Russian election interference, Iranian emails, falsities trumpeted by government officials and the explosion in popularity of online conspiracy theories have combined into a deluge of misinformation that's left many American voters swimming upstream. Some advocates are working together to build a bigger boat.
Before many had even heard of Russian troll farms, back in 2014, Shafiqah Hudson and I'Nasah Crockett, two Black Twitter users with no technical or law enforcement background, helped curb disinformation by using an inventive hashtag.
Hudson spotted a number of Twitter accounts purporting to be Black feminists that appeared to be purposely sowing division, calling for an end to Father's Day and using the hashtag #endfathersday.
"A lot of tweets featured really terrible approximations of African American Vernacular English, or AAVE," Hudson told ABC News. "And you can't fake AAVE."
An online friend of Hudson's, Crockett did some digging and discovered a few of these bad actors discussing tactics and boasting of their success on the website 4chan, a fringe social media platform that became a forum for right-wing hate speech and from which QAnon emerged.
Hudson began outing the fake accounts with the hashtag #yourslipisshowing -- the hashtag stemming from a southern saying for something that's supposed to be concealed but suddenly is on full display.
"It was our way of saying, 'Hey, this thing that you think you're hiding, everyone sees it,'" Hudson added.
The hashtag did have some success in curbing the disinformation -- some of the accounts were taken down and some just stopped posting when tagged with the #yourslipisshowing -- but many persisted for a long time.
A few years later, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, the Mueller Report revealed that minority communities -- Black communities especially -- had been targeted by Russian trolls.
Both Hudson and Crockett are again seeing this kind of content circulating. They believe working together as a community can help counter it.
"I think they've learned," Crockett said. "There's a little less attempt to try and directly talk to a person and use AAVE, which could be incorrect, and more just an attempt to muddy the waters by just dumping information, overwhelming people, so you don't even take the time to look up the source."
The "More than a Vote" campaign is raising awareness and has the backing of celebrities such as Kevin Hart, Patrick Mahomes and LeBron James, who tweeted a video aimed at countering misinformation and voter depression. Disinformation experts from First Draft define voter depression as efforts to discourage voters from attempting to vote, whereas voter suppression is action taken to prevent people from being able to cast their votes.
🗣🗣🗣🗣🗣👂🏾👂🏾👂🏾👂🏾👂🏾 https://t.co/pTO7cteXVC— LeBron James (@KingJames) October 21, 2020
Recognizing this would be a problem in 2020, and beyond, Amalia Deloney of the Media Democracy Fund helped establish the Disinfo Defense League. The DDL, now composed of more than 200 grassroots organizations across the U.S., is helping to mobilize minority communities to counter disinformation campaigns.
"The idea is to be a real research resource, a sharing network designed specifically to disrupt the voter suppression campaigns that are using racialized disinformation tactics to deliberately depress Black, Afro-Latinx and Latinx community votes," said Deloney, the DDL's director.
The organization has purposely avoided the spotlight, partly to not attract more trolls but also because they want to spread their message not through traditional media sources or even public social media but in closed direct messaging areas such as Facebook Groups or WhatsApp groups. Much of the group's messaging is via SMS. Deloney said that post-election there will be less of a need to operate below the radar and the DDL will take on more of a public stance.
Rather than trying to grow an online user base, the DDL seeks to leverage trust among its members and their communities to more effectively combat misinformation. Much of the disinformation is being circulated in closed groups, like private Facebook Groups, and private messaging groups on WhatsApp or WeChat, and the only way to counter that disinformation is through members of the public who already are in these private spaces online.
Deloney said the organization is not unlike "The Justice League," a popular comic book series.
"We wanted to create a space where you could sit at the table with other superheroes and together you could do more than what was possible on your own," Deloney added.
The basic premise is that by educating people about disinformation tactics and teaching them how to spot it, that helps inoculate the electorate against it.
Next week, two member organizations, MediaJustice and United We Dream, are organizing a full week of events that will include training sessions and a Twitter town hall. The DDL also offers training and resources in Spanish and works with many Latinx groups, including Mijente.
Claire Wardle, director of First Draft, one of the expert disinformation organizations that advises the DDL, said that communicating directly with minority communities is key in battling falsehoods.
"We've learned in 2020 that, as institutional trust in things like the CDC or the news media or academia has dropped, people are turning to one another for information," Wardle told ABC News. "When it comes to fighting disinformation, there are real opportunities there for communities who trust one another to say, 'Let's help one another figure out what's true or false and which bits of information are designed to divide us.'"