How Digital Disinformation Targets Voters

Published Aug 2, 2022

Technology innovator Shireen Mitchell discusses pervasive disinformation on social media centered around US elections, and how we can fight back.

In this episode

Colleen and Shireen discuss:

  • mis and disinformation around US elections
  • foreign and domestic meddling in US elections
  • the best strategies for fighting back against disinformation
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:22)
Intro (0:22-1:56)
Interview part 1 (1:56-13:40)
Break (13:40-14:14)
Interview part 2 (14:14-23:22)
Throw (23:22-24:12)
Segment (24:12-28:23)
Outro (28:23-29:00)


Segment: Alicia Race
Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth and Cana Tagawa
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Related content
Full transcript

Colleen: I’m often struck by how powerful the Internet can be in building our democracy and tearing it down. While on the one hand I can instantly search and find community resources like mail-in ballot forms, I also know many people face targeted, politically motivated disinformation on their feeds, especially when it comes to their right to vote.

Disinformation doesn’t just happen. It’s intentionally used to confuse and manipulate the public. The way our brains are wired makes all of us vulnerable to disinformation. But some groups are disproportionately targeted with disinformation, especially people of color, women, and women of color, among other marginalized identities. This targeting is intentional, as it serves to divide solidarity among specific groups and communities, and to reduce voter turn-out among these groups, which can have a big impact when votes are tallied on election day.

Thank goodness we have people like Shireen Mitchell, a technological innovator who is fighting to make digital spaces more equitable. An author, social change catalyst, and big brain on all things data, Shireen is the founder and president of Stop Online Violence Against Women and co-founder of Human First Tech, which is working to ensure humanness on the web. Keep listening to understand the depth of Shireen’s vital work. And remember, we all have the power to counter and interrupt disinformation.

Colleen: Shireen, welcome to the podcast.

Shireen: Thank you for having me. I'm so excited for this conversation today.

Colleen: Yeah, it's really great to have you with us. You've been described as an internet pioneer and a serial founder, one of your organizations you founded, Digital Sisters, focuses on women and girls of color in tech and online access. Can you tell us how you got started in the world of tech?

Shireen: Oh, absolutely. The easy answer, simple answer, is I started coding when I was 10, as a little Black girl in Harlem, which I think, for some people, is hard to believe. When I got older, I was told, and I was in special programs math and science, that I had to be realistic, and that coding or getting a job in the tech industry was just not a realistic position for me as a Black girl, growing up from Harlem.

So, in about 1997, I had a little tech crew while I was at college, and I started the first women of color web firm. And then I realized that there was this challenge with the men and women, didn't understand it quite yet, did a couple of classes on it, and then realized that the way men approached it and the way women approach tech was drastically different. So, two years later, I formed Digital Sisters, to get girls to code. And it was to get girls that weren't like me, that didn't just fall in love with tech, to teach them to code. And that was the beginning of how we got to, now, Stop Online Violence Against Women.

Colleen: And your path from teaching yourself to code, to encouraging girls to code just scratches the surface of the work you’ve done in the tech arena. Recently you’ve been doing critical work to stop digital voter suppression and track disinformation online. You do a lot of work with data analysis. Talk to us a little about voter suppression, and how social media plays into this.

Shireen: Yeah, I would say, for America, the biggest impact of that was during the 2016 election. And I say for America because, at the time, I was also going to different embassies, and working with other groups on something that people at that time called "computational propaganda." And so we were learning about the ways in which this type of propaganda, which we now call disinformation, was impacting other countries. I think at that time, most Americans, even academics and others, did not think that that would be something that we would have to deal with.

And, in 2016, the strongest message that we are not immune, and unfortunately, even though it started out as foreign interference, we have actively, domestically taken on the exact same behavior of spreading dis and misinformation, especially around elections and election integrity. That's where the voter suppression comes from. And by the way, we always had a, historical challenge in this country with voter suppression, particularly with Black voters, from Jim Crow eras, with a literacy test, and counting beans in the jar. We can go through the list of the types of things that were being done to African Americans, in terms of trying to prevent them from voting. What has moved is we have a whole digital era that has now allowed us to do digital voter suppression, which is actively happening right now.

Colleen: So, Shireen, how does that play out? What would a person see on social media, and how would they recognize it?

