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Protecting the Black Vote During COVID-19

Virtual Roundtables

Activists and policy experts look at how disinformation is being used to reduce Black voter turnout and further disenfranchise communities of color.

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Video: Protecting the Black Vote During COVID-19

Part of the Race, Tech & Civil Society Event Series

In June, the Digital Civil Society Lab, the Center on Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity, and Digital Impact launched a series of conversations about Race, Tech, and Civil Society. In this session, Mutale Nkonde shared her work on “disinformation creep” — or the use of coronavirus disinformation to sow resentment and distrust of government among Black communities, with the aim of reducing Black voter turnout for the general election.


Mutale Nkonde, Non-Resident Fellow at DCSL
LaTosha Brown, Co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund
Leonard Cortana, PhD candidate at New York University
Charlton McIlwain, Media, Culture & Communication Professor at NYU Steinhardt School
Maria Rodriguez, Assistant Professor at Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work


COVID-19 promises to have a significant impact on the 2020 US Presidential Election. This involves a complex web of issues including the communities that have been impacted, how citizens are casting their ballots, and the trust that Americans have in the local, state, and federal government. In this session, Mutale Nkonde discusses her work on “disinformation creep” — or the use of coronavirus disinformation to sow resentment and distrust of government among Black communities, with the aim of reducing Black voter turnout for the general election. Her recent research shows that significant Black Twitter influencers are using these tactics to drive a wedge between Black voters and the Democratic party. This threatens to compound the historical legacy of Black voter suppression, and further disenfranchise the communities of color hardest hit by coronavirus-related deaths. Joining her in conversation are LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund;  Leonard Cortana, PhD candidate at New York University; Charlton McIlwain, Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at the NYU Steinhardt School; and Maria Rodriguez, Assistant Professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.


00:00:00 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: So I want to get us all started. And welcome everyone who is joining us this morning from the United States and from across the world and already seeing a bunch of people from all over. This is the second event in our series on Race, Technology and Civil Society. My name is Heather Robinson, and I’m the Program Manager for the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford. And I am just thrilled that today’s topic. It is protecting the Black vote during COVID-19. We have some incredible experts joining us today for a really vibrant conversation.

Before we start with our content, I want to cover just a few items of business which includes our community standards, and ways that you can participate in the discussion. So our community standards. Standard packs along with our partners CCSRE and Digital Impact are committed to providing rigorous academic discussions and a welcoming environment for all speakers and attendees. So please note that we will not tolerate any individuals who attempt to disrupt the conversation, or use inappropriate language or harass other participants and speakers. We reserve the right to remove individuals from this event. And for participation, we really invite and encourage you to join the conversation with us in a number of ways. I see that you’re all already using the chat. But I want to emphasize that if you want questions answered by the panel at the end of our event today, please use the Q&A feature because that’s the easiest way for us to keep track of those questions.

Our communications teams are going to be live tweeting from our institutional accounts which are @StanfordPACS @stanfordccsre @DigCivSoc and @dgtlimpact. And we really encourage you to tweet your own comments with #RaceTechCS and the Twitter handles for today we’re in our opening slide, but you’ll also see them in the tweets coming out from our institutional accounts. If you have any technical trouble with the call, you are welcome to email or send a private message through the chat box to the host of the call and we’ll take care of that for you.

Before we move into our content, I want to pause and recognize that Stanford University stands on the indigenous land of the Muwekma Ohlone people. Our panelists and our attendees are joining us from across the United States and the world. And that’s from the unseeded land of many, many different peoples. So even though we assemble virtually we acknowledge the ways that we’ve benefited from inhabiting this land. We acknowledge the ways that our communities are built on a legacy of slavery. Let us pay our respects to all of these ancestors and their descendants in the present and the future, as well as the land that we stand on with a moment of silence.

So, we have organized the series Race, Tech & Civil Society as a joint effort between the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, the Center on Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and Digital Impact. We’re bringing together practitioners, scholars and other experts to have these conversations. And that’s because we really think that the intersection of all these different perspectives is really critical to living in our society.

So a little bit about the Digital Civil Society Lab and some framing for our discussion today. The Digital Civil Society lab seeks to understand, inform, and protect civil society in a digitally dependent world. So our goal is to foster a thriving and independent digital civil society that’s rooted in a democratic commitment to freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech — and I want to recognize that our country really has a complicated and racialized commitment to these freedoms right now. As well as, you know, a complicated relationship to the issue of who is participating in our democracy. The Black Lives Matter protests that we’ve seen happening across the country in the past few weeks have begun leading to changes in policing and institutional policies. And that reminds us how critical Black voices are to moving us into a more equitable society. But it also reminds us that there’s just so much more work to be done. So today, I’m absolutely honored that we’re going to be able to talk about protecting the Black vote starting here in the US, but also bringing in some perspectives from other places across the world. And I’m honored that we’re going to be able to speak to Mutale Nkonde and be joined in conversation by LaTosha Brown, Leonard Cortana, Charlton McIlwain and Maria Rodriguez.

So briefly, I want to let my colleagues Jennifer DeVere Brody, introduce the Center on Comparative Studies and Race and Ethnicity. And then Chris Delatorre will introduce Digital Impact. So Jennifer, tell us about the center. Is Jennifer here or should I go to Chris? Go ahead, Jennifer Oh, I can’t we can’t hear Jennifer. I’m so sorry. But while Jennifer is dealing with that, Chris, can you give us a few words about Digital Impact?

00:06:53 CHRIS DELATORRE: Absolutely. Happy to jump in. Good morning, everyone. And thanks so much for joining us today. I’m Chris Delatorre, editor at Digital In case you’re new to Digital Impact, we’re a program of The Digital Civil Society Lab. And we’re focused on safe, ethical, and effective use of digital resources in the social sector. As you can imagine, many conversations we’re hosting and looking to host are at the center of what’s happening right now in the world. One of the main things we’re working on now is building a vibrant community on from the ground up. We really want to make a safe and informative space for policymakers, practitioners, activists, other professionals in the social sector, who work with data and technology, digital technologies to connect, collaborate, and perhaps most importantly, really sound off on what’s happening right now, what is and isn’t working, so to speak. So tech ethics and policy is a huge part of that. And we are inviting Black voices in tech around the world to join us. So we’re really excited to see what happens, what comes from this community that we’re building because it’s all about you.

And also, if you’re on Twitter, we have something happening in a few weeks. Mark your calendars. On Thursday, July 9th, we’re hosting a Twitter chat to explore the topics covered in the first two parts of this series, the Race, Tech & Civil Society series. So you know, Black and Brown surveillance of Black and Brown bodies in Detroit, things like that. All the way to suppressing the Black vote COMPROP and protecting the Black vote come November. So for more info, please follow us on Twitter @dgtlimpact. Thanks so much. Very much looking forward to this conversation. Thanks to all the panelists and thanks, Heather. Back to you.

00:08:53 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: All right, Jennifer, let’s see if your mic is working now. No, I can’t hear you at all. But Jennifer sent a couple of comments over to me in the chat. So I want to make sure that we cover these. SO, The Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity is the center at Stanford for promoting racial justice. They have a fantastic program that includes classes, research, and a whole variety of topics. I recommend you to check them out. And I’m probably not doing them justice in my comments. But Jennifer also says that her grandmother worked for the vote in the segregated Black YWCA in Memphis, so I’m sure this topic is very close to her heart. I’m so sorry that we’re not getting your mic to work, Jennifer. But now I want to move the conversation over to Charlton McIlwain who will kick us off. Charlton, go ahead.

00:09:55 CHARLTON MCILWAIN: Absolutely. Thank you. Just getting my mic and mute all those things squared away. Thank you so much for the invitation to be here. Thank you to Natalie for inviting me, originally, and I really look forward to the back and forth. I’ve prepared some opening remarks and then really look forward to mixing it up and really hearing the conversation with the other panelists. And over the last couple of weeks, I really been, you know, on panels like this and so forth, telling folks that I don’t know that I have much insight to offer. But certainly a lot of observations as I think about our current moment.

