Expert: Misinformation targeting Black voters is rising — and AI could make it more “sophisticated”

AI tools could make right-wing schemes using "phony" groups and "Black-sounding names" even more prevalent

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published March 18, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Woman using phone. (Tim Robberts/Getty Images)
Woman using phone. (Tim Robberts/Getty Images)

Voter suppression tactics have long targeted communities of color but the efforts of two right-wing activists using robocalls to target Black voters in the 2020 presidential election highlight just how "sophisticated" these methods have become, voting rights experts warn.

Far-right operatives Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman sent 85,000 robocalls targeting Black voters in an attempt to scare them from voting by mail in October 2020. Their actions violated the Voting Rights Act and Ku Klux Klan Act, a judge ruled last week. 

"A little bit of disinformation goes a long way because it prevents people from going to the ballot box because they're scared," Mitchell Brown, a senior attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, told Salon.

Wohl and Burkman targeted neighborhoods in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, New York and Illinois in a "calculated" plot to "deter Black voters by exploiting fears and stereotypes," U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero wrote in his opinion. 

Using "a phony civil rights organization and a female speaker with a Black-sounding name", they tried to scare listeners from voting by mail, according to a release by the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

They falsely claimed that if people sent in their votes by mail, the police may try to track them down, debt collectors may come after them or the CDC may try to use their information to force them to be vaccinated against COVID.

The robocall script "contained racially coded language," Marrero wrote, adding that "each of the threatening messages contained in the Robocall relied on harmful stereotypes of Black people, related to interactions with the criminal justice system, the amassing of debt, and resistance toward medicine." 

Wohl and Burkman's efforts offer an insight into the types of voter suppression challenges Black voters still face as a result of racism, said April England-Albright, national legal director at Black Voters Matter.

"We know that these tactics have historically happened in America against marginalized communities, like Black people," England-Albright told Salon. "There's a legacy and history of marginalized communities, having to fight to exercise this right, so there's already this sense that when Black voters enter this process, their vote is not welcomed."

"With the spread of AI, the ability to create deep fakes is not going to be something that's going to require a sophisticated actor or really sophisticated technical abilities." 

However, when court victories happen, it sends the message that voter suppression efforts will not be tolerated, England-Albright added. It's equally important that attorneys general prosecute these individuals in their states to send an even stronger message.

Because of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, we will continue to see methods like this take place, England-Albright warned.

A Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election found that information operatives specifically targeted Black Americans more than any other group. 

Russian operatives used social media to deter Black Americans from voting and planted subtly racist content to incite conflict between ethnicities.

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These misinformation and disinformation campaigns become even more prevalent closer to election time and take on various forms, including false endorsements by inauthentic social media accounts that pose as Black influencers, activists and community members, said Samir Jain, vice president of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

What's becoming even more concerning is the rise of deep fakes, where individuals are impersonating someone else, and suggesting they are endorsing a particular candidate, Jain told Salon.  

"That's going to be something that we see even more of with the growth of artificial intelligence" he added. "With the spread of AI, the ability to create deep fakes is not going to be something that's going to require a sophisticated actor or really sophisticated technical abilities." 

Misinformation and disinformation tactics aren't only targeting voters of color, but also expanding to include candidates of color. In the 2020 congressional elections, women of color were twice as likely as other candidates to be targeted with or be the subject of mis- and disinformation, according to a report by CDT

They were the most likely to be targets of sexist, abuse and violent abuse, the report found. Out of all groups of candidates, Black women were "subject to the highest levels of mis- and disinformation, certain forms of abuse, and tweets with both mis- and disinformation and abuse compared to other women of color and most other candidates."

Even when platforms interfere and take down the information, "the damage has been done because the message has already been spread," Jain said. 

These disinformation campaigns often lead to voters growing fearful of casting their ballots,  England-Albright added. As a result, Black Voters Matter tries to counter the misinformation by educating voters about their rights by directly calling them or sending out mail pamphlets.

"It's a very daunting responsibility of work that we have to layer to try to help communities, who have normally been targeted, know what they need to do, just to vote," England-Albright said.

Since the system is so convoluted when it comes to voting, it's easier for people to fall victim to misinformation, Brown said. 

Oftentimes in North Carolina, voters are misinformed into believing that voters with felony convictions are not allowed to vote, but this isn't true since people can vote after they have finished their sentence, he added. 

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law hosts an election protection hotline every year to inform voters about their rights and address concerns pertaining to any barriers they may be facing when it comes to voting. 

Misinformation and disinformation campaigns targeting Black voters are not just isolated incidents that happen out of nowhere, Brown said, they are a pattern we see time and time again.

"They're not isolated from voter ID laws, which is not isolated from redistricting, which is not isolated from rollbacks in early voting," Brown said. "All of these things work together to achieve a common end, which is to disenfranchise Black voters."

One of the ways to combat the spread of mis- and disinformation is to pass stronger privacy laws, suggested Jain. This would help eliminate the way advertisements specifically target particular groups of people.

Social media companies also need to play an active role in detecting the spread of false information and inauthentic behavior, he added. By monitoring particular narratives targeting communities of color, platforms can help with minimizing the amplification of mis- and disinformation.

"We all need to fight for stronger voter protection…" England-Albright said. "We just need to continue to understand that it's a fundamental right. We all should have it and we all should be able to exercise it without restriction."

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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