Harvard Kicks Off Workshop Series Confronting Disinformation Online

Harvard University is hosting Political Pandemonium 2020 to highlight the online battleground in the struggle to contend with racism. Photo courtesy of Martha Schnee.

By Maxwell Carter

Researchers warned of concerted racist disinformation campaigns on social media on Wednesday during the first session of the Political Pandemonium 2020 workshop series, hosted by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School.

Joan Donovan is director of research at the center and leads their Technology and Social Change Project in researching and combatting media manipulation. She said the panel, titled “What Does it Mean to Protest Today? Media Manipulation and the Movement for Black Lives,” was about exploring the impacts of social media on contemporary civil rights demonstrations.

“Our society right now is embroiled in protests, a pandemic and the upcoming political election,” said Donovan. “We’ve never really faced a situation like this in the past.”

And memes are driving much of the conversation, added Thabisile Griffin, an LA-based activist and Ph.D. student sitting on the panel. “They sometimes flatten things that we take years to think about, learn about, comb through,” Griffin said. “But they’re useful because everybody and anybody has access to them.”

Griffin describes this as the “dual nature” of social media. It is at once a place for rapid resource sharing and a source of confusion. The latter is driven, in part, by organized disinformation campaigns which have been running interference against the Black Lives Matter Foundation and journalists need to start paying more attention, said Donovan.

Joan Donovan is one of the preeminent scholars on media disinformation and convened the Political Pandemonium 2020 workshop series to address the unique challenges presented by social media. Photo courtesy of Data & Society.

The question of what to believe has been weaponized by far-right strategist Steve Bannon who famously declared that if he couldn’t advance the conservative agenda with facts and solid arguments to “flood the zone with shit.”

“The idea is that if you can’t find true information the next best thing is to find garbage,” Donovan said. “You don’t necessarily have to believe it, it just has to cast doubt.”

This strategy was put to use in June to smear the fundraising efforts of Black Lives Matter Foundation Inc., a decentralized anti-racist political advocacy organization founded by Black women in the wake of the 2014 killing of Trayvon Martin. Right-wing accounts on Twitter claimed BLM Inc. was diverting all fundraising to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign fund. Screenshots of the most successful campaigns on Act Blue, the fundraising platform BLM Inc. was using, were used as evidence to support the claim any money people donated to the organization was being forwarded to liberal politicians’ campaigns rather than mutual aid and anti-racist organizing efforts.

Although the claims were eventually debunked, at least one such post was liked more than 25 million times and had more than 21 million retweets and comments. It’s difficult to say how many people, if any, were dissuaded from donating, but the campaign proved successful in other way, Donovan said.

“If I have to spend most of my time combatting campaigns that are pretty much a mirage, I don’t really gain any ground,” Donovan said of the dilemma facing activists online.

While BLM Inc. is busy fighting for legitimacy online, the communities they support continue to face violence and precarity. The coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately affecting communities of color and mutual aid networks like BLM Inc. are more necessary than ever, said Donovan.

The workshop panelists acknowledged that the current moment is unprecedented, but insisted that looking into our past is necessary to understanding what’s possible now. The endeavor is a form of “anticipatory social science,” according to Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council and a scholar of mutual aid during the Black Panther movement.

“There’s always these powerful alternative visions,” said Nelson. “The challenge then, for all of us, is how these visions get actualized and scaled.”

About Maxwell Carter 4 Articles
Maxwell Carter earned his bachelor's degree from Hampshire College in 2017 before attending graduate school at Emerson for journalism. Maxwell is fascinated by social movements and cultural politics. He is building a career as an investigative journalist with an interest in working in audio. Maxwell is always looking for people to collaborate with so don't hesitate to reach out.