And so a lot of what I’ve been thinking about is about 2014 with Ferguson, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and where we are today, sitting here in 2020 coming up on to a presidential election. And so my thoughts really and ruminations are about the juxtaposition of these two moments. Both, in terms of the electoral space, as well as the digital. And so I will simply start here and thinking about 1972, which was until recently, really until 2014, 2015, the last year that US citizens had heralded racial issues among the nation’s most pressing problems.

On the heels of the 2016 presidential election, race and racism ranked third on that list of great, of Americans greatest concerns. In 2016, fewer whites believe that America’s criminal justice system treated whites and Blacks equally than they did when Ferguson, Missouri birthed what we now know as the Black Lives Matter movement. And of course, in the years following Ferguson, Black Lives Matter has become and remains a household phrase. Black Lives Matter was in some ways and continues to be — and again, these are coming from some thoughts back in 2016 when I was writing about Black Lives Matter and some of the aftermath of the movement — Black Lives Matter in some ways continues to be a disruptive moment, reflecting the most visible, persistent and concentrated demonstration of racial justice activism since the 1960s. In addition to some of the public opinion and behavioral shifts, it ignited the movement for Black lives made a considerable impact on our politics, and public policy and some very real ways. I’m thinking back to the Democratic Party in 2016, when it inked in its platforms, the most lengthy, detailed and forthright position statement on racial justice, discrimination and inequality in recent history. And of course, many of us will remember what it took to make that happen. Considerable, deliberate, and persistent pressure and disruption of folks like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in very public ways by Black Lives Matter activists and others.

Also very mindful of the 2016 and the first time that the Republican Party actually did the same, though, of course, their position statements and so forth were certainly less audacious than those of the Democratic Party. But the fact that their party platform began to address issues of race and racial justice, again, significant. For the first time in recent memory, the US Department of Justice, again back 2016 and so documented and described in elaborate detail, through the Ferguson report, how structural institutional racism develops and flourishes in 21st century America. Many public outlets for The Washington Post on mapping police violence began to, for the first time, track the number of police involved shootings and other acts of violence where people of color were, of course, frequently victims. But I’m also very much reminded that the Black voter turnout rate declined for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election in 2016. After reaching a record high of 66% in 2012, of course, the second Obama reelection. The seven point decline from the previous presidential election was the largest on record for Black folks. And this is according to Pew [Research Center]. The number of Black voters also declined by about 765,000, the actual number of Black voters to 16.4 million in 2016, representing a sharp reversal from 2012 when Barack Obama was on the ballot.

And so here we sit in 2020. All around us are massive protests. We have significant pledges for revolutionary reforms that range from defunding police to moratoriums on the development and use of facial recognition technology. I was asked by a journalist a week or so ago about what the difference was between 2014 and now and particularly what the difference was between Black Lives Matter in 2014 and now, and I simply responded that there would be no now without 2014 — without #BlackLivesMatter, without Alicia, Patrisse, and Opal, not now without the Black Lives Matter — the principle, the organization, the decentralized “leaderful” movement.

And so I think when we look out on our landscape and see what’s happening today, there is no mystery why the first words to pass our lips after the recent murders of Brianna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd was Black Lives Matter. And yet, we are reminded that the machinery of disinformation and voter suppression ran rampant in 2016 and 2018. And here we stand anticipating Election Day 2020 when that machinery includes a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black, Latinx and other indigenous communities and other communities of color. And I’m reminded that younger Black citizens that are leading many of our protests and post forcing many of these changes have different views about the value of voting, or I should say, the value of voting as the end all be all, about the ballot being the primary ticket to change. We differ in our faith and institutions, our confidence in a democratic presidential candidate, who in many ways, represents the system that we trying to disrupt and dismantle. And my thoughts go back to the 80s and the comprehensive Crime Control Act of ’84. Drug war legislation that followed in ’86 and ’88. And the ways, again, that our current Democratic Party candidate, reflects for many, what is that our institutional past, that past that we’re trying to undo.

And so this position about the critical disposition that is critical of the singular power of the vote, I think, has a lot of credibility. After all, we have lived a history where Black people vote, and the system remains broke and broken. So I think I’ll stop there, again, with just a few ruminations that all, I think, lead up simply to the ways in which we must be vigilant as we approach the 2020 election cycle — about the relationship between what’s happening on the ground, the revolutionary changes and protest and drives to make significant change, and a machinery that threatens Black voters, Black voices, and has done so historically. Thank you.

00:18:29 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Thank you Charlton, so much, for helping us with the context here. Mutale, I believe we wanted the conversation to go over to you and LaTosha now. Do you want to say a few words?

00:18:41 MUTALE NKONDE: Yes. So, welcome, everybody. It is such a pleasure to welcome you to one of my institution, institutional home. I’m a fellow with the Digital Civil Society Lab and Comparative Race Lab and feel like a much loved and hallowed member of both those communities and I’m so excited that this particular conversation crosses those two areas of study so neatly. So thank you so much Charlton for giving us the, really some of the history of Black Lives Matter, but also pointing out that in 2020, Black voters are not being necessarily presented with the type of utopic answer in Joe Biden that we would hope. But here we are and here we struggle through. And I was really exciting that LaTosha Brown from Black Voters Matter would be able to speak to us because as Charlton has been theorizing and I would say be one of the global experts on Black Lives Matter, but Black lives online. So if you haven’t read his book, Black Software is something that you definitely should read. It’s shaped my thinking as he has throughout the years and really go to the work that Black Voters Matter are doing on the ground and welcome to the Lab, LaTosha Brown. We are so honored to have you.

00:20:10 LATOSHA BROWN Thank you and you were correct as Black Voters. It’s actually not Black Votes, it’s Black Voters, because we believe there are a whole bunch of people who care about Black votes, but don’t care about Black voters. And so we’re, we center Black voters, the people and part of our work. I’m happy to be here and I’ll just you just kind of briefly share a little bit about our work. I know people can see that I’m moving. I’m actually in Kentucky. We were in Kentucky yesterday for the primary and so we’re headed back home. And so it just made sense because of the COVID, we didn’t want to stop anywhere. So so we’re moving, so I apologize that I am bringing this from the car, but you can technically say I’m calling from the road. But Black Voters Matter. We created the organization myself along with Cliff Albright, who we’ve been working together collectively as organizers in the South for the last 25 years. And so we created the organization as a power building organization specifically to center Black voters and the need of Black voters. And so part of what happens in and the way that we approach it in terms of doing it, is to build a grassroot infrastructure. And so what that means is we work currently in 11 states, I guess now it’s 12 states and technically in other places as well that we see there’s a critical need for Black voters could be central in terms of some policy change, or some particular kind of shaping of the political landscape. And in those areas, what we do is we don’t replicate ourselves. We’re not an empire builder where we build. We have Black Voters Matter chapters, but what we do is kind of think of ourselves like special ops. We actually build, build out the capacity of existing grassroot groups, and we do it in a number of ways where we actually make an investment. In 2018 election almost a million dollars we contributed to we did we invested in 120 Black-led grassroots groups in seven states in the Deep South. They’re normally overlooked or not, are not invested in at all. We support them with technical tools, from being able to do text messaging campaigns, to being able to phone banks, being able to do on their social media platforms and online around messaging and narrativeship. And so we use those tools. And I do think that technology is one of the tools right now, if we ever needed it before in terms of organizing, because COVID-19, technology has been the way that we’ve been able to communicate and can and continue to stay in touch with our base, and we’re actually expanding our use of it right now. So I’ll just stop right there. There’s as much more I can say, but I’ll stop here.