Shireen: The one that most voter suppression organizations focus on, election protection organizations focus on, are the technical aspects, right? The messages that tell people to go to a different polling place, right? The kinds that tell people different voting dates. What we saw during 2016 were examples of, "Don't wait in line. Text your vote," which you can't do. Those were, some of the really big ones, that, honestly, didn't get taken down from the social media platforms until after the election, which was the worst part of it. It was the lack of responding to it. And we still have challenges with the platforms right now about what they think is election protection, voter suppression that's happening on their platforms, versus what they think is just political rhetoric or political ads. Because that's how it originally happened in 2016. They were actually ads. They were paid, purchased ads.

So, when we debate over what political ads look like, we struggle in this country with that part of it, because in those ads, coming directly from people running for office sometimes, are the voter suppression tactics, including... It's not just about trying to push people to vote for them instead of their opponent. It is other messaging that for example, continue to say that the election from 2020 was stolen. It's a perfect example of a voter disengagement and digital vote suppression campaigns. Any politician at this moment that says that the election was stolen is participating in digital voter suppression. Any politician.

Colleen: So, Shireen, how do you go about tracking disinformation?

Shireen: It was, I would say, in the beginning, the way that we noticed it was some of the campaigns that were basically telling Black voters not to vote for Dems. So we started tracking how many campaigns that there were that existed that were like, "Don't vote for the Dems." There are other conversations that we look at, in terms of issues. And I would say that's the thing that we do the most on is looking at it from a issue-by-issue area. For example, when there's a debate over the school boards and CRT, right, and someone's trying to put laws in place that basically says that history should not be taught. That's an issue-based voter suppression action.

Colleen: Right.

Shireen: The other aspects that we look at, for example, there may be a conversation in the Black community about voting for only candidates that are supporting reparations. Well, not every candidate is gonna support reparations. That doesn't mean that it's not a candidate I feel should be voted for. So, trying to convince them not to vote for that candidate, but the other opposing candidate is not supporting reparations either. So why tell them not to vote for a very specific candidate, right?

It is a very sort of nuanced way to look at it, because they almost never ask or demand that those same voters demand Republicans to fight for reparations. They actually have, , a whole series of excuses as to why they would never do that. And it's just wild that people don't see that dichotomy. So, why would you be focused specifically on trying to remove Black voters from the Democratic base? The only reason why you would do that is because that's a base that you know is key to that particular party in their wins.

Colleen: So, when you look and track this information, what can you then do with that information?

Shireen: So what we do, mostly, is reports. So, if you go to our website, you can go look under Reports, and you can see all of our reports. What we try to do is each time we do one of our reports before an election, like one of the big ones this year, we send it out to campaigns, we send it out to organizers on the ground that are trying to get out the vote, so that they have the information and the tools that they can witness in their communities, so they can find a counter-message, and a way to address the mis and disinformation.

And by the way, sometimes it is just misinformation. People are just misstating things, , because of the confusion. Misinformation is someone trying to tell the truth. They're not trying to lie. And they are basically misstating things or causing more confusion about how people should go vote, and what they should be paying attention to when they go vote, whether it's the polling places, the lines, the giving people water or not, which is kind of ridiculous that that was put into law. That’s in Georgia.

The disinformation is a little bit more sinister. And I would say a lot more sinister. Because it's not just the one lever, right? It is an active campaign, purposefully intending on preventing people from voting, and using different actions to do so. So during 2020, in one state, there was a campaign that said "Stop the count." While in another state, it was a campaign that was saying, "Count the votes." If you think about that, that means that those two states had two different problems. And we didn't know which one was which, depending on those campaigns. And, you didn't know who were the base voters that they were targeting by those two separate campaigns.

So, it's the levers that make it worse than just saying, "Oh, it's a big lie about election integrity." It's about the rest that happen, like the lawsuits, the trying to target the voting machines. All of those things added together, that's the sinister part of interfering, vote suppression. Making up statements like, boxes being shipped from one place to the other, when actually, in one of the states, I think it's Michigan, there is a center, one center, where all the ballots come and get counted. That is not done in every other place. So, in truth, there were, you know, trucks with voting ballots coming to the center, so that they can be counted. Not every state counts at the county level or in the poll place. And that intent, to disinform people around the ways it looks different in each state, that's malicious. That's intentional. That confusion is not a mistake. It is on purpose.

Colleen: So what are you focused on now in the run up to the 2020 election?

