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Why the surge in racist misinformation about Kamala Harris is so worrisome

Some conservatives were quick to spread conspiracy theories when Joe Biden announced his VP pick.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris walking out from behind a flag-stripped banner.
Since Sen. Kamala Harris was announced as the Democratic vice presidential pick, there’s been a surge in misinformation about her.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.
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Within hours of Joe Biden announcing that he had selected Kamala Harris as his presidential running mate, conspiracy theories as well as racist and sexist misinformation about her proliferated online. Much of this harassing dialogue recycled or built on earlier false claims spread about Harris. And the actions social media has already taken — or avoided — are stoking anxieties about the role of misinformation in the campaign to come.

On QAnon and other right-wing Facebook pages, memes compared Harris to Rachel Dolezal and wrongly claimed she was not African American. On Twitter, a post with 20,000 “likes” pointed out that Harris’s sister takes hydroxychloroquine, without the context that she uses the medication for lupus, not Covid-19. And countless posts questioned her eligibility to run for vice president, a problem that was exacerbated by a controversial Newsweek op-ed pushing the same baseless question. On Thursday, President Trump, who infamously promoted the racist birther conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama, amplified the claims about Harris’s eligibility.

“I heard today that she doesn’t meet the requirements,” Trump told reporters, referencing the article’s author as “very highly qualified, very talented lawyer.” In response to a follow-up question on the topic, the president concluded, “I don’t know about it. I just heard about it. I’ll take a look.”

The recent spike in misinformation highlights how quickly old conspiracy theories get recycled on social media when a new context presents itself, and how powerless platforms seem to be to stop it. At the same time, the renewed onslaught of fake news about Kamala Harris yet again highlights how Trump and his campaign are eager to use misinformation to their advantage as they find ways to attack the Biden-Harris ticket. And as the Newsweek op-ed made clear, some media outlets are willing to participate.

“We are working in tandem with the DNC to be vigilant around monitoring the lies, misinformation, and conspiracies Trump and his allies spread, which is informing our response to combat their recycled attacks, including many laced with sexism and racism, with the truth,” Matt Hill, the deputy press secretary for Biden’s campaign, told Recode.

There has been a significant spike in misinformation about Harris in the few days since she was made the VP candidate. According to research from the media intelligence firm Zignal Labs, there have been more than 150,000 instances of people sharing, discussing, or promoting misinformation online related to Harris in the past week. Meanwhile, the progressive research group Media Matters found that right-leaning Facebook pages they analyzed posted about Harris twice as much as left-leaning groups in the past week, and the right-leaning posts saw 50 percent more engagement than those on more liberal pages.

Social media platforms have each taken their own approaches to combating the surge in misinformation. In response to online discussion about the false claim that Harris isn’t legally qualified to be president, Twitter included in its Trending section a link to a fact-checked post saying that Harris is indeed eligible for the position. Similarly, a search for “Kamala Harris eligible” on YouTube pops up a link to a fact-checking page saying that she is eligible. Facebook has removed some content that violates certain policies and labeled some posts flagged by its fact-checkers as false.

But the immediate reaction to her selection signals a long road ahead for Harris and the Biden campaign when it comes to combating misinformation and disinformation. Despite the actions taken by platforms, experts are still worried that the companies won’t be quick enough to stop the spread. And as we’ve learned from mixed responses to Trump posts in the past, the president’s willingness to amplify misinformation is bound to complicate things for social media companies going forward.

Misinformation about Harris is nothing new

Much of the current assault of misinformation harks back to earlier rounds of fake news about Sen. Kamala Harris, as well as conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama. Upon the announcement of Harris as the vice presidential pick, the fact-checking outlet Snopes was quick to point out a slew of false claims about her that its researchers had already analyzed, including the false claim that Harris is the aunt of the actor Jussie Smollett and the equally false assertion that she lied about racial integration in the Berkeley public school system she attended.

For example, false claims that Harris is not eligible to be president were circulating on social media as early as 2017 and have only grown in prominence since then. Last year, CNN host Chris Cuomo had to apologize after he amplified the theory on Twitter. Though YouTube has a rule banning birtherism, one video from 2019 with 100,000 views that claimed Harris wasn’t eligible to be president was still available on the platform earlier this week. After Recode asked YouTube about it, the video was taken down this week for violating the site’s rules about deceptive practices.

“It’s much like birtherism with Obama, and Trump asking for his long-form birth certificate back in 2008,” said Jacquelyn Mason, a senior investigative researcher at First Draft, a nonprofit that fights online misinformation. “By saying Kamala is not an American Black person, they’re essentially saying that she has no claim to be president, and then also negating her African American heritage by saying that she’s not African American.”

