Black activists fear that their legitimate concerns about Democratic candidates for president in the 2020 primary are now being drowned out online by a spiraling argument about who is and isn’t fake.
Activists trying to spread information or opinions on Twitter about specific candidates have been shouted down by other activists who say the hashtags they’re using are overrun by bots, Russians, or trolls — a fight made only more complicated by the actual presence of bad actors across the platform.
“There are real black people criticizing these candidates rightfully, but there are also fake accounts out there just looking to take advantage of any tension they can find in the community,” Shireen Mitchell, the founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women, told BuzzFeed News.
Like others, she said she’s concerned that hysteria over bots could push conversations spurred by real activists aside. “Everybody is a ‘bot’ now and no one can have a real conversation,” she said.
Concerns about fraudulent social media accounts aren’t new — disinformation spread by trolls or foreign actors perforated the 2016 campaign. But black activists on Twitter are now on opposing sides of a fight about whether the early conversations and criticism of black candidates like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have been driven by bad-faith trolls and foreign actors looking to sow discord while pretending to be black voters online.
Activists are worried social media companies have not done enough since 2016 to clean up their platforms and to authenticate real profiles, letting some movements get subsumed by fights over reality. They also say they fear that when the companies do start taking the threats seriously, they may silence real concerns in the process.
At the center of the current controversy is the American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS) movement, a nativist political movement founded by Antonio Moore and Yvette Carnell, who say they’ve been talking and posting about it since 2015. They say they’ve worked to advocate for black Americans who descend from enslaved people brought to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade.
As the presidential campaign begins, activists who follow the movement say they’ve worked to push black presidential candidates to embrace policy that would directly affect the lives of black voters who are American descendants of slavery. Some of that work has specifically targeted Harris for her prosecutorial record during her time as California’s attorney general and San Francisco’s district attorney.
Harris, who is the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, is not a descendant of American slaves, and ADOS activists have questioned if she understands what they say are their specific needs and concerns.
A group of women who have been working since 2014 to identify Twitter disinformation campaigns and trolls blackfishing — or fraudulently posing as black on the platform — say the ADOS hashtag has become a prime target for bad actors to hijack to spread criticism and disinformation about candidates in the same way that Russian trolls in 2016 posed as black Americans to exasperate real concerns about Hillary Clinton’s record and to astroturf existing social movements like Black Lives Matter.
“It’s not an all-encompassing group, but in our small communities, we started noticing these accounts purporting to be black, that’s where this started,” said I’Nasah Crockett, a black woman who has worked to identify accounts purporting to be black. “We saw it in GamerGate, we saw it in the 2015–2016 election cycle, and we’re seeing it again coming in another wave.”
Mitchell, who helped expose a concerted effort of trolls posing as black women on Twitter in 2014 under the YourSlipIsShowing hashtag, appeared on a segment of Joy-Ann Reid’s MSNBC show earlier this month to warn viewers of signs of a troll account during a segment called “How to spot a Russian bot on Twitter,” specifically calling out the ADOS movement.
“A lot of the ones that are pretending to be black people and black women in particular, who are focusing on black identity, have these aspects in the way they’re talking about language,” Mitchell said on the show.
“There’s a new hashtag and/or identity that’s in their bios called ADOS or DOS, which is standing for descendants of slaves,” she said. “It’s the indication that they are someone who is born as a descendant in the United States who’s representing black America and has the vernacular and the language that people would believe is someone who is a part of our community, who’s either debating about Kamala or debating about Booker because that’s who just announced, and saying ‘we know who’s black in America.’”
Since Mitchell’s segment, some ADOS followers have started tweeting videos under a NotABot hashtag. In one, an older woman stands in a kitchen to give a message to anyone who doubts she, or the movement, is real. “This video is for the gatekeepers and the agents who are upset because we won’t blindly support the anointed one. Well if you mad honey, you better scratch your ass and get glad,” the woman says in the video. “ADOS is not going anywhere. I am not a bot.”
In another video, an ADOS member tweeted at Reid’s show and Mitchell, inviting them to meet in person. “I’m like 20 minutes away from DC. If you want to meet me and talk about the ADOS movement, I have no problem doing so.”
