SALON TALKS

Win Black founder Ashley Bryant: "Trump was a reflection of the disease in our country"

"I find it's a cop-out to blame these things on Trump. This is the GOP playbook: They don't want us to vote"

By Dean Obeidallah
Published December 13, 2020 7:00AM (EST)
Women wearing face masks fill out vote-by-mail ballots at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office on October 15, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. Florida voters have cast more than 2 million vote-by-mail ballots ahead of the November 3 election. (Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Women wearing face masks fill out vote-by-mail ballots at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office on October 15, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. Florida voters have cast more than 2 million vote-by-mail ballots ahead of the November 3 election. (Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Ashley Bryant wants people of color to be aware that the disinformation campaigns about politics are not ending just because the 2020 presidential campaign season is over. It's a year-round fight. I spoke to Bryant, the co-founder of Win Black/Pa'Lante, on an episode of "Salon Talks" about how Black and Latino communities are fighting back against misinformation campaigns, especially with the Jan. 5 Senate runoff elections in Georgia looming large.

Bryant explained that the impetus for the Win Black campaign was designed in 2016 to push back on the "weaponization of digital media" that is being used to suppress votes in communities of color. Her organization's approach to counter the misinformation is to correct the lies spewed and teach grassroots activists how to spot false information.

While big tech social media companies like Twitter and Facebook claim they are taking a more active role in policing disinformation, Bryant says it's "10 years too late." In her view, these companies knew how their platforms were being used in the past to suppress voters of color, yet did little to stop it. The meaningful work starts on the community level and through deeper civics education.

Watch my "Salon Talks" interview with Bryant below or read the following transcript to hear more about the fight to counter lies and disinformation and why she's hopeful about Georgia's Senate races, even with Donald Trump ratcheting up the false claims one more time. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Before this November's election, you worked on the ground to prevent the spread of misinformation, with the goal of trying to teach people what's garbage and what might be real. Why did you want to build this campaign?

The impetus was coming out of 2016, but also well beyond. What we found is the weaponization of digital media and an evolution of voter suppression tactics overall, especially targeted to Black and Latinx voters. We created the model of Win Black/Pa'lante to not just monitor this misinfo and disinfo, but create a network of influence that would actually counter these narratives.

We wanted to educate folks to let them know that this disinformation was out there space and to be mindful and vigilant, but to also arm grassroots organizations across the country that were within our network with the right content and right messages that would counter this misinfo and these extreme narratives that were trying to deter and depress the Black and brown vote.

In 2016, I actually experienced something personal when it comes to disinformation. A Russian disinformation campaign actually used an image of me because I'm Muslim. They made up an Instagram account with real people like me and used it to target my community. At the time, it was to turn them against Hillary Clinton and make them support Donald Trump by saying, "Hillary is all about war in the Middle East and she's going to kill people there."

Oh wow.

Your work is focused on the Black and Latinx community. Was there an acute need for it or were they were targeting that community specifically?

Folks know when Black and brown folks show up together, things change. We just saw that with Georgia turning blue for the first time, right? They're targeting our communities because of the political power that we hold. And it's unfortunate because there's always this question of "Do our votes matter?" especially in the Black community.

This has proven itself. There are millions of dollars being spent to deter us from showing up to the polls, to silence our voices and votes. And that's what misinformation and disinformation is doing. And what happened to you is exactly the example, these bad actors take the form of real people. They pretend to be Black activists or Muslim activists, and use that to build a sense of community. And then turns that community against being civic participators. It says, "None of these candidates are for us so we're just not going to show up." And they really tried it, they tried it in 2016, 2018, they tried it this year but we're becoming just as sophisticated to be able to really counter these tactics.

And it's not over. When we think about the midterms in 2022 and the 2024 race, everyone will be seeing information online that they're not sure is real or not. What are the telltale signs people can look out?

No. 1, if anyone tells you not to participate in democracy, they're not for you. We always say, if someone's telling you not to vote or to not raise your voice and be heard, that is a clear sign that this is not someone that is trying to bring folks together for common issues. 

If we dig into online profiles, for example, even commentators or people that are in the political space, even my channel, I don't talk about politics all day. I don't talk about the critical issues of America. I sprinkle in some things about my friends and family and different personal things about myself. It's very easy to tell what's a bot or what's a fake profile. If all they're sending out are these extreme messages, whether they're conservative or liberal. But that's a really great way to tell if it's actually an individual person or just someone that's there to incite you.

This election cycle we saw Facebook and Twitter making an effort to step up and clamp down on misinformation, or at least not allow monetizing ads from it. Is there more that the big tech companies should be doing as we go forward?

There's always more that can be done. I'm not ready to give away any awards just yet, quite honestly. For it to finally be top of mind this year is 10 years too late. I think the resources that are put into building these algorithms to make communities also need to be invested in figuring out how to put guard rails in place for these very coordinated campaigns, funded campaigns that exist to spread lies and disinformation.

Media platforms have a ways to go and to be able to meet us in a place where they're holding accountability, and not just accountability but responsibility. We have a responsibility to make sure that we are not allowing any type of oppression or suppression on whatever these channels may be. It's an area that I want to continue leaning into as we look ahead.

How do we prevent Trump or another Trump-like person from ever being the White House again? He used misinformation well. In my conversations with his supporters, I've found some of them lack critical thinking skills and it's remarkable. I'm not even talking about education. Some people just want to believe what they want to believe, you'll never reach that. 

