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Black And Latino Voters Flooded With Disinformation In Final Days Before Election

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Black and Latino voters are being flooded with disinformation in the final days of the election. Voting rights groups say these tactics echo Russian social media manipulation four years ago, but today's campaigns are even more widespread. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond has the story.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Murphy Bannerman first noticed the post on Facebook this summer. She's in a group called Being Black in Arizona. And someone started posting memes full of false claims.

MURPHY BANNERMAN: You know, Democrats and Republicans are the same. There's no point in voting. Obama didn't do anything for you during his term. Why should you vote for a Democrat this time around?

BOND: Bannerman is deputy director of Election Protection Arizona, a nonpartisan group that helps people vote. And these kind of messages have groups like hers on high alert.

BANNERMAN: You know, essentially really trying to push this narrative of, the system is a mess and there's no point in you participating.

BOND: In most cases, it's not clear who is behind the disinformation. But what makes these hoaxes so powerful is not where they come from; it's how successfully they tap into voters' worries. That's what Russians tried to do in the 2016 election when they disproportionately targeted Black Americans on social media.

DWIGHT BULLARD: When you think about the 2016 Russian influence, especially among Black voters, it was basically bringing a kind of internal discussions that Black people have been having for decades, right?

BOND: Dwight Bullard is political director for the New Florida Majority, a progressive voting rights group.

BULLARD: And you're putting information out about why your vote doesn't matter because they're not going to look out for Black people anyway. That's a discussion at the barbershop. That's a discussion that happens around kitchen tables every weekend.

BOND: For activist Andre Banks, these unwelcome suggestions that Black Americans sit out the election are all too familiar. He says this is just the latest chapter in a long history of voter suppression.

ANDRE BANKS: We are now talking about this misinformation as a part of the same trajectory as a poll tax, as a literacy test, a sustained campaign targeted at Black Americans and often brown Americans as well to limit our ability to shape the decisions that are made in this country. And so...

BOND: And so Banks co-founded Win Black, a campaign to guard against the kind of disinformation that spread online four years ago.

BANKS: That looked like Russian foreign agents creating groups called things like blactivists (ph), sort of masquerading as Black Americans, turning that conversation toward bad information and often toward deep cynicism that made people sort of less inspired to participate.

BOND: It's not clear how effective these tactics were, but Banks says this year, suppression efforts are being pushed by all kinds of sources inside the U.S., online and offline.

BANKS: Everything from robocalls to paid networks of trolls popularizing untrue information. It's really definitely happening in a broad scale.

BOND: Last week, Win Black and a partner group in Texas put up billboards assuring voters it's safe to return their ballots by mail. That was in response to flyers that appeared in some majority-Latino neighborhoods, claiming falsely that the Postal Service would collect voters' information from ballots and put it in a government database. The volume of these false claims is only rising the closer we get to Election Day. So activists are also turning to social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THE KID MERO: That wild meme your uncle sent you with a conspiracy about COVID and mail-in voting - it might be from Moscow.

DESUS NICE: No joke.

BOND: That's comedy duo Desus and Mero, part of a new campaign from Win Black and basketball star LeBron James. The goal - to help young Black and Latino voters spot and resist attempts to silence their votes.

Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.