This project is designed to test our hypothesis that Black disinformation agents are using breaking news stories to reduce Black voter turnout. These news stories include the racial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and discussions around systemic racism raised by Black Lives Matter protests. These protests spread across the nation in response to the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man who was lynched by Officer Derek Chavin in Minneapolis on May 25th. Video of this death was widely uploaded to social media platforms and shared across the world.
This is a two part research project to uncover how Black voters in the city of Philadelphia are being targeted by disinformation agents operating on the Twitter Platform. In the first part of the project, we conduct a computational analysis of hashtags being used to encourage Black voter apathy, from four groups, who will be discussed in an upcoming paper. They are not named here because some of these accounts conduct targeted networked attacks on people who are critical of their methods. These attacks are well-documented, and, in order to protect our project team, we are engaging in strategic silence,
an approach used to de-platform the KKK by Jewish groups, who targeted them because of their support of African American protesters during the Civil Rights Movement. We refer to these disinformation agents as “micro celebrities
,” a phrase coined by Becca Lewis, a PhD student in the Communications Department at Stanford. “Micro celebrities” – more commonly known as “influencers” in the main stream press – are social media users who are largely unknown to general audiences, yet extremely influential within niche social media communities
Our project is based in the city of Philadelphia because it was the subject of a 1899 ethnographic study of Black life in the city conducted by W.E.B. DuBois. During his field work, DuBois lived in the city’s seventh ward and examined every aspect of Black life. Dubois’ discovery that health disparities in tuberculosis infection and death rates were not due to race but the social conditions which Black Philadelphians lived in is what brought us back to this locality, especially given its similarity to contemporary findings about the disparate impact of COVID-19 on Black Americans. He also describes how Black political power in the city was co-opted by the white political class. This mirrors the way disinformation agents are attempting to manipulate Black voter behavior in the 2020 general election. The major difference now is that these disinformation agents are also Black Americans. This project seeks to continue this ethnographic study of Philadelphia’s Black populations by adding digital analysis to this cannon. Our project focuses on the unique position of Black, domestic, micro celebrities to suppress the Black vote using techniques that mirror not only targeted Black voter manipulation in Philadelphia, but Soviet disinformation playbooks as well.