00:22:54 MUTALE NKONDE: Thank you so much. So as you can see, we have Charlton on one hand, who is providing us the context for those three words, Black Lives Matter, which we’re really using now, but most specifically in 2014, to bring together a community of people that believed in Black power. And then the model that LaTosha is offering which is so different to any political organizing I’ve done, where you go in six weeks before the election, you try and figure out which Black old ladies vote, you go to the senior center, you you get them to the polls, you go to church, then you never see them again. You never service those communities. And there is no real power built, this really transactional relationship occurs. So, where I’m coming into this conversation is really around this question that LaTosha and Charlton have both spoken to, but I kind of just want to spend a couple of minutes expanding with the group. And it’s this idea about narratives and who votes how we should vote and what the risks are in terms of this information. And in 2020. So, I’m going to share my screen. Don’t laugh when I can’t do it. I study technology. I don’t necessarily do technology. So just bear with me, just bear with me a moment, and we can get this show on the road.

So, I entered this conversation, thanks to — Charlton was actually the very first person that I spoke to back about two years ago when I thought I was going to do a PhD. Because I thought that that was really the only way that you could have voice in the conversation. And he asked me a question whether I wanted to do a PhD or whether I really want to affect change. And that was very pivotal in my thinking in terms of where my information could be deployed. And at the time, we met in a bar in Brooklyn, we were speaking at that time, I’m not sure if he remembers about 2016, and what had happened in terms of voting in 2016. And so I’m really hoping that I can meet you at this point of the Muller report being released in 2017 and Robert Muller, who’s on the screen saying African Americans were the most distant, most targeted group by disinformation in 2016. And one of the things that I did was to start an organization where practitioners could work with the Center for Critical Race and Technology Studies over at NYU that Charlton and others run, to see whether we could translate the research being done there into campaigns that could then be used by groups like LaTosha’s on the ground.

So, through that work, one of the things that we started to look at where if African Americans were the most targeted, why? And that took us really back to the 1930s and some of the propaganda campaigns run by the Stalin government using poster technology where they would have these posters that were showing Black people how terrible the US was, given that we were in a time of recession, and how much better it would be if they were part of the American Communist Party. So here we are in 2020. We are in another such time. We’re in a time of depression. But this time instead of Stalin, we have social media that is now the poster technology and really work through memes. And we’re looking at the work of four groups, but the ones I’m not going to discuss are on the screen. I’ll go through them very quickly, and then go in much more deeply into another group that’s doing off and online organizing. So we have Tariq Nasheed, whose hashtags are generally FBA — that stands for Foundational Black Americans — and really speaks to an American African American experience that is ground that is grounded in a history of enslavement. So their ancestors were here. They’re the real Black people. There’s a real racial purity tone. Umar Johnson, who is not necessarily considered very seriously outside of Black circles — but the thing that is so brilliant about Umar Johnson is that he is really an advocate for Black education and advocate for Black voter education. And again, the same idea of racial purity. Candace Owens who is a conservative blogger, more than that she’s a conservative influencer. And she really parrots the rhetoric of the right and really thinks that the natural party for Black people in the Republican party and really turning us back, you know, pre the Union to go back to our Republican rights and ultimately, Trump who will save us all.

But who I want to speak about in the group I want to speak about for a couple of minutes with you all is a group that is co-founded by Antonio Moore who I couldn’t find a picture of so we just have Yvette Carnell, his co-foundersand they have founded a group called the African Descendants of Slaves or ADOS. So one of the things that ADOS has done is they have been using Twitter almost exclusively since the midterms, to communicate this idea that the only way that Black people can build power in a capitalist system is through reparations. Which I would argue makes perfect sense if we look at the way that redlining and artificially disempowered Black, you know, destructed Black economic power while green lining, which was the opposite policy created this artificial white middle class and they’ve been operating on Twitter. But one of the things that my co-authors who are going to be on the panel with me found is that when COVID-19 started, they started to really use the health disparities to make their larger political points. So if we look at this tweet, we can see that they’re really pointing out how the PPI payment protection insurance payments prove that the US government have the capacity to give reparations. This was parroted in the New York Times. Also, and again, this is not untrue. You know, if reparations were a political position, we would have them. And what they’re doing in that is what we’re calling disinformation creep. So they’re starting with a breaking news story, in this case, COVID. And they’re making it to make this wider political point, and a custom hashtag, ADOS. So we thought that this was really interesting and important, and we wondered what would happen with George Floyd. Because again, we were coming to another breaking news group. And here we here we saw another example of what we think is disinformation creep.

So you see Yvette Carnell, a co-founder of the group. Antonio Moore, another co-founder of the group, and they’re actually in conversation in this tweet. They are saying that one of the reasons that George Floyd was really vulnerable in that time was this idea of multiculturalism in [Minneapolis]. So we have to remember, [Minneapolis] is a city in which you have Sudanese refugees and other Black Muslims, as well as ADOS people who are, you know, foundational, the African American descendants of slaves, and they live together and racialized, all racialized as Black. There again, using this custom hashtag. And I’m looking forward to the panel discussion because I know that Charlton will definitely be educating us around what hashtags are, how people organize around them. And so that will become more clear. But there’s an issue. This is a case of disinformation. The George Floyd, lynching was not because of multiculturalism in [Minneapolis]. The George Floyd lynching really spoke to a much longer history of the lynching of Black bodies, and I would argue Black potential and Black hope in this country, to justify the dawn of a capitalist state. And that capitalist state being built on free labor.

So, it’s with this idea of disinformation creep, I want us to think back to scenes like yesterday in Kentucky, where people were literally banging on doors to have the right to vote, and really conflate that with physically barring people from voting. So a judge has to sign a petition to say the doors can open and the people can vote, versus this online barring people from voting. But in this case, there are capturing the imagination that you have to have this one goal, this one primary goal, or not take place in this civic action. And the thing that I’ll point out about ADOS which I don’t necessarily see covered in the press, is that this is a very loving, this is a very positive experience for the people that are in this group. It provides community, and it provides a pathway to economic viability. But this is one of the problems.

00:32:24 DONALD TRUMP [RECORDED VIDEO]: We did great with [inaudible]. We did great with the African American community [inaudible]. Remember? Remember the famous line because I talked about crime? I talk about lack of education, talk about no jobs. And I’d say what the hell do you have to lose, right? It’s true. And they’re smart, and they picked up on it like you wouldn’t believe. And you know what else? They didn’t come out to vote for Hillary. They didn’t come out. And that was a big, so thank you to the African American community. Thank you.

00:33:01 MUTALE NKONDE: And I would characterize that decision not to come out to vote when we’re in this — where when I would argue we are in a similar situation, now in 2020, as we were in 2016, where the Democratic candidate that we have is not only not as energizing as Obama was to us in ’12, where we have this height of Black voter turnout, but also has a history with the 1996 crime bill, which could really be used against them, but what are the stakes for that? So, in ADOS’s online strategy, they really picked up on this desire for Black people to have a candidate that we can all get behind because they’re just going to, you know, solve our problems and get to our issues. And one of the campaign’s that we looked at very, very early on was Project Vote Down Ballot. And as you can see from this meme that appeared on Twitter in December 2019, what they’re saying is we are not going to vote for a presidential candidate that cannot come through on this, this promise of reparations. So what we’re going to actually do is write ADOS where the president should be, which leads us to the picture that we’ve just seen of Trump where he says Black people did not come out — that’s the equivalent of engaging in that — and voting for the down ballot. And where that really worries us and why we really want to be in conversation with both LaTosha and with Charlton as we think about some of the narratives that were telling Black voters in 2020. We wanted to point out what this actually means for Black political power and our ability to hold a candidate accountable post-November.

