The black community shares a special sense of solidarity in modern-day America. We speak out in dismay at injustices inflicted on our brothers and sisters, who are related not necessarily by blood but by common experience. We root for others in the community, even when we haven’t met them. When black people congregate—at family reunions, in barber shops, or in places of worship—we connect based upon a shared identity. We even find commonality on the internet, offering endless opportunities to spread black girl magic, black boy joy, and support of black queer, trans, and nonbinary black brilliance. But as of late, Russian trolls have started to successfully mimic black routines and abuse black narratives to further polarize an already divisive political landscape. Leveraging black narratives is not only a means to furthering the racial divide within our own country but, more effectively, it is a scheme to complicate the American identity in a way that upends our democracy.
Reports show that Russian disinformation operations during the 2016 elections heavily targeted the black community. Using fake accounts on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, Russian operatives at the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in St. Petersburg sought to sow seeds of discord by sharing racially-charged posts.
In fact, Russia’s disinformation campaigns have continued to proliferate since 2016, and they have also continued to use racial tensions as a wedge to gain greater influence. In some cases, fake Russian accounts have been shown to have created social media content for black internet users, while in other cases, foreign agent accounts, “bots,” have significantly amplified content spurring racial tensions that may have originated from real accounts.
Just last week, new reports of interference emerged—this time showing Russia’s efforts to support both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the 2020 elections. The details of this most recent round of interference have not yet been released. Nevertheless, it is important to begin to consider how the black community and other communities of color may be targeted in the Kremlin’s new slew of disinformation campaigns.
Combating a complicated attack that weaves real narratives, manipulates real sentiments, reasonably understands the needs of the community, and has derived the way those outside the community observe and internalize the discourse will not be easy. But quite frankly, the state of our democracy relies on it. We are two black women who have built careers developing a deep understanding of how transnational information and cybersecurity campaigns impact communities. Here are our proposed solutions.
1. Better equip those fighting disinformation campaigns: First, professionals across all sectors who are working to combat disinformation campaigns during this upcoming presidential election must be trained on the weaponization of race as a mechanism to drive polarization. Understanding the historical exploitation of race relations in America and how social platforms and other tools are leveraged to amplify these narratives to discourage engagement in the political process to skew results is essential to understanding adversary tools, tactics, and procedures. Without this understanding, the teams working on this issue cannot fully grasp the various manifestations of information operations and the tangential efforts to polarize using real narratives or sentiments through artificial engagement nor can they build effective detection and mitigation tools and procedures.
2. Educate affected communities on what disinformation looks and sounds like: Black communities must learn to be skeptical and critical of the content they consume. Media literacy, cyber hygiene, critical thinking skills, and general information about false narratives that are being amplified through the platforms we love need to be communicated widely through our education system, the media, and community programming and conversations. Some states have already implemented K-12 media literacy programs in schools and this is a positive first step. Other states should follow suit, and these literacy skills should be amplified via black media and social media outlets.
3. Media coverage needs to be better: The media plays an important role in our democracy—one that helps Americans distinguish between fact and fiction. But it needs to be better about calling out racial tropes and to make a concerted effort to highlight positive stories about America’s black communities. For example, amplifying the stories of how local communities are working to decrease the number of BBQ Beckys around the country by elevating the voices of communities that were damaged by her calls can change the narrative around these incidents. The media has a unique opportunity to provide context that will move the national dialogue towards racial reconciliation rather than outrage.
4. Address the root cause: Foreign agents are able to easily exploit America’s black community because racial injustice impacts every facet of a black person’s life in this country. Our nation’s democracy will continue to remain vulnerable to the weaponization of America’s issues around race if we are unwilling to take action despite fear and discomfort. Meaningful action to address social cleavages such as policy innovation to create equitable outcomes for all Americans, reimagining our institutions, and facilitating tough conversations about our dark history and the impacts on black Americans will make us less vulnerable.
It’s 2020, and another election cycle is upon us. Greater awareness, faster action, and cross-cutting engagement are essential to stopping this problem before it becomes even more of a threat this time around.
Naima Green-Riley is a former U.S. diplomat at the Department of State, where she worked in Egypt and China, and she is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard.
Camille Stewart is the former senior policy adviser for Cyber, Infrastructure & Resilience Policy at the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama and a Cybersecurity Policy fellow with New America.