Shireen: Yeah. I mean, unfortunately, the overturn of Roe has been one of the big ones that has been used, that we're paying attention to. We're still looking at laws like the ones that were originally being called CRT laws, where we can...

Colleen: Do you wanna go ahead and say what that is?

Shireen: Oh, critical race theory. Or diversity initiatives in the schools. We watched that during the Virginia election for governor. It actually worked in Virginia. We were looking at the comparison to what happened in Virginia, and what happened in New Jersey, because there were two completely different outcomes. And that's partly the thing that we have to look at. We're looking at it in each of those states, to see why there was a different outcome, and why people saw those issues as issues to either show up or interfere in other people's right to vote.

Colleen: Well I was just going to ask if you could explain both of those situations for our listeners who might not be familiar with what happened in Virginia and New Jersey.

Shireen: So, in Virginia, it was used, especially in Louduon County and other counties, to basically say, "Well, we need to vote for this particular governor, because we don't want CRT taught in schools from K to 12." Well, what the other party was doing was saying, "It's not being taught in schools." Because it's not. Not CRT. And because that simple answer, there was a weaponization of basically saying, "So, you don't agree that parents have say in schools?" That was not what those laws were. They were very different laws. And the lack of ability to have a better counter narrative is why the Virginia Governor won, using a lie he knew was a lie, that CRT was not being taught between K to 12. It is a academic study in law school. But that lie is how people were showing up to vote or not vote for certain candidates.

In New Jersey, the same thing happened, same kind of campaigns, but it was not enough to shift that community. So, when we look at it, there was a little bit of other things that we're looking at now, because that means that there's, , a rural versus urban perspective on how people see that particular issue. And that's the kind of information we inform those that, trying to get people out to vote, and other campaigns.

Colleen: Shireen, I want to follow-up on the disinformation example you just gave of critical race theory in Virginia, Why wasn’t there a strong counter narrative?

Shireen: The counter messaging has been the biggest weakness. The challenge that we're faced with is that a lot of original strategies was not to amplify the disinformation, so people were doing what was called strategic silence. My opinion, that was never smart. I never understood that. Because then what happens is the disinformation takes hold. You have no counters to it. And by the time you wanna counter it, which is usually close to election, people already believe the disinformation. They think now you're the one telling the lie.

Colleen: You know it’s so interesting, because I have heard that you have to be careful not to amplify the person spreading disinformation. If you share the message or repeat it you’re amplifying it. I’m curious, in the example of Virginia, with critical race theory, what would a good counter message have been?

Shireen: Oh, I think there's plenty of counter messages, because, the simple answer was, "It's not being taught." There were two arguments, and they were really easy arguments. Parents should know what's going on in schools, but they should have no say in the curriculum itself, right? That's different. That is decided by the state. That is not even decided by the teacher. The state decides that. So, when someone confuses that, and says that, like, a parent should go right in, and, into their particular school board, and shift around what the curriculum is, and say yea or nay, it's not that they don't have say in the curriculum. It's that the state has always put curriculums together. And that is not new. So when you're saying that now you want teachers recorded, to see how they're teaching the curriculum, we should all be saying no to that.

So, there was not enough of a nuanced understanding of the message. And the message was simply, "CRT is not being taught." There was way more being said, like the bodily autonomy thing. I really do think people need to understand that. Especially in the context of now losing Roe, there needs to be a better understanding of what bodily autonomy means, even for children. Because how can school recorders protect children if they're dealing with situations of abuse, if they have to report to the abuser first? Think about that. Not the state, not the services that are there to protect the children, but to go back to potentially respond to the abuser and get permission, before going to the state? Florida literally already passed that law, that 1557, that people are calling "Don't say 'gay.'" That's in that bill. People need to read that bill, specifically, really closely.

Colleen: Right. So, in addition to counter-messages, what are some other strategies to fight back?

Shireen: Yeah, I think sometimes people sit back and think that, it has to be the organizations, or it has to be the campaigns, or officials who address this. The problem that we're having is, some officials are okay with using disinformation for their campaigns. So we have to admit that part first.

The second part is that now we also have to pay attention to the platforms when you're deciding or not deciding to take down myths and disinformation. And usually, that debate, unfortunately, falls under a debate over free speech. I say that every time someone has a debate over free speech, please remind people to actually go back and read the First Amendment. It is your right to speak against your government and not be punished. It has nothing to do with your opinion versus my opinion. Right? That is separate from facts. Your opinion is your opinion, but your opinion is not facts. And disinformation is spreading things that are not facts as a fact, and you need to be able to correct that.