So, voting down ballot is something that actually occurred in 2016. In the city of Detroit, which is in Michigan, where which is 89% Black, 80,000 people in that city did not vote at the top of the ticket and voted down ballot. The material consequence of that was flipping that seat from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 and the republican took that swing state by 10,000 votes. So had there been a strategy where despite Hillary Clinton in that case, not being the exciting hope and change candidate that we’d had in 2008, and then by extension in 2012, it led us into this moment, into this leaderless moment. So that’s bad, right? And that takes us to Charlton. But what has this got to do with LaTosha, why did we invite her? Well, ASOS also have an offline strategy, much like the one that she described and again, ADOS is a group that builds community, that is inherently good people doing good things for Black people. And one of the cities that we were able to look at, but this this is all over the country is Philadelphia, where they were using to really talk through and workshop these issues in a city where it is the poorest big city in the United States. And Black families have 40%. — the median income of Black families in the city is 40% less than white cities, as well as during COVID. If you were Black in Philadelphia, you were 30% more likely to contract and die of the disease. And we have seen the emergence of white supremacist protests in the city. So one of the things I’d like to offer for the rest of the conversation is how the how these conditions become a breeding ground for another type of revolution. A revolution in which Black people who are acculturated to voting and who have community around voting don’t vote because they’re being underserved and really start to think about — and this is really why I’m handing over to Heather and you all to have the discussion — think about how can we make sure that our brothers and sisters and the Black Voters Matter coalition have access to the type of work that is being done in the online space. And that we can help build power because where we’re coming from as researchers and as people that want to build power is a place of love and a place where Black people can have power structures in place which we can push against, and not offer any one party or any one personality as the answer. So, thank you for joining me. I am looking forward to what’s coming next. And Heather, I will get back to you.

00:38:00 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Thanks so much Mutale. I want to thank you for really, really interesting and critical work that you’re doing. And so in a minute, I want to ask all of our panelists to just give a few thoughts by way of introducing themselves. But then also what makes the upcoming 2020 election different than other elections that we’ve seen in the past. And I want to remind everyone who’s joining us, all of our viewers that you can use the Q&A function to submit any kinds of questions. And if you’re on Twitter, you can tweet your comments with #RaceTechCS. So, Maria, let’s move it over to you. If you could say a little bit to introduce yourself, and some thoughts on how the 2020 election is different than other elections we’ve seen in the past.

00:38:55 MARIA RODRIGUEZ: Sure, Hi, everyone. My name is Maria Rodriguez. I’m an assistant professor, actually in August at the University of Buffalo at City University of New York. And I sincerely hope you appreciate my Pac Man background because it really makes me happy. So hopefully that does the same for you. My work lies at the intersection of computational social science, social work, and demography. And so my current lines of research are around the ethical implications of algorithmic decision making in human services. As well as looking at the lived experience of marginalized populations, as described by them on social media platforms. And what I think makes this election different than previous elections is that the capacity of technology to rapidly disseminate Information, coupled with what scholars call infodemics, which is just being inundated with so much information that it’s unclear what is true and what is not, multiplied by the marginal, the systemic historical marginalization, of communities of color, and very specifically Black people in the United States and across the globe, and the need for those people when creating community to create community that is insular, that is safe for them, protected for them and really allows them to mitigate the daily experience of being marginalized from all directions, makes it so that folks have had a hard time being part of the electoral process or even buying into the electoral process, frankly, for generations. But this year, there’s also an inordinate amount of information that is coming at them on the only — or their main source of information, given COVID-19, given all of our inability to be social in ways that we may be accustomed to. And so it’s imperative that we think about social media platforms, both the dominant ones but also maybe more marginal ones, open source ones, where there’s less content moderation, where there’s overt and covert ways to keep certain strains of ideological thought active and thriving that we think about how we can intervene on those platforms, how we can intervene at large, if there are ways to inoculate folks against infodemics and disinformation, if there’s a way to create other trusted sources of information, and so on. My role in, I have a small role in the current project that Mutale was talking around about around methods. And so I’m happy to talk about that later on. So with that, I’ll pass.

00:42:43 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Thanks so much, Maria. Leonard, I want to pass it over to you. Just a few words of introduction about yourself and any thoughts on how this election is going to be different than elections in the past.

00:42:55 LEONARD CORTANA: So first of all, I really want to say thank you. Thank you for the stand for Digital Civil Society Lab. Thank you Mutale Nkonde for the invitation, but also I’m very, very privileged to be part of a panel that is intersectional, that is also very much focused on the grassroot movements, and that is very much focused on racial justice. I think that right now we are living in the global pandemics. We’re also living in a moment where people are in the streets. And my first thought goes for the people in the street. The quality of conversation right now is coming from the advocacy, from the work for more than almost a decade, I would say, of Black Lives Matter working on this issue that always thought about the movement also as a global movement, and giving keys for many countries to flow up to work. And coming from the French Caribbean, an island called Guadeloupe and France, so that you know, you can hear my accent so that this is something that you know. Right now I’m calling from Spain and part of my work is to reflect how transnationally narratives of phrase but also activism and racial justice are traveling throughout the world. And one of the things that is extremely important for me to remind everyone is that the question of phrase and the question of vote is transcending the nation states. And we see that today in the power of the street and the people are being able to reappropriate the context and the advocacy in the US and create a narrative that is also talking about what is happening in their own context. I can speak very quickly now I’m in Spain, I was in the protests last weekend, and the Black Lives Matter and the “I Can’t Breathe” a narrative has been very important for refugees and Black immigrants to also speak about the genocide that is happening in the Mediterranean, for instance. And I think that the question of the vote and the question of the access to democracy should become an umbrella. One of the ways that I would start with Europe and maybe in the next, the next answer to speak a bit more about Brazil, but in Europe, that is a complete colorblind. In mainland Europe, when we don’t want to think about race in, in France in 2018, the question of race became on that constitution when we removed the word race, from the Constitution. It’s complicated in those colorblind context to actually bring the question of ethnic statistics, it doesn’t exist. So even thinking about focusing thinking, thinking about the Black voter suppression in those contexts are complicated.

But one of the first provocation that I want to put here is speaking about the Black voter suppression is not an issue of identity politics, which is the defense that many, many policymakers and many people that don’t want to think about those issues are giving. It’s an issue politics, this is access to democracy. This is access to dignity of representation. This is access of giving political empowerment and Blacks for the matter are putting that word power everywhere given to a generation that doesn’t feel affiliated with the current political system, to give a voice to give a network of solidarity, a network of advocacy ,to be part of this movement. So for me, this is the first thing.

The second thing and this is a little bit more part of what is happening in Europe right now. Five days ago, the day before Donald Trump rally in Tulsa, the European Union declared the text — they sent a text called Black Lives Matter. They called the slavery moment as a crime of humanity. They also speak about calling out justice against the US and Europe for using police brutality with a certain tendency to racial communities. And in a sense to urge governments to be able to work on the [inaudible] despite their views about race. That moment, that door that is open right now transnationally, is in and out in communication with what is happening in the US. And the most important for me right now is that that advocacy system is circulating also in the media. What is extremely, extremely dangerous right now for the covering of international media is how we are going to speak about the election 2020 in October. Many, many media outlets have been quite responsible to undermine the shock and to undermine the impact of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil election, seeing it from very far away and not inviting experts, and mainly Black — recentering Black voices and Black expertise on this topic.

And just as a very small provocation to end that, I would like to cite very quickly one article that was that that was published in December, in early January, around the voter suppression issues in Europe, and it’s called “Voter Suppression As We Do in Europe.” So in Europe, we speak a lot about the voter IDs in in England that has the same system and the same intersection between race and class for who holds IDs and the issue that it brings over to suppression. But mainly in mainland Europe, we are using voter suppression to speak about all those different workers living outside of their countries and not being able to vote and to have a voice in the national election. And there is something that I would call like the US as an intimate enemy. So something intimate that we know they have like a similar experience what is happening in Europe but at the same time, pushing the distance as if it’s only happening in the US.

