How these Detroit women combated mis- and disinformation campaigns in the 2020 election

If not for these grassroots efforts in Detroit and beyond, the election could have turned out very differently.

As a veteran logistics professional, Sommer Woods had a lot of experience with overseeing major events and making sure they ran smoothly. But what happened on Nov. 4 at TCF Center in downtown Detroit was nothing like she had ever seen. She was brought on to make sure the count was properly administered. She was to ensure that ballot counters and challengers were properly registered and checked into TCF and that social distancing protocols were followed.

 

At the same time, Republican-leaning Facebook group posts began surfacing in the hours after the polls closed with calls to head to TCF Center to serve as challengers (click here for a timeline). These rumblings were the last thing on Woods’ mind. That is, until she received a call from Kamilia Landrum, executive director of the NAACP Detroit branch.

 

“Have you seen an influx of Republican challengers come in?” Landrum asked.

 

The inquiry didn’t faze Woods too much, other than to keep it on her radar, unaware of the online chatter that was spreading false claims of widespread voter fraud.

 

But what unfolded on Nov. 4 was like nothing she had ever seen. Woods and other election workers quickly found themselves confronted by a mob of conspiracy theorists.

 

“I started noticing that more and more people were asking questions at the front door, trying to distract people, trying to get in,” says Woods, 43, a lifelong Detroiter.
Sommer Woods was brought on to make sure the count was properly administered.
Emboldened by false claims of widespread voter fraud being committed in majority-Black cities across the country, the throng of protesters banged on the window of a room where the count was taking place, chanted “stop the count,” and posted videos online in an attempt to show that the team of election officials was trying to stop legitimate challengers from being let in to observe the count, that there was something to hide.

 

[Related: Photo essay: Scenes from election 2020 in Detroit]

 

If Woods and others didn’t act quickly to control the crowds, not only could the scene turn into a security and public health risk, but it also could suppress the ballots of thousands of Black voters, which would just be the first of other instances when Detroit votes were targeted following the election, including when two GOP members of Wayne County Board of Canvassers said they lacked confidence that the election was fair and impartial, despite the lack of evidence of impropriety or fraud. Woods turned to an attorney friend for advice, sensing that the agitators could try to sue the city of Detroit if the situation wasn’t handled carefully.

 

Woods had worked on multiple campaigns, including under Mayor Dave Bing as the city’s film, culture and special events director, as well as handled community engagement for Super Bowl XL.

 

“I am a very conscious person about what can pop off, I have been in logistics for 20 years, but never did it occur that they would be banging on the window. Never,” she says.

 

Police intervened and stopped poll challengers from entering a room where a team of mostly Black women volunteers were counting ballots. What made the difference, Woods says, was that the team knew the election process, which helped to keep the protesters from being able to control the situation.

 

The scene made national headlines and Sommers and others were heralded for their efforts in preventing a siege that reminds Sommers of what could have ended in bloodshed, as it did on Jan. 6 when an angry mob breached the Capitol in an effort to stop the certification of President Biden's election victory.

 

In Detroit as in other American cities, mis- and disinformation campaigns, old and new, took hold in communities of color — from widespread confusion that ensued over how voters could get their ballots counted in the age of the coronavirus; chatter in online communities that politicized efforts to curb the spread of the pandemic; to real-life confrontations that reverberated from downtown Detroit to the nation’s Capitol.

 

Despite these efforts, Detroiters turned out to vote in higher numbers than in 2016 at 49.6%, with Biden winning 94% of the vote in the city (he got 50.5% of the vote statewide). The results, however, didn’t stop repeated debunked claims in now-deleted Trump tweets that there were far more votes in Detroit than there were people.

 

As part of the Election SOS journalism project, Model D has identified several instances of voter suppression campaigns and the grassroots-led efforts by mostly women of color who combated them. If not for these efforts in Detroit and beyond, the election could have turned out very differently.

 

“When you think about the idea of ‘being a part of the process of democracy’ it’s about dismantling systems that people don’t want to be dismantled,” says Woods.

 

A new chapter in misinformation

 

Mis- and disinformation are tried and true tactics to sow confusion, intimidation, and mistrust among voters from the country’s earliest elections. But in the age of digital media and Donald Trump, who used platforms like Twitter to amplify false narratives, experts witnessed these efforts unfold as they happened.

 

“We saw mis- and disinformation targeting Black and Latinx communities, and this year in real time,” says Aimee Rinehart, deputy director of First Draft, a nonprofit founded in 2015 to look at and verify social media content and unofficial sources, and this year, its researchers had to verify official sources. “We were just learning about some of the 2016 targeting of these communities in the fall of 2020, so to watch it unfold in real time was astonishing. We also saw a lot of mis- and disinformation coming directly from official sources like candidates for Congress and even the president and his email and social media campaigns.”