So, one, when you see it, reporting it is really important. Having the right information, to know what to pay attention to, I know sometimes can be difficult, but we need to make sure that people understand, everyone has a right to opinion, not everyone has the right to come up with their own separate set of facts. So, that's really important.

The other pieces that I try to get people to do is, if you're going to try to address the disinformation, make sure you're spending more time on giving correct information. For example, you can start with the facts. You can sort of hint at what some of the disinformation is, and then follow up with the facts at the end. They call a truth sandwich, some people use that term, a truth sandwich. Those are strategies I tell people to use.

And then the rest is—I think sometimes people feel like they don't wanna get into heated arguments with people, so they don't wanna say anything. And I try to get people to understand that lack of conflict... that conflict avoidance, tends to be one of the weapons that is used in disinformation. And I think most people need to be able to address the fact that they have to sit with their own conflict avoidance. Because it's like, "Well, we just wanna be fair, and allow people to share, their opinion." But if you're allowing people to share disinformation more than the facts, they're winning. You aren't. You think you're giving them the benefit of the doubt. And I need to honestly say, in this stage of the game, that benefit of the doubt needs to be removed. They need to prove that they're being honest. Don't wait to figure out if they're being dishonest later.

Colleen: Are you seeing any positive movement on the platform level? I’m wondering if there is any good news here?

Shireen: So, there are moments, right? Like, YouTube finally said that they were gonna stop having videos that share misinformation and disinformation around abortions, and, taking it into their own hands, and people giving instructions on how to do that. You know, YouTube is now saying they're gonna take some of those things down. I had a doctor who said she wished that they had done the same thing with COVID, right? Like, by the time they were taking the actions on COVID, so many hundreds of thousands of people had died. It is that, it's the wait part on it, right?

Zuckerberg, at one point, I think for two years, when people doing Holocaust denying, he was like, "Well, it's just an opinion." Right? For two years, he let that go before you realized how dangerous it was. It's the wait that's the biggest problem for me in the responses from these platforms. So, trying to push them to do more is still something that's a big deal, and still needs to be addressed. But watching after Roe, YouTube say, "Hey, we're gonna start taking down this mis and disinformation around abortion rights," and, you know, in terms of bodily autonomy, I was like, "Okay, they're starting to respond faster." Those are the moments where I can go, "At least we got one."

The other good news is that I know this administration at least attempted, it didn't work, to do a disinformation board, right, trying to collectively get their agencies to work together to address the different tactics used for disinformation. Unfortunately, they were impacted by disinformation. It was the very thing that shut down that board. But the fact that they were attempting tells me that there are still other attempts happening, and they're aware of it, that it's something that action should be taken.

Colleen: Shireen, if I had the power to grant you, you know, a magic wand, what are the top three or five things that you would do to clean this up?

Shireen: Oh, my goodness. The first thing I would do, I'd be going after all the platforms, every single one of them that allows the mis and disinformation on their platforms. That would be number one. Number two, I would, find ways to hold politicians accountable for spreading mis and disinformation, and whether it's censure, whether it's, you know, from state or federal level, that there will be a law on the books that would say that they would not be able to do that. Those are my two big ones.

And then number three would be ensuring that there is a honest conversation about mis and disinformation. When people say to me, " Well, disinformation is something brand new, so you even talking about it is, you're perpetuating it." And I'm like, "No. We used to call it computational propaganda before we came up with a layman's term. And now you're still mad about it." so we don't win. So, the point is there are people who have been working on this for decades. Respect those people who have been doing that work, and listen to their recommendations.

Colleen: So, before we wrap up, any final thoughts?

Shireen: One of our biggest challenges around disinformation is not the foreign interference, because everyone has a response to that. Even the platforms have a response to any foreign interference, interfering in our elections. It is when they put their hands up when it's domestic. And we need to have a broader conversation about the domestic disinformation that comes from other Americans under the guise or the protection under the First Amendment, which is not accurate.

Colleen: Well, Shireen, it's been great talking to you. I wanna thank you for joining me, but I mostly want to thank you for the amazing, tireless work that you're doing, fighting for justice, supporting women of color in tech, working to get disinformation out of not only our elections, but every place that is causing harm, is just... Thank you so much.

Shireen: Oh, you're welcome. And thank you for inviting me, and helping me spread that word.

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