Misinformation questioning Harris’s racial identity has continued to circulate at the same time. At one point last year, a tweet promoting that racist narrative was shared and then unshared by Donald Trump Jr. And as digital researcher Ben Decker outlined in Politico last March, a meme comparing Harris to Rachel Dolezal first appeared on the infamous, now-banned r/The_Donald Reddit page and then spread throughout the internet. He pointed out how that meme is now returning.

“In a lot of ways, if you look at all these nonsensically bogus attacks against Harris since she was a presidential candidate, there’s no reason that it wouldn’t just continue,” Decker told Recode. “Suddenly, all these pro-Trump conspiracy communities are constitutional law experts, trying to claim falsely that she’s ineligible to be vice president or president.”

There is growing concern that disinformation and racist and sexist online harassment aimed at the Democratic vice presidential candidate could spiral out of control. After Biden announced that he would pick a woman as his running mate, there was “a set of coordinated and authentic attacks on the potential vice president lists,” said Arisha Hatch from the Color of Change PAC, who added that misinformation from those attacks often amplified sexist and racist tropes.

Accordingly, lines of defense to protect Harris and her campaign are forming. Earlier this week, several progressive and pro-abortion groups released a guide for the media for navigating gendered disinformation, and the same groups are building up a “war room” meant to respond to false and sexist attacks. About 100 women lawmakers also demanded in a letter to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg this month that the company change its algorithms, which they say amplify misogyny and “gendered disinformation.” At the time, the lead organizer of the letter, Rep. Jackie Speier, told Recode that when “Biden announces his vice presidential pick, the onslaught on Facebook and other sites is going to be horrific.”

So far, it seems as though Speier was right.

Social media companies have a history of allowing misinformation to spread

Historically, social media companies have struggled to moderate misinformation, including conspiracy theories and attacks on public figures. How they’re treating the present assault on Harris is no different. While companies like Facebook are sometimes willing to take down posts based on violations of specific policies they have written, these platforms often prefer to promote content from fact-checkers alongside posts that include misinformation rather than simply remove the posts themselves.

Facebook, so far, is dealing with some posts about Harris by enforcing some of its existing policies, such as its ban on bullying public figures and accounts that misrepresent their identities. However, Facebook is not actually removing content about Harris simply because it’s false. Instead, it’s relying on labels from fact-checkers, which are also supposed to reduce the distribution a flagged post receives.

But it’s unclear how effective that method is. One post with the most engagement on the platform in the day following Harris’s announcement, according to data collected by Media Matters, was from right-wing personality Candace Owens who questioned the senator’s racial identity. And while Facebook fact-checked that content, it did not remove the post. A subsequent post from Owens that objected to the fact-checking was “liked” more than 100,000 times.

A Twitter spokesperson says the company is focusing on removing content where there’s “a call to action that could potentially cause harm,” and that it’s committed to taking enforcement action when tweets violate Twitter rules, which do allow inaccurate statements about political candidates. Past precedent has led some to worry that this approach to misinformation won’t be enough to contain the coming surge of conspiracy theories.

“Do I think that [Trump] may give a primetime address about it? Probably not,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, when asked about Trump spreading misinformation about Harris. “Do I think that there’s an extremely high likelihood that his account — either his own personal Twitter account or the campaign accounts — amplify and distribute memes that are repeating and touching upon these narratives? Absolutely.”

Those seeking to spread such disinformation don’t necessarily need to defend the theories, Carusone added, they just need to raise questions about the topic, which is powerful enough to inject a theory into the news cycle. That seems to be a big part of what happened this week.

But despite the actions of the platforms, a major concern is that the narrative could ultimately be shared by the president himself, and his comments on Thursday demonstrate that he’s already willing to amplify the theory. Dealing with posts from Trump is especially problematic. Facebook has been historically reluctant to fact-check claims made by the president.

After drawing criticism for not doing enough to moderate Trump, Facebook recently took down a Trump post in which he claimed that children are “almost immune” to Covid-19. That was the first time Facebook has ever taken down a Trump post. Twitter, on the other hand, has taken a slightly more aggressive approach to the president’s posts and, earlier this summer, started applying labels to some posts that Facebook chose not to act on.

What remains to be seen — but is already very much a worry — is the extent to which the Trump campaign will use misinformation about the Biden-Harris ticket as a campaign strategy. After all, it remains unclear how social platforms could effectively respond should the president do so even more explicitly. But, somewhat similar to false claims about mail-in voting, spreading wrong and racist claims about Harris serves to weaken trust in the democratic processes. And, importantly, the consequences could well go beyond the current upcoming election.

“My biggest hope,” said Hatch, from Color of Change PAC, “is that the level of disinformation, the level of racist and sexist commentary that will be allowed and amplify doesn’t dissuade that next generation of leaders from taking the step to put their hat in the ring.”

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