 

According to First Draft co-founder and director Claire Wardle, many agents of disinformation use “tactics [that] center around polluting the information ecosystem by seeding misleading or fabricated content."

 

The end goal: to catch the attention of journalists who routinely turn to online sources to inform their newsgathering. First Draft often references its “trumpet of amplification,” an infographic that illustrates the journey that disinformation often takes, during the many training sessions on information disorder that it provides to newsrooms across the country. The trumpet often starts off as rumors and fabricated content on the anonymous web (on platforms like 4chan and Discord), then moves into closed or semi-closed groups (Twitter DM groups, Facebook or WhatsApp groups), onto conspiracy communities on Reddit Forums or YouTube channels, and then onto open social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, frequently elevated when influencers share it. At this point, it often moves into the professional media.

 

In the months leading up to the election, one need only look to the many platforms where disinformation flourishes to see the signs that the results of the election would be protested.

 

The pandemic and the shutdowns and policies enacted in its wake to curb the spread of COVID-19 have been highly politicized during this historic election cycle. In my role with First Draft, I spent each day over the course of several months recording online chatter around the pandemic, the election, U.S. Census, the economic downturn, and protests around racial injustice by looking at the keywords often associated with these topics. I used tools like Crowdtangle to identify posts that were trending on a hyperlocal level, boolean searches on Tweet Deck to see how users were talking about issues on Twitter, Google Reverse Image Search to research the origin of questionable photos, and OpenSecrets.org, a site founded by the nonpartisan nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics to track the donors behind some of the content I came across.
 

“When you think about the idea of ‘being a part of the process of democracy’ it’s about dismantling systems that people don’t want to be dismantled.” — Sommer Woods

 

These threads usually covered specific themes, starting off as confusion or outrage over mask-wearing or the statewide shutdown. The conversation turned political early on as #liberatemichigan narratives and posts about kidnapping Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer began to pop up on my dashboard as early as late March and April. I saw many instances of unfounded claims that mail-in ballots were subject to widespread fraud, a common tactic used by the Republican Party to prevent marginalized communities from having easier access to voting.

 

The comments didn’t necessarily come from social media accounts with huge followings. Many came from what appeared to be regular residents who shared concerns around these topics in public Facebook groups in the communities they lived in, on Twitter, apps like Nextdoor, or WhatsApp groups. But in many of these instances, this hyperlocal online dialogue was often amplified by ring-wing conspiracy theory media sites, on YouTube, and Trump.

 

Much of the misinformation and disinformation I observed tended to come from the right, but left-leaning sources can add to the noise of misinformation and disinformation, which can frustrate and confuse voters. Experts interviewed in an article for Politico expressed concerns about how "advocacy-cloaked-in-journalism tactic is pouring gasoline on a raging fire of consumer trust and online disinformation," Politico reported.

 

Using OpenSecrets.org, I found that Courier Newsroom, which describes itself as a progressive media company, spent more than $8 million in political ads on Facebook between January and November 2020 in several battleground states including in Michigan. Courier Newsroom was founded by Tara McGowan, who previously ran a progressive Super PAC and was a digital producer for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. Courier is owned by the nonprofit Acronym, and other investors, though Acronym does not disclose its donors. In 2020, Courier launched The 'Gander in Michigan.

 

Over the course of my fellowship, much of the online chatter that I monitored spilled over into the real world with often violent outcomes: during the spring when armed protesters entered the Lansing Statehouse, in October when several men were charged by federal authorities for plotting to kidnap Whitmer, and when several super-spreader events sprouted up throughout the year when Michiganders who failed to adhere to social distancing and mask-wearing recommendations were diagnosed with COVID-19 after attending large gatherings.

 

As for the elections, “voter depression” campaigns were a common means of discouraging communities of color, who are more likely to vote Democrat, from casting their ballots. Also, historically disenfranchised groups often struggle to be civically engaged. Voter depression, Rinehart says, exploits communities’ distrust of government and elections to create a "why bother?" mentality.

 

“They were just enough to remove motivation from someone to go to the polls and cast a vote. Some of the messages were: You can't change it anyway, or both candidates are the same so why bother?” says Rinehart.

 

Rinehart says mis- and disinformation campaigns work, in part, because they are relatively cheap to execute. To be successful, mis- and disinformation does not have to keep everyone home from voting, just enough to sway an election. It doesn't have to convince everything and everyone is against them, just enough to instill doubt. And it's not unique to just 2020.

