The first sentence of a recently released report on the 2020 elections, Democracy Defended, by my organization, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), reads: “Democracy was on the ballot in 2020.” As we all know, democracy is still on the ballot. It will be on the ballot in 2021 and 2022—and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The country we thought we knew, the norms we thought were inviolate, and the truths that united us even as we struggled, are all under siege in ways that we have not seen in recent or distant memory.
During the 2016 and the 2020 election seasons, as we sought to understand what was occurring in the United States, I looked to books about authoritarianism, fascism, and tyranny to understand whether America was indeed heading in that direction. It was not surprising to see the critical common thread of political manipulation through the spread of disinformation in these texts—and the parallels to what we are experiencing in the United States.
Indeed, we learned that in 2016 the Trump campaign and foreign operatives had targeted Black voters through online messaging designed to provoke anger at established institutions and politicians for historic and structural mistreatment. This messaging was employed to stop Black people from voting: either by encouraging them to send a message by boycotting the election—or by convincing them that the system is corrupt, so voting doesn’t matter. We also learned how Big Tech’s algorithms were being used to feed a constant stream of hate-filled, racist, and extreme messaging to incite and divide the nation. Civil rights leaders have been pushing for companies like Facebook to address these problems, but the response has been insufficient.
In 2020, we watched in shock and dismay as people with firearms showed up to protest pandemic orders, a plot to kidnap Michigan’s sitting governor was revealed, and people with assault weapons at polling places and caravans of vehicles tried to intimidate voters. We watched on Jan. 6, 2021, as domestic terrorists—prompted by a sitting president—used violence to disrupt the peaceful transfer of presidential power. The attempted coup occurred under the false flag of “stop the steal,” a gross misinformation campaign alleging nonexistent electoral fraud, when in fact it was the flag bearers and their supporters inside who were attempting to carry off the theft of the election–and democracy itself. And while they may have failed that day, they haven’t stopped spreading the false narrative.
After all of this, we saw the rise of well-funded, organized efforts in state legislatures across the country to enact laws to suppress the vote, efforts to continuously audit the election results to sow doubt about the integrity of our electoral process, and a campaign to stoke racial division by denying schools and educators the ability to teach our children the truth about the racial history of the United States. The campaign attacking school history curricula has co-opted an academic legal framework about structural racism—known as critical race theory—and turned it into a sound bite for a head-on challenge to the honest teaching of history.
This promotion of a false narrative through the omission of historically accurate information seeks enforcement through law and regulation. And, just as this effort divides and incites the electorate in advance of the upcoming elections, the ignorance of our history promotes a false sense of white entitlement and supremacy among those lacking an understanding of the brutal predatory underpinnings of white privilege, wealth, and advantage that exists in the modern United States. Learning the truth is a benefit to all and the only path forward for the future of our nation.
Black people are painfully aware of the harmful impact of political lies, from the Willie Horton ad of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign to former President Trump’s false proclamations that cities with large Black and Brown populations engaged in widespread voter fraud in the 2020 elections.
We also know the seriousness with which lies and disinformation must be countered, including through litigation like that brought by LDF challenging Donald Trump’s attacks on Black voters and efforts to stop the certification of votes from Detroit. These falsehoods must be confronted until they are defeated.
So, when asked about the role of disinformation and lies in the most sacred democratic process—the electoral process—my view is that we need to be bold, aggressive, and smart. We have many allies in this fight. We have true victories, as is clear from the historic voter turnout in the 2020 elections. We can defeat the use of disinformation to sow chaos, doubt, and fear by pressing our government for laws that protect democracy and promote the truth, while we practice the same in our public and private lives:
- We must press for the passage of the laws that protect free and open access to the ballot, including the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 and proposals like the Freedom to Vote Act.
- The Department of Justice must enforce Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce voters and those, such as state and local elections officials, who count and certify votes.
- We must build the infrastructure to effectively regulate the social media and tech industries, to require transparency in their use of algorithms, to mandate the immediate removal of false information from their platforms along with the individuals who promote these falsehoods, and to stop the use of harmful algorithms, such as those that fuel racial hatred and bigotry.
- We must fight against the movement to force our children into ignorance by countering efforts to prohibit schools and educators from teaching the racial history of the United States.
- We must hold politicians accountable by voting against those who champion false narratives.
- We must protect the freedom of the press and journalists.
- We must protect the integrity of our election administration processes and protect the election officials, who are on the front lines in that process, from threats and acts of violence.
Janell Byrd-Chichester is the director of the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.