U.S. House panel looks into disinformation targeted at communities of color

WASHINGTON — Experts tracking disinformation efforts online detailed to lawmakers on a U.S. House Administration panel Thursday how communities of color are targets for those disinformation campaigns.

Democrats on the Subcommittee on Elections expressed their concern about how communities of color are the subject of election and COVID-19 misinformation through various social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Discord among others.

“Voters deserve to receive accurate information about the democratic process so their voices can be heard,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., said in his opening remarks.

Joi Chaney, senior vice president for policy and advocacy and executive director of the Washington bureau for the National Urban League, said in her written testimony that Black Americans were “fiercely targeted” by Russian disinformation in the 2016 presidential campaign.

She said that the Russian government created inauthentic social media accounts posing as Black influencers in an attempt to dissuade Black voters from participating in the election.

Additionally, she said, in the lead up to the election, a meme that read “avoid the line — vote from home. Text ‘Hillary’ to 59925,” targeted Black and Latino voters on Facebook and Twitter.

But the two Republicans at the hearing, Reps. Bryan Steil of Wisconsin, who is the ranking member of the panel and Rodney Davis of Illinois, who is the top GOP member on the full committee, argued that the hearing was a violation of free speech.

Davis said that the government does not have the power to dictate what is truth.

“This type of censorship poses a serious threat to our republic,” he said. “Personally I don’t think anyone is qualified to be the ultimate authority on truth except for God himself.”

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-N.M., pushed back and said that there are laws and regulations that require political campaigns to not spur disinformation and the same requirement should be applied online.

“It’s quite reasonable to prevent disinformation online as proposed in the Honest Ads Act, which requires transparency,” she said. That legislation would require online political ads to comply with the same rules governing ads on TV and radio.

Leger Fernandez asked 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 that targets Spanish speakers. Equis monitors disinformation campaigns aimed at Latinos.

“Half of what our team has flagged for them (on YouTube) they have taken down,” Valencia said. But she added her disappointment that while videos are removed, many channels that continue to spur disinformation are allowed to remain online.

Davis likened the removal of disinformation was similar to what goes on in authoritarian regimes, such as Cuba and Russia. One of the witnesses, a former lawmaker from Florida, Carlos Curbelo, told his story of his family escaping Cuba “because they no longer had basic freedoms like freedom of speech.”

“There are much better ways to fight misinformation and disinformation …  than looking at ways to silence people,” Curbelo said.

Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif.,  asked one of the witnesses, Samuel Woolley, an expert in propaganda, how disinformation campaigns zero in on communities of color.

Woolley is the 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 can target certain 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 are focused across the board in trying to tailor narratives socioculturally to particular folks, so they are as potent as possible,” Woolley said.

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