So that article in December is a journalist from Italy that is writing, “voter suppression first emerged in the US between 1885 and 1908 when 11 Southern seven states enacted laws designed to discourage former slave and their descendants from voting.” Since, similar strategies exist in Canada, Australia, and Israel. So that small sentence of introduction is usually what you have around the context of Black voter suppression. History that is not updated, history that doesn’t talk about the advocacy and the work right now, and the importance of updating the Black voter suppression in the work that the Black Voter Matters organization is doing, that remains us a kind of legacy of historical slavery post every context that is also a way to distance European countries for their own histories of slavery. And then to move to the European context as if both are not communicating to each other. So once again, removing that idea that this is not only a race issue, but this is an issue politics, this is we are all winning when we are talking about the issues. And we have to recenter in the Black experience from each and every country that is not showing up at all those activities that have a platform to speak about all the different issues right now in Europe and Latin America.

00:49:27 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Thank you so much, Leonard. I want to bring in Charlton and LaTosha on this topic. And so, a few thoughts about what’s different about the 2020 election. But then also I want to bring in the idea of what is actually unique about Black voters, specifically in this election or any other thoughts on the uniqueness of Black voters overall. Charlton, or, sorry, LaTosha, we can go to you.

00:49:57 LATOSHA BROWN: No, Charlton, that’s fine. However you want.

00:50:00 CHARLTON MCILWAIN: No, Latosha, please.

00:50:02 LATOSHA BROWN: So, I’ll say a couple of things. One thing that I want to I want to talk about is and I want to dispel this because I think that this is part of the narrative. There’s a narrative that talks about kind of Black voters. Even in the extent that we talk about the Hillary Clinton campaign that let me say this. Black voters are not responsible for saving democracy in America. Let me repeat it. Black people are not responsible for saving them. It absolves white people. It absolves white people who vote against their own interests. It absolves them of supporting radical right wing candidates. The bottom line is that in a short period of time, in less than 50 years, y’all, you know, when we’re thinking about the Voting Rights Act, that’s less than that’s 55 years ago, that ultimately, for us to be voting on par with our white counterparts in the hell that we have to do to vote, is actually extraordinary. And with the level of voter suppression that we have, I think it’s really interesting that in the fact that less than that there’s 45% of white Americans who are not voting in America, although they’ve reaped the vast benefit of the political, the social, and the economic. So to put this particular standard on Black voters that we don’t put on white voters, I think we want that first thing to do is dispel that. And what’s really interesting, even Black women voted higher, higher turnout rates than anybody period. So the fact that Black people are voting on par with their white counterparts, yet we reap less benefits, is actually extraordinary. And in fact, what we go through so I just want to raise that. The second thing is, I think that it’s really important for us to recognize what’s different in 2020 is people may not want to say it, I’m going to say it. There is a fascist in the White House, right? If anybody that’s a political scientist that has studied that right now, there’s a fascist in the White House. If we think that this is just another election, and we’re going to go on, it’s almost like the Blockbusters’ Netflix, like Blockbuster continue to see the world in the market the way it was, and that’s why they don’t exist, right? And so then Netflix came in, they delivered the same exact thing. Which was given home people to have access to movies in their home, right? My point is that if we can’t fundamentally distinguish and have an analysis that there is a fascist — I’m not talking about Republican, Democrat, whatever you want to call — fascist in the White House, then then we’ve missed the mark. Right? And that the third thing is part of what I think has been a major fallacy in this whole process in the first place, is that we put too much focus on candidates. That the focus should not be on candidates that should actually be on citizens. And what it is that we want as an agenda. A case in point that I can tell you what we worked on was in Alabama. In Alabama, Black Voters Matter and other groups, worked on the Doug Jones race. We didn’t know Doug Jones. Matter of fact, he wasn’t particularly a strong candidate, or a likable candidate for us, but what we knew is fundamentally that at the end of the day, having him or his opponent that there would be consequences. And so what we vote is we voted for us and for our interests. Even though I do work, I do voter work and our organization does voter work, Cliff and I have never believed that voting is the end all to be all. But we do believe that voting can be a powerful tool of reducing the harm in our community. So, if we’re always getting singled — that’s why I’m always critical of organizations that are so single issue [inaudible].

00:53:32 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Hate to cut you off LaTosha. But you’re, you’re breaking up a little bit. And so I want to let you know that there are a bunch of folks in the chat who are saying preach. I’m giving you a bunch of claps and shout-outs and everything in support of what you’re saying. But since you’re breaking up, let’s go over to Charlton for your thoughts on what’s different about the 2020 election and this idea on focusing on citizens.

00:54:05 CHARLTON MCILWAIN: Yeah, thank you. And I’m one of those clapping and giving shoutouts to LaTosha and what she was saying, and I wish we’d been able to continue. And I think, I mean, there are so many things that I think are distinctive. But I will call out to and most of them overlap with what LaTosha mentioned. Number one, what is unique is that today after after four years of Trump being in power, we are sitting in a very different racial political landscape than we have since the early 60s. My — the first 10, 12 years of my career, my focus was on electoral politics, the ways in which race gets mobilized, particularly by political candidates for political advantage. And there was a very clear sort of agreement amongst scholars that the end of the 1960s marked a particularly transformation in terms of the racial environment in the US. That is, a moment in which race and explicit racial discrimination, exclusion, etc. became unacceptable, let’s say. Such that it did not go away, of course after ’68, after ’70. But that type of discourse was mainly implicit and underground, meaning we did not talk openly about race, we didn’t openly explicitly talk about the types of threat and fear and the sort of a range of stereotypes about Black people, Black candidates, Black power, etc. That was true of most of our history before the 1960s.

And so we would often talk about and one of my earlier books, that’s called Race Appeal, really talks about this and this was in 2011/12 after Obama election, where we still were seeing the fact that most candidates that they wanted to talk about or gain some political advantage by invoking race, they did so in a very implicit matter, when you look at political advertisements or speeches or other forms of communications. What we started to see on the rise right before Trump exacerbated during the campaign in 2016, and certainly now at its height after four years of Trump in a very different landscape where it is completely acceptable to invoke white supremacist, white power rhetoric, fascist rhetoric, openly, honestly, and to build communities around that. And all of us have seen that in very many ways. And so I think for the first time, we’re seeing an election scenario where four years were really living through a different kind of environment where explicit racial animus really percolates throughout the electoral environment.

The second thing I’ll speak to and then turn it over to someone else is, again where LaTosha was headed and talking about the relationship between issues and citizens and voting and the fact that I think part of movement and the narratives that suppress Black political power in the US across the years has been a lot because we have made everything to do with the ballot and the vote. We cannot exert power unless we vote. We can only exert power when we vote, which detracts from all of those moments outside of the electoral sphere that is open for us to exert influence. And so I think the thing that is distinctive about today is that we are serious — we are saying in very real and vivid ways, the ways in which Black folks and other people of color are exerting real political power prior to this moment of voting that is supposed to be the catalyst for all of these kinds of things. And I think it speaks to what LaTosha was mentioning that the power is with Black votes, with Black citizens, with Black issues and paying attention to and driving work based on that and not a singular moment that although is important, is not the only moment for us or the only venue for exerting political pressure.

00:59:02 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Thank you so much, Charlton. I want us to keep that the idea that the fact of political power is much greater than simply at the ballot box in the back of our mind as we keep going through this discussion. And Maria and Mutale, I want to flip this back over to you. I see one question coming in through the Q&A about which demographics are most of Black folks are being most influenced by disinformation. And Maria, I know that your expertise is in computational analysis. So I’m wondering how that can be used to understand which folks are being influenced, how social media influencers are using their platforms to influence political behaviors as well. So, Maria, you want to take that away?

