.8 million Twitter users with attacks aimed at alienating voters from Black-led political movements.
The group drafted a plan to engage advocacy groups in Florida to counter that narrative with social media messages that emphasized the gains that Black leaders have made for voters and the broad public support for movements like Black Lives Matter.
While donors to the Democratic Party and progressive groups have invested heavily in tracking and confronting disinformation during this political cycle, Banks said he worried that too much of the focus was on winning over “middle-of-the-road swing voters in target, battleground states.”
“We wanted to make sure the new research and technology was mobilized for the Black and Latinx voters who are often forgotten about and left out of the conversation until the last minute,” he said.
The effort complements that of bigger advocacy organizations like Color of Change, which is using its political action committee to engage 9 million members online and to hit back against propaganda.
The effectiveness of all this mobilization may not be clear until long after election day.
“The tools being used are designed around what we know is out there,” Starbird said. ”But the disinformation actors are innovating. And those tools built in response to the last campaign cycle may not fully take into account what is happening right now.”
In the background of all this experimentation is a public campaign to press the big social media platforms. Even after Facebook and Twitter have lately stepped up their intervention against disinformation, purging abusers of their policies and flagging even some of President Trump’s posts for false claims and inciting violence, the lack of regulation and transparency enables propaganda to flourish.
“A lot of responsibility lies on the shoulders of the companies,” said Samuel C. Woolley, project director for propaganda research at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas.
“Without buy-in and cooperation from the social media companies, it is really difficult to comprehensively detect online propaganda campaigns,” he said. “The proprietary nature of their algorithms for how data spreads makes it difficult to be as effective as we would like.”
As groups like Win Black/Pa’Lante do the granular work of trying to match the most prolific propaganda with counter-messaging, other organizations, including Color of Change and a nonprofit launched by some veteran Democratic activists called Accountable Tech, are ratcheting up their campaigns to force more action by the platforms.
“Most of these corporations are well behind where they should be,” said Arisha Hatch, vice president at Color of Change. “There is a lot of real fear out there about the implications of not checking this sort of behavior.”
Back in the trenches of the Win Black/Pa’Lante war room, there is hope those efforts will succeed, but the activists are not counting on it. They are trying to manipulate the algorithms in real time, with a goal of using their own messages to drown out content that threatens to suppress the vote.
“We’re building an echo chamber of Black and Latinx partners,” said Banks. “This is not just about going tit for tat. It is about flooding the algorithm and driving the conversation.”