WASHINGTON — Experts who follow disinformation efforts online detailed to lawmakers in a US Household Administration panel Thursday how communities of color are targets for these disinformation campaigns.
Democrats on the elections subcommittee have expressed concern about how communities of color are subject to elections and COVID-19 misinformation across various social media platforms including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Discord, among others.
“Voters deserve accurate information about the democratic process so their voices can be heard,” said Assemblyman GK Butterfield, DN.C., in his opening statement.
Joi Chaney, senior vice president for policy and advocacy and executive director of the Washington office of the National Urban League, said in her written testimony that black Americans were “heavily targeted” by Russian disinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign.
She said the Russian government created fake social media accounts posing as black influencers to discourage black voters from voting.
She also said a meme ahead of the election that read, “Avoid the line – vote from home. Text ‘Hillary’ to 59925,” addressed black and Hispanic voters on Facebook and Twitter.
But the two Republicans at the hearing, Rep. Bryan Steil of Wisconsin, who is the senior member of the panel, and Rodney Davis of Illinois, who is the top GOP member on the entire committee, argued that the hearing was a violation of free speech .
Davis said the government doesn’t have the power to dictate what truth is.
“This type of censorship poses a serious threat to our republic,” he said. “Personally, I do not believe that anyone is qualified to be the ultimate authority on truth except God Himself.”
Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, DN.M., pushed back, saying there are laws and regulations that require political campaigns not to promote disinformation, and the same requirement should be applied online.
“It is perfectly reasonable to prevent disinformation on the internet, as suggested in the Honest Advertising Act, which requires transparency,” she said. This legislation would require online political advertising to follow the same rules as television and radio advertising.
Leger Fernandez interviewed one of the witnesses, Stephanie Valencia, the co-founder and president of Equis Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico, about her recent letter to YouTube detailing disinformation targeting Spanish speakers. Equis monitors disinformation campaigns targeting Latinos.
“Half of what our team marked for them (on YouTube) they removed,” Valencia said. However, she added her disappointment that many channels that continue to promote disinformation are allowed to stay online while videos are removed.
Davis compared the removal of disinformation to what goes on in authoritarian regimes like Cuba and Russia. One of the witnesses, a former Florida lawmaker, Carlos Curbelo, shared his story of his family fleeing Cuba “because they no longer had basic freedoms like freedom of speech.”
“There are far better ways to combat misinformation and disinformation… than to look for ways to silence people,” Curbelo said.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., asked one of the witnesses, Samuel Woolley, an expert on propaganda, how disinformation campaigns focus on communities of color.
Woolley is program director of the Propaganda Research Lab, Center for Media and Engagement at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas.
He said many disinformation campaigns may target specific communities of color based on region, which he’s seen in South Texas with Latinos, Cuban Americans in Miami, and the Indian American community in North Carolina.
“They generally focus on socioculturally tailoring narratives to specific people so that they’re as impactful as possible,” Woolley said.