I do think that there is absolutely an education piece, including bringing civics back into schools. The idea of preventing another Trump starts somewhere well beyond disinformation, well beyond technology. Trump was a reflection of the disease in our country which is racism, which is bigotry, which is xenophobia, it's reflection of that. So when we talk about how do we prevent these things, I think it goes well beyond education. I think if it is education, it's talking about the equality of our communities, it's healing within these communities and showing folks that you shouldn't be afraid of Black and brown people. 

As far as our work with Win Black/Pa'lante, it was very important for us to educate folks around the idea of finding trusted sources. How do you determine what's facts and what are mistruths? There is an opportunity for organizations like ourselves to really help folks think about how we're continuing this education piece. As we attack this threat to our democracy.

Exactly. I beg people to look at the source and ask, "Where did it come from?"

It's almost like when you pick your friendships, right? I don't want 10 people that are always agreeing with me, that doesn't push me to grow. As we think about Facebook, as we think about Twitter, these algorithms are built to put all the like-minded people around you. You get into your bubble, you start to believe everything that your high school friend or your aunt is sending you and it becomes pretty difficult. It's almost this sense of comfort of, you know what? My views are right. I don't want to dive into the fact that I could be wrong, right? And so that's certainly a piece of it.

Let's talk about the 2020 election. Twelve percent of Black men voted for Donald Trump, but at the same time 87 percent of Black voters, more than any other race, voted for Joe Biden. When you look at it, can you share with us, why is it the Black community has been the backbone of the Democratic Party in the modern era?

I think No. 1, Black women especially have been speaking truth to power for decades. And we have a sense of community where we're used to having to put our communities on our backs. There's a certain level of compassion because of what we go through every single day as Black Americans.

What's interesting for me is to highlight the overwhelming percentage of Black voters that showed up whether it's to vote for Biden or against Trump, right? We need to stop considering the Democratic base as this white middle-class. White women two times now voted for Trump, and so I'd rather have that conversation. I'd rather be talking about why is it that Black and brown communities are standing up for all communities, right? We're not just showing up to the polls for ourselves, we're showing up to the polls to transform our country and protect our country to what we believe the values should be. It's not a surprising number to me at all.

When people support elected officials, there's often an ask: This is what we want if we're going to support you. Do you think the Black community has been making that ask? If not, what would you make the ask to the Biden administration? Because again, without the Black community, there's no Joe Biden and Donald Trump is still there.

I think the ask is to every administration: We want to be heard and we want to be represented in all facets of our government, whether it's federal or local, right? And so the ask is very simple. We want to be able to thrive, not just survive. 

There has to be a dismantling and a true transformation of our policies. We have to think about our criminal justice system, we have to think about our inequities in health care. We're not one issue voters, we're not a monolithic community. It's very clear that we have to be represented in these policies. We're not a handout community. We are ambitious and successful parts of this country, but for any elected official or any administration, we want to make sure that we are seen through the policies that are put forth in those administrations. That covers everything from climate change to mass incarceration, to the criminalization of marijuana, it covers all issues. And we're going to be very vigilant. We may have showed up in 2020 to get Trump out of office, but we're going to be taking to the streets just in the same to hold this administration and every elected official across this country accountable.

Earlier, you mentioned that Black voters have struggled to just have the right to vote. We see Donald Trump lying and fabricating information about this election and pushing to disenfranchise voters in Milwaukee and Philadelphia and Detroit. It's almost like the GOP party line, just because there are a lot of people of color in an area, it has to be crime and fraud, and we're going to disenfranchise them. What's your reaction when you hear this?

My reaction is disgust, but no surprise. I think this is exactly what we've been preaching this entire election cycle. I mean, this is simply trying to disenfranchise our communities, this is purging voters in Georgia, knowing the importance of this election. And quite honestly, it's not a Trump thing. I almost find that to be a cop-out, to blame these things on Trump. This was happening for decades and this is the GOP playbook.

They don't want us to vote and it's very clear and they don't hide it. They don't pretend that it's not their playbook and so I think we need to stop pretending that it is right, I think we need to acknowledge it as well. I don't typically like to draw party lines because I think that there are obviously some great folks that consider themselves Republicans, I don't know about Trump-supporting Republicans.

But I will say that this has been a playbook for years and we're not standing for it. That's why orgs like Win Black are happening because we want to join the fight to educate folks and to show this is what happens when you show up. Georgia voters, Georgia Black voters, look what happened when you registered and you showed up to vote. Can you imagine if we do it every single time?

On Jan. 5, Georgia will have runoff elections for two Senate seats, it's the most important of our lives probably, frankly, because the Senate's in the balance. What are the lessons in Georgia from the presidential race where Joe Biden won as a Democrat for the first time in decades, that you think can be used to win?

There's nothing more simple than showing people how their votes truly mattered. And I touched on this a little bit earlier, but it's almost the beauty in the proof point because I think that Georgians can finally feel as though their voices are making a difference. And I think of folks in Florida and Texas that are clamoring to see their state change power, right? And Georgia has the opportunity to see it happen in real time.

I'm hoping that this momentum is going to continue and to get folks to show up and show out from now until Jan. 5. But I think from a disinformation standpoint, we're seeing it just evolve and right now if I use the social listening tool, most of it is coming from the administration. I think what has happened is this disinfo coming from Trump and the GOP is backfiring because it's so evident and obvious now. Even their supporters know who won the election, so now it's just embarrassing and it's actually helped us show people what misinformation looks like and why people use it in order to stop you from casting your vote. Hopefully, it's going to help us in Georgia and actually turn out more voters than we've ever seen in a runoff.

I think that Georgians see the importance of these two races and how it impacts the policies that we need in our communities, but it certainly is taking work on the ground. Georgia is definitely in some damn good hands to get it done.


Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to CNN.com Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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