 

“Expect more of the same in future elections,” she says.

 

Black and brown voter turnout has historically been lower than white voter turnout, so any efforts to discourage as many communities of color from casting a ballot could have had an impact on the result of the election.

 

According to the Pew Research Center, white adults historically have had the highest rate of voter turnout. In the 2016 election, for example, about two-thirds of eligible white adults voted. Black adults also historically have had relatively high rates of voter turnout, though typically slightly lower than white adults.

 

By contrast, Asian and Hispanic adults have had historically lower voter turnout rates, with about half reporting that they voted in 2016, according to Pew.

 

Trump benefited from lower Black and brown voter turnout when he narrowly won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes. The Black voter turnout rate declined for the first time in 20 years in 2016, falling to 59.6% after having reached a record-high 66.6% in 2012. It was the largest percentage-point decline among any racial or ethnic group in years.
Community activist Gabriela Santiago-Romero Santiago-Romero says that what she saw in Southwest Detroit was a perfect storm of crises converging.
Gabriela Santiago-Romero, a community activist and policy and research director for We The People Michigan, saw Trump’s efforts in full view as a volunteer for the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016. Part of where the Clinton campaign fell apart, she says, was in its failure to speak to communities of color, instead assuming that they would automatically vote Democrat.

 

Familiar tactics, higher stakes

 

While what unfolded at TCF Center and in Washington highlight some of the more extreme outcomes of the disinformation campaigns that threatened the election, the ways in which the pandemic upended everyday life certainly contributed to the flow of information disorder.

 

Santiago-Romero says that what she saw in Southwest Detroit was a perfect storm of crises converging.

 

As officials and elections watchdogs anticipated an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots to be cast in the November election in response to social distancing guidelines, conflicting advice and disinformation over the manner that individuals could vote raged. In Detroit specifically, polls did remain open, but many throughout the city and beyond were relocated, which caused confusion among voters.

 

Santiago-Romero says she received a robocall from what sounded like a legitimate community organization that falsely claimed that if she mailed in her ballot, authorities and bill collectors would have access to her personal information and could come after her.

 

Locally, calls were reported in cities like Dearborn, Hamtramck, and Flint, communities with high concentrations of communities of color. NPR reports that Michigan was among several states including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and New York, where tens of thousands of residents were targeted by a robocall scheme to discourage voters from turning out. The effort was launched by two right-wing operatives who have since been charged with using the calls to intimidate voters, a felony.

 

“I knew that if I’m getting this call this means that many others are getting this call,” she says. “That this was coming from a seemingly trusted source is really damaging.”

 

Santiago-Romero, who had earlier in the year run a close but unsuccessful campaign to unseat her district’s incumbent Wayne County Commissioner, used her Spanish-speaking skills to appear in video content produced by the Secretary of State’s office and in a Facebook Live event organized by Michigan United that provided voters with information on registration deadlines, how to apply to vote absentee, and break down common misconceptions about the voting process.

 

She was also part of a panel of Latino activists across Michigan assembled by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United Michigan chapter who shared insights about the issues they observed in their communities. The group was able to expand the reach of their efforts across their respective networks to increase the reach of their messaging.

 

“Since we were all also in constant communication, that circle of Latino leaders… could hear from others,” she says.

 

Rebeka Islam, director of American and Pacific Islander Vote - Michigan says that she heard reports from constituents about a different robocall hoax on Election Day informing them that because lines were so long at the polls, voters could cast their ballots in person on Nov. 4, the day after the election.

 

“Immediately we had to call all our constituents, because we didn’t know who all received those calls, and sent text messages letting them know that it was OK to go vote (on Nov. 3),” she said.
 

“We saw mis- and disinformation targeting Black and Latinx communities, and this year in real time.” — Aimee Rinehart, deputy director of First Draft
 

Islam says that one contributor to the spread of misinformation in the communities APIA Vote Michigan serves is that many of the trusted sources of information in these populations — mosques, imams, and other community leaders — were no longer accessible as physical locations closed.

 

To help address that dilemma, Michigan APIA organizers made some 500,000 calls to let residents know how to register to vote, how to cast mail-in ballots, and other pieces of information to ensure that voters knew how to navigate the unprecedented changes in the voting process. They also turned to text messaging and WhatsApp, a popular SMS platform in diaspora communities, to spread accurate information when traditional news sources weren’t available in languages that immigrant communities could understand. The group paid particular focus on distributing information — in collaboration with the Language Task Force, a new initiative developed by the Michigan Secretary of State — in Bangla, Tagalog, Urdu, Korean, and Mandarin.