00:59:56 MARIA RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. Thank you for that. Yes. So, first I’ll respond directly to the question and then I’ll talk a little bit about what we’re doing to look at Black disinformation — or disinformation targeting Black people on Twitter. So demographics on social media are a really tricky business because there is a, you know, folks can perform on social media in ways that they may not be able to perform in real life. And that’s where we get things like bots as well in terms of like being able technologies that are also able to mimic human speech in not awesome ways. But, so those two things combined make it difficult to definitively say, x percentage of folks on Twitter identify as Black or x percentage of folks on Twitter identify as Latinx. However, there are ways that we can sort of estimate those demographics. Generally, there are some methods that use stated names, there are some methods that use actual semantics and word usage and wordplay, and so forth. So we can’t say, also the Pew Research Center has been conducting a study on social media usage across American households, and they have some estimations around on the percentage of folks that identify in different racial categories and their usage, active usage of social media platforms and which platforms. So there’s that response.

And then, in terms of what we’re doing, we have been thinking about how to how to best understand the strategies of folks like ADOS and adjacent campaigns and adjacent groups, and so what we’re doing is we’re collecting tweets using pertinent hashtags, starting back in March 25th, or March 15, 2019. And looking at hashtags like Blexit, which is Black exit, which was sort of mimicking the European or the UK’s exit from the European Union. Project down vote ballot, reparations, reparations now and so forth. And we’ve also been examining the actual Twitter timelines of some stated movement leaders to look at narratives. So the way that we’re doing that is through a method known as computational grounded theory, which was proposed by Laura Nelson back in 2017. The key to that is that all mathematical models of language are wrong completely, but some of them can be useful. And so what computational grounded theory does is it leverages computational processing power with human interpretation and contextualization skills to sort of develop a more robust, theoretically sound approach to understanding a body of text. Grounded theory for those who may not know, is a process which allows categories and themes to be directly interpreted from the data. So, computational grounded theory lets us use the processing power of computers to then facilitate deep interpretive dives into the data. And that’s a three step process. So we after acquiring the data, we then use pattern detection using human-centered computational exploratory analysis, and in this case, we’ll be using a methodology known as structural topic modeling, which is in essence, unsupervised machine learning which probabilistically determines themes using word frequencies and correlations and metadata. The second step is a hypothesis refinement using human-centered interpretation. And that’s the more traditional qualitative deep dive that folks are familiar with, that type of research method are familiar with. And we will be using a package known as SCM insights to facilitate that process. And then the third step is pattern confirmation. So actually, one of the drawbacks to traditional qualitative analysis is that it’s not necessarily reproducible, and it’s difficult to make generalizable claims from it.

In the current age, we have access to robust data sets. And so we can leverage qualitative techniques with computational techniques. In this third step, we can confirm, we can validate our findings by using a variety of methods. We’ll be using supervised machine learning, which is where we take a coded text that’s already been coded by us, and by the algorithms that we choose, and then attempt to find the same patterns in an uncoded text algorithmically. And so, additionally, we’ll be trying to do some network analysis of the retweet networks within these various hashtags. So sort of discern patterns, network analysis of mentions as well. Some of the things we’ve already found is that there is some disinformation specifically related to COVID-19 vaccination and Black voting. So there has been some talk around, not only not voting but a framing of any COVID-19 vaccine as a specific attempt by the state to somehow harm, physically harm Black bodies. And so that’s not good. So we’re that’s just at our preliminary stage. But that’s sort of the methods that we’re employing to get at that question.

01:06:15 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Thank you so much, Maria. I want to bring Mutale back into the conversation on this question of if we know any particular demographics who are being most targeted by this disinformation and then begin also a question from Twitter. Or someone is asking, how do we simultaneously respond to the need for affinity spaces to process police brutality on COVID while protecting against targeted disinformation?

01:06:49 MUTALE NKONDE: So I’m going to take the demography question and then Charlton I’m going to put Black spaces over to you because you got me interested in this through your writing. So I’m not that not that I don’t want to answer the people. In terms of demography, some of the issues that Maria pointed out are obviously going to be evident in that question because of the way people can perform online — you can perform race, you can perform gender, you could also potentially perform age or age bracket. And that’s, but so one of the things that we’re doing, and we’re really at the hypothesis stage is assuming that in the Muller report in 2017, because they were looking at a data set from cold things like the Blacktivist, Woke Blacks, and these existed on Facebook and Instagram, that these were people that were using those particular platforms. So our assumption is, if we were to scrape Facebook, it would be an older demographic, because that’s what we know of their users. But in Twitter, we’re assuming that we’re assuming that it is slightly older than our actual target. Because one of the things that we were hoping to do and it’s some of what Charlton pressed on earlier is thinking about the people that are in the streets now, and the people who are protesting now and how that can be turned into seeing the voting as a part of their the power matrix that you yield in your life and, and get away from this idea that you vote and therefore you have power.

I do want to before I shoot this to Charlton, to speak more about the need for Black spaces online, which I agree, I very much love being on Black Twitter. But the thing that, one of the things that I want to dispel and I want to make sure doesn’t carry forward in this particular conversation, is the idea that researchers like myself or anybody else believe that Black people should save democracy. We’re actually not coming from what Black people should do. What we are actually trying to say is that Black people should have access to democracy, and in agreement with what I think everybody has said, that we should move away from this person or that person. And when we see things like, vote down ballot vote, don’t vote dem. If that’s the decision, you’re going to make them make that decision. But understand that Trump, the video that we watched was from election night 2016 where Trump thanked the African Americans for not coming out. So if that decision is going to be made, then understand that it would potentially return the government that we have. So with that, Charlton, can I bring you in to speak about Black spaces online?

01:09:49 CHARLTON MCILWAIN: Sure, and, and hopefully I get to the gist of the question that was asked and feel free to redirect me if I’m really not addressing it. And I think it is one of the significant conundrums of the moment, right and the move of conversation into the digital sphere. And so since the earlier iterations of the civil rights movement, and as a commonplace to organizing, there’s always this tension between those who are at the core of the movement and need to have space to discuss, disagree, air laundry, do all those kinds of things and do so in a protected space with people who, you know, you share linked fate with, you share confidence in, you know, have your back, you know, essentially and then moving into a space in the digital sphere where that happens. And certainly there are many other scholars Meredith Clark, Andre Brock, among them to talk more about the value of digital spaces, particularly on platforms like Twitter, and so forth. But that is, of course, out in the open.

And so when you think about strategizing and organizing and the need to both look inward and outward, I think one of the interesting conundrums about the current moment is what we have really as a highlight in this pandemic moment where face-to-face gathering and organizing, for the most part, is not a part of what is something that we’re able to do. That we’re having to have these conversations out in the open amongst both friends and enemies, in a certain respect, and in a an environment where — that’s already toxic, filled with disinformation, as many folks have mentioned. And so I think the need to protect spaces for people to openly argue, disagree, talk about that within a context of however we perceive our community, A it’s necessary, B I think it’s something that we are finding difficult to find at our present moment and I think impacts the way that we are organizing for the upcoming election.

01:12:26 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Thank you Charlton. I want to bring Leonard back into the conversation to you know, expand the conversation back out to not just the United States, but other places in the world. So can Leonard, can you speak more about the relationship between Black diasporic communities and African American voters and maybe bring in this idea that, you know, political power is much more than just simply voting?

01:12:56 LEONARD CORTANA: Yes, thank you very much. So first, I would like to go back to something that happened during the COVID-19, during the lockdown. I don’t know if you remember like, there was two French doctors on TV that started to speak about a possible vaccine in Africa because they didn’t have in Africa, the enough infrastructure to do that. And they use a very bad cooperation with sex workers and the way they are not protected also themselves in their activities, that create outrage online. And we have seen the convergence of fights with many people using #BlackLivesMatter but also African are not lab rats, as a very important space of advocacy. And it brought like a lot of translation people from Latin America, Brazil, US and Europe, mainly, and obviously Africa, also, to speak about that history that they shared in common. And I could see once again, that wave of Black diasporic, digital Black diasporic online being advocating as a whole, which I think is very important in to take back the word of Charlton, I think the space of dialogue, the space of knowing our identities, those spaces of having a discussion to understand what we have in common and what is different in our different communities is a start to create an expertise on the matter.