Some Twitter users still doubt the authenticity of some of the accounts tweeting about the movement. One user account questioned if she’d have to mute #ADOS and posted a screenshot of an account created in 2009. “This might be important,” the user said. “I saw a warning the other day that the new bot movement is old accounts that have been dormant. This account was created in 09 but just started tweeting literally 15 mins ago.”
Five minutes later, the account in question shared a video to prove the person behind it was real. “So apparently I’m a Russian bot,” the man says. “Apparently because I use the hashtag ADOS, which I am, that makes me a Russian bot. Whatever.”
Carnell, Moore, and activists associated with the ADOS movement have fiercely rebuked the accusations that trolls have latched onto their movement’s hashtag, comparing the allegations to McCarthyism and the FBI’s attempts to subtly discredit Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement.
“To claim that this movement comes back from Russians is a disgrace. What this is is a smear campaign to suppress our voices to ask what these candidates’ ADOS agenda is going to look like,” Moore told BuzzFeed News. “Black America won’t vote blindly this time, you’ve got to understand that ADOS have been shut out of a country they built with their own bodies and we’re being shut out on the sidelines right now.”
“We don’t have bots, we have real black people,” he said. “The danger of these accusations is that if Facebook and YouTube latches on to this and tries to undermine our ability to have a black political dialogue. That’s our main concern.”
Mitchell and Crockett both agree that the ADOS movement wasn’t started by outside actors, but say they’ve seen the online conversations within the movement be infiltrated by what they believe are people using digital blackface to elevate criticism at Booker and Harris while real ADOS activists are simultaneously having conversations about the candidates.
“I’d say the common theme among trolls like this is that they capitalize on fissure points and pre-existing tension points. They come in and observe where the fault lines are and then go from there,” Crockett said. “Right now, it’s coalescing around the #ADOS movement. It wasn’t started by Russian bots or other trolls, but it’s been infiltrated by people that are obviously not black.”
“These accounts will latch onto topics related to crime, social justice, and the black community,” Mitchell added. “The bots are looking for tension points they can get into and candidates like Kamala give entities like this food for fodder. Every black candidate is going to go through this.”
Crockett and Mitchell’s broader concerns have already been backed up. Earlier this month, Twitter suspended two accounts — @WillisJermane and @Copmala, which tweeted footage of Harris and criticized her record, though not under the ADOS hashtag. Even though both accounts had a small number of followers, they managed to successfully drive a week of conversation about Harris’s prosecutorial record by amplifying footage from a 2010 speech she gave about truancy.
Twitter told CNBC that the accounts had been suspended for “impersonation” and that the @WillisJermane account — which described itself as a “southern black who knows his rightful place: owning the means of production with my multi-racial, LGBTQ+, anti-war, working class brothers and sisters” and tweeted support for politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — was suspended in part for creating 50 accounts that tweeted the same message and hashtag in an attempt to get that hashtag to trend.
In archived versions of the account from late January, the person behind it called on followers to unearth more footage of candidates and shared clips of Harris and Booker multiple times — one of which was retweeted 11,000 times and got 20,000 likes.
Both the ADOS activists and the researchers trying to weed out trolls believe social media companies need to do more to get bot accounts off their platforms, and they criticized Twitter for not verifying users to make sure that they’re accurately portraying themselves online.
“The blanket solutions that Twitter and Facebook came up with to deal with this problem aren’t working,” Mitchell said, arguing that social media platforms don’t have adequately diverse moderation staffs to keep up with the nuances of accounts that are doing facetious-at-best portrayals of black Americans. “They don’t have the framework and haven’t put enough energy into fixing this. Until we get there, we’ll never get to the bottom of this. It’ll continue to morph and we may never know what’s real.”
“The bots are better at exploiting weaknesses that the platforms can’t keep up with,” Crockett said.
Carnell and Moore agreed that the platforms aren’t able to keep up with verifying real users and said that Twitter needs to do better.
“To have this kind of communication and to not have some kind of verification process sets up [and] undermines the ability to have real conversations,” Moore said.
A spokesperson for Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. ●