 

“Whenever we saw misinformation spread we tried to clarify that as much as possible,” she says.

 

Ofelia Torres, a community organizer with the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, noted similar data voids in Detroit’s Spanish-speaking community. She and others produced a series of Facebook Live posts to let people know about voter ID requirements, locations of drop-off ballot boxes, and to let folks who still wanted to vote in-person where they could do so. The DHDC also held socially-distance-friendly events featuring DJ’s, tacos, and activities for kids at Clark Park to engage voters.

 

The group had their work cut out for them up until Election Day, when on Nov. 2, the last day that absentee ballots could be placed in ballot boxes and be counted, a line formed at the drop-off box at Clark Park with residents trying to submit their votes. The drop-off box was scheduled to close at 4 p.m. Torres says she and others advocated who had been in line before the cut-off time could still cast their votes. Torres says that on Election Day, voters reported not being able to vote at Maybury Elementary School when they failed to present identification. In Michigan, if a voter shows up to vote and does not have ID, they can still cast a ballot as long as they sign an affidavit.

 

Both Santiago-Romero and Torres say that without many options for local news in Spanish available, many Latinx families rely on each other for guidance, which does usually help fill information voids. But that can only go so far when unverified information is spread.

 

Torres says that residents who rely on national media organizations like Telemundo — the largest American Spanish-language television network — are also vulnerable to being exposed to racial bias.

 

As Black Lives Matter protests took place all over the country during the summer months, for example, the network faced criticism over how they were covered. Meanwhile, other Spanish-language outlets have faced criticism for spreading racially-charged misinformation.

 

According to the New York Times, a Spanish-language talk radio show host claimed that a Black Lives Matter co-founder practiced brujería (witchcraft) and that support for Biden was in essence support for the devil.

 

“We heard about anti-blackness [sentiments] in news reports on Telemundo in the summer during the BLM protests, making it seem like the protesters are trouble-makers,” she says.

 

Much of this type of misinformation can be traced to groups in South Florida, home to one of the largest concentrations of Latinos — in particular, Cubans and Venezuelan-Americans who hold more conservative views.

 

While Michigan Latinos weren’t targeted by this chatter specifically, Torres worries that local Latinos who rely on the major Spanish-language networks for news will be exposed to the misinformation narratives, and could potentially be influenced.

 

There are currently no Spanish-language news stations locally and just one or two radio stations that provide Spanish-speakers with news in the Detroit area.

 

“We’re [Black and Latino] are on the same side, because how they treat them is how they treat us. They’re the biggest media outlet in the world, millions of people rely on them for news, it’s what our abuelita [grandmother] sees, for what’s going on.”
Ofelia Torres is a community organizer with the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation.
A legacy of activism to move forward

 

To be clear, the forms of activism undertaken by the organizers I spoke to aren’t new.

 

Many of the volunteers who counted the ballots and served as challengers at TCF Center have done so for decades, lending a level of experience that ensures that the votes of the city's mostly Black populace get counted.

 

2020 was Woods’ first experience helping with an election but many of her friends are faithful volunteers every election cycle. Woods says after witnessing what happened on Nov. 4, she is committed to volunteering in the future.

 

“I feel a greater sense of connection to the process,” Woods says. “In the era we are living in, we sometimes take things for granted. It’s way different when you’re in the throes of it. I do feel that it’s an obligation. I will never not be a part of the process again.”

 

A similar legacy can be said of organizers in other BIPOC communities. Islam says that APIA-Vote has always focused its efforts on language access to its constituents, as is the case in Southwest Detroit, where community members often take the place of traditional media to inform their neighbors.

 

For Woods, her experience at TCF Center opened her eyes to the lengths that those who are seeking to silence the voices of communities of color are willing to take, using online disinformation campaigns as their weapon.

 

“The rhetoric is not going to stop,” she says. “No, they’re just getting started, they’re evoking emotion, that’s just marketing 101. They’re going to continue to find ways to continue to oppress the vote. They have seen what can happen when they tap into those emotions.”

 

Serena Maria Daniels was a local fellow for First Draft, a nonprofit organization dedicated to researching and collaborating with newsrooms to track and combat online mis and disinformation trends online. This project was supported by Election SOS, which offers training and resources for journalists, connecting them to best practices, resources and support around election coverage. Election SOS is managed by the consultancy Hearken with the support of Trusting News, is fiscally sponsored by the American Press Institute, and is principally funded by The Democracy Fund and the Trusted Elections Fund Project.

Read more articles by Serena Maria Daniels.

Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning journalist, food writer, and the founder of Tostada Magazine. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @serenamaria36. Read more of her reporting here.