It seems like in some countries like in colorblind Europe, for instance, that we discovered that there was for a long time Black person being in the political leadership in, in political powers that there was actually some people advocating also in the academia. And the fact that that that was a significant absence, because they were not invited before as being experts on the TV shows, and they not being invited and not being there also means that they couldn’t correct, right, some of the vision that are completely wrong and even more like a kind of political fantasy of how to think and speak about the Black vote. So I think that this is extremely important to be able to mobilize media and to bring voice of Black experts to speak about their communities, both from the experience but also from the expertise and the steep step that we have to do.

Then I completely agree that the idea that the vote is not the only thing but I think as potential voters and involved with like to be back in the in the game of democracy, the game of becoming like a democratic citizen, we have to protect our political forces. And by saying protecting, we have to amplify their voices. This is not giving voice, this is amplifying it. And I think that that difference needs to be underscored and needs to be underlined. When I research about the death of Marielle Franco in Brazil, many people again using the word “semente,” which means in Brazilian a seed, that horrible death that that dark moment of democracy that opened wounds, that was the murder of Marielle Franco, not only because she was a Black woman being outlined and speaking about things about political and crime violence in the favelas, but also for what she was representing from so many communities. It’s also a way to suppress the Black votes. It’s also a way to tell to the new way of making politics, the new access to to finally having other voices in the political games, the dream that we have to have the 21st century politics that is not remaining the white supremacy roots and colonial roots, has been stopped. Because this is this is the way that movement and many people are against that movement. And we can see that in Europe, like the richer democracies, not only in Brazil, but it’s also in Europe, conservative powers are in place, and President Trump has also normalized the kind of very conservative and very, very strong ideology that has helped many countries and many political leaders from the right, from the far right to make that shift.

So, I think in all this is extremely important to keep in mind that even if we don’t want to educate in some country that are completely colorblind, this is a bit of our role. And if it’s not education, this is collaboration to find ways — platform and media outlet to educate others. I know that in the US, you already have a kind of network of solidarity that brings the question of Black empowerment through different perspectives, but in some country we are not there yet. So the US is a source of inspiration but it’s also a source of communication — what we can bring from other contexts and help the 2020 election in the US. I hope it’s not seen only as we are taking but it’s also seen as we want to participate. And people like me will be transnational scholars speaking different languages having access to different people, we should be able somehow to find a space to bring those expertise and to bring that diaspora together. I really believe, I really believe in the strength of the diaspora, and I really believe in dialogues as a healthy way to make politics and to protect not only the vote, but the empowerment of Black politicians in current politics.

01:17:50 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Thank you so much, Leonard. LaTosha, I see you’re back with us. And I was wondering if you, we could get your perspective as an organizer on this relationship between Black voters and America and Black voters in other places in the world. Did we lose LaTosha again?

01:18:18 LATOSHA BROWN: Hi, okay. I was trying to unmute unmute so. So I think that I mean, I think that there’s, you know, it’s interesting because I see it in two ways. I think one, that there’s a, there is differences based on the nuances of the environment. We’re all shaped by whatever our political landscape and the environment that we’re in. You know, just as earlier I remember I went to France earlier mid last year. Yeah, I think it was early last year. And you know, this whole notion of colorblind as being non-racist. I think colorblind is extremely racist because you got to be blind to keep from seeing me. I mean, what does that mean? But you got to be colorblind. I want you to see colors, right? What’s wrong with seeing color? So what creates the issues that you’ve assigned, some value or some negativity, so to not be able to acknowledge difference is as racist as take is racism comes from the same place. And so I think it’s a very nuanced way in terms of how people of color and how anti-Blackness finds itself in different cultures based on the political landscape, based on the shaping of that environment and the politics at bay. And I think that there is that the commonality is, I do think that there is a, and we’ve seen this, I mean, we’ve seen this all the way from Steve Bannon — we know that Steve Bannon has been going all over the world and working with there is a white supremacist movement that is moving throughout the world, right? And from South America, and to Brazil, to Europe, to the US. And so I do think there’s a commonality around there, and there’s a common thread. And so I think part of what connects us and I think that’s why, you know, if we really boil down to it, when we’re thinking about race, race is an artificial construct. You know, we all create it as an identity. But let’s think about what came out of. All of it is in relation to like it still centers whiteness. When we say people of color, it is, everything centers whiteness, non-white it centers whiteness. And so we also have to recognize that we’re all operating in a particular kind of construct that centers whiteness and the power of whiteness and how you are relative to that. And as we, you know, I think of myself as a Black futurist. As we kind of move forward in terms of what we want to see next, I think it’s important for us to recognize that there are commonalities because globally, I mean, part of the reason why I identify a lot of my work and study has been around Pan Africanist thinkers is because they saw this global threat, they saw the commonality in terms of oppression. That’s why you had what put pressure on South Africa in ending apartheid is when they had internal pressure and external pressure. That internally there were people that were organizing, and literally organizing and I see someone said, a Black futurist. Yes, I’m a Black futurist. And I’ll talk a little bit about what that means. But, but there’s all there was also economic pressure and political pressure that came outside of South Africa. And as a result, you couldn’t sustain that you have pressure coming from inside and outside. And ultimately, that system that they had of apartheid, in that particular form, it failed and crumbled. Now, they didn’t mean that they don’t still have work to do, but that particular form crumbled. And so I think that we also have to think about that, as we’re doing our work and as Black voters in this, this country. And, you know, just interestingly, I am a part of an international group that is also human beings inspire other human beings. And that’s a lot of work that is happening outside of this country. I was deeply inspired by Arab Spring, deeply inspired, right? I was I’m deeply inspired about what’s going on Chile right now, where we’re here it is people uprose in Chile and down there going to have a vote on a new constitution. That’s pretty significant. Right? And they’re coming from some extreme traumatic experiences of political experiences of dictatorships for in that area. And so what I’m always thinking about is, what is possible? And what is the radical reimagining of how we can really think of as, as, as founders of a new nation, that I don’t want to keep having the conversation around what did the founders intend. I don’t care what — the founders didn’t even intend for me to be on this call, because they thought that I was three fifths of a human being to the extent that they saw that. What I what I’m more interested in is how do we literally use and leverage technology and those tools so that we can actually close and use them in terms of advancing in advancing humanity and part of it and that the means of production if they’re all controlled by one or two people, right, and it’s just at the service of capitalism, how does that advance us? But if we’re really looking at technology as a tool for expanding and extending democracy, if we’re really looking at technology as a tool to really be grounded in support work, I think part of what happens even on the internet when we’re talking about bots and all this misinformation that I think is extremely dangerous, anytime people are doing any kind of organizing, and it’s not attached to real base building work, I think is extremely dangerous, right? And so I even have that critique around with our influencers, who don’t have a base, where’s your base of work? Because if you don’t have a base who you’re accountable to? And so I think that we really also have to think about what we’re thinking about Black voters and we’re thinking about kind of this context, I think that there’s one, I think that’s really important for people — that politics are local. Like, really, we have our domestic fights of what we’ve got to do locally, but also recognize that we’re part of a larger global movement. And how do we share, how do we share and learn lessons? And I think what the possibilities what technology can do is that it makes the world smaller. And so we can actually make the kind of connection to actually build movements — and we’re seeing some of it, right? We’re seeing some of that, but I certainly think that the distinctions, and oftentimes I mean, at the end of the day, even when we think about nation states, let’s be honest, y’all. Nation states are people took a map, it really didn’t mean anything. They took a map and decided and had a war and took a pen and decided this place is this place, this place is named that place. Right then there were a cultures that that created out of that context. But ultimately, the fundamental thing that connects all of us is our humanity. And I think that any work that we’re doing that does not center humanity, and human rights, that we’re where we will fall in terms of this flawed way of looking at politics, and these, these these these in these buckets, and looking at ourselves in these very smaller scopes of identity and looking at ourselves and how people have labeled us in a way to keep us being divided.

01:24:47 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: LaTosha, thank you so much for those thoughts. I also want to ask you about some of the practical approaches that Black Voters Matter is taking to getting out the Black vote. I’ve seen a couple of questions here about voting online versus voting in person. So I’m wondering about that. But also what are the kind of practical things that Black Voters Matter are doing to make a difference?

01:25:18 LATOSHA BROWN: So one, I think that’s a great question around voting online. I say this all the time. Right now we’re moving trillions of dollars are being moved online right now. So if we’ve got, if you can move trillions of dollars online, and people are very, very protective about their money. So we found ways and avenues we know that the technology to move trillions of dollars, certainly the technology can exist to vote online. So this whole notion that voting online, it’s not safe is all as also a part of that fear, and don’t and there are those that don’t want to expand access to democracy. And so I think that, I mean, I think that that’s one piece. That’s why I think narrative and who’s telling the story is really important. And so I think that we should be pushing for some radical reformations in the in the process of democracy. Why don’t we have same day registration? Why don’t we have online voting? Why don’t we have — there are things that we could have in place, the technology exists, what doesn’t exist in the political will. And I think in the education and actually educating people because people don’t think, you know, they’re thinking like, oh, it’s not safe, but they’ll move, they get their whole paycheck online, right? They get their entire their entire life savings, they move online. And so I think that there are some ways that we’ve literally have to push people to think outside the box and start thinking a little bit more, more expanded in terms of what democracy could look that can expand.

Secondly, I just want to say this about the even when we talk about this is the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, that at the time, in 1965 in the Voting Rights Act, and even though it was a major win, it was never the end all be all, y’all. That even that that act was a compromise based in a particular kind of time period in a particular kind of environment. And it was certainly a win for where we came, but that itself, that the voting rights in itself did not go far enough. And so what I think, now, in this moment, we should see something that expand. I want to see a voters bill of rights. I think I want to see protection on voters. But I also want to see repercussions for those that suppress the vote. Right now, part of the reason why we keep seeing voter suppression, because those that suppress the vote, never are held accountable. I look in Georgia right now. And our governor, who, for the most part, stole the election and what did he get? He got a promotion. He got a couple of bad headlines but that’s all that happened to him. And so I think that we also have to look at some sweeping changes around how do we hold people accountable. Hold people accountable, create some new thinking at this point.

01:27:40 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Thank you Latosha. Yeah, I’m sorry, I have to cut you off there because I want to quickly go through the rest of our panelists before we have to say goodbye. We’ve already had to lose Charlton, so just say thank you to him and in his absence. But I want to do a quick round on the thoughts on practical ways to protect the Black vote in 2020. And Maria, could we start with you?

01:28:09 MARIA RODRIGUEZ: I’m sorry, I just want to make sure that I heard the question correctly. Protecting the Black vote in 2020. Is that accurate?


01:28:21 MARIA RODRIGUEZ: Yes. So I mean, I think that we need to somehow send every bit of money that we can to Mrs. Brown and what she’s doing because that is really — I’m having a hard time staying in my seat every time she speaks. So thank you, Mrs. Brown for everything that you’re doing. But I guess, you know, so technically, which is sort of where my area lies, I think that there’s some promising research on a couple of fronts. I think, on the one hand, I think what we’re hoping to do with this project is to is to think about the ways that Black people are ideologically vulnerable to disinformation and infodemics in particular, and finding ways to intervene with that very specific population on a very specific platform that hopefully will be generalizable across a variety of other platforms, at least in terms of text and content, moderation, best practices as an example. I think the, the other thing that there’s another sort of research, actually some preliminary research out today, looking at the sort of tracking the radicalization of people who self-identify as far right. I think that whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, I think that — or something in between — I think folks might generally agree that far right extremism is is the the original — it harkens back to the terrorism experienced by the first Africans that were brought here in chains, right? And so whatever how we can impact that is to actually understand that process of radicalization and understand what is driving that membership. And then thirdly, folks are starting to develop interventions around disinformation specifically, — we’re among them — but also folks who are looking at how to inoculate folks, how to inoculate certain sub populations, particularly, perhaps older folks, particularly older white people, and so on. So I’ll leave it there.

01:30:41 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Thanks so much, Maria. I want to go to Leonard. Any ideas on protecting the Black vote, and Black political power and 2020?

01:30:53 LEONARD CORTANA: So I will be brief because I know we are a little bit over the time. For me what I’m taking also from that conversation is the importance to keep the grassroots movement but also the media and also the technological space as three spaces that have to be in conversation. We have people in marginalized communities that do not have access to technologies. I’m working in different favelas. And sometimes we assume that for instance, in those favelas, in Brazil, in some marginalized communities and neighborhoods in Europe, the access to technology, the access to information is available first, but is also adequately translated to other contexts.

So I think that we have to keep keeping our communities alive, keeping our population safe is also by the dialogue by checking on them, by sending and by funding also organization that helps people going through that pandemics. And I know it’s extremely important to reflect also on that that’s people are dying, that Black people are dying from no access, not only to medical infrastructures, but also water and an hygiene. So all those things are coming together. I think that the vote in general is a beautiful platform to reflect on the vulnerability and the empowerment of other communities. So to keep it extremely grassroot, I agree to send money and to help LaTosha Brown organization and to see different seeds popping up all over the world through the Black diaspora. And to remind that a healthy mind is a mind that understand that they have the power to change society.

01:32:21 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Thank you, Leonard. Mutale, let’s end with you.

01:32:24 MUTALE NKONDE: So for for me, it’s definitely empowering people not to look for a leaders but to give some of the foundational power to themselves. So I’m definitely someone that looks at radical social media literacy. Which on top of these other interventions, like Black Voters Matter, and like other base building Color of Change are another great base building organization — Black Lives Matter as well — is to make sure that we really acknowledge the Pew research that’s out that says that 40% of all Black people in 2008 took a political action online. And I think through that radical social media literacy, we then do get to this beyond the vote thinking and beyond the candidate thinking and anything that I can do with my work, my life, my contacts to advance that social media literacy, I’m really I’m really interested in that.

01:33:26 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Thank you so much Mutale, and I want to invite all of our participants in our audience joining us from across the country and around the world to join me in thanking all of you our speakers today. We are we are so grateful for you to join us in this conversation. And also our thanks to our colleagues in the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and at Digital Impact who are serving as co-hosts. I want to let everyone who’s still listening know that we’ll be posting the video of today’s event on our website at And also over at And so we encourage you to share this with friends or colleagues who weren’t able to join us today. And we will be continuing this event series throughout the summer. Our next event will actually be a Twitter chat on July 9th. So please look for the information on that. We’ll be sending a follow up email. And with that, I want to say thank you to all of you for joining us and to the panel. A big virtual round of applause for everyone.

About the Series

Race, Tech, and Civil Society: Critical Conversations for Times of Crisis explores questions rooted in our histories, impacting our present moment, and critical to our futures. The global pandemic gives new urgency to conversations about race, technology, and civil society. As we depend on digital communications for every aspect of our daily lives, who is left behind? How are technologies being used to surveil communities of color – and how do communities respond to such surveillance? Why is it critical for people impacted by technology to have a voice in how that technology is regulated and employed by governments? Join scholars, practitioners, activists, and policy experts as they explore these important issues.

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