Despite the election being 492 days away, the campaign of online disinformation has already begun.
During the Democratic debate, tweets began popping up accusing Senator Kamala Harris of not being black. It’s yet another birtherism campaign based completely in fiction and racism, designed to divide Americans, just like the one that plagued Barack Obama—a conspiracy theory amplified by none other than Donald Trump, starting long before his presidential campaign.
When candidates were discussing race on the debate stage, Harris jumped in, saying, “As the only black person on this stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race.” She then went on to eviscerate former vice president Joe Biden for his awful stance against busing to integrate schools.
Harris’s remark prompted a tweet by Ali Alexander, which said: “Kamala Harris is *not* an American Black. She is half Indian and half Jamaican. I’m so sick of people robbing American Blacks (like myself) of our history. It’s disgusting.”
Kamala Harris is *not* an American Black. She is half Indian and half Jamaican.
I'm so sick of people robbing American Blacks (like myself) of our history. It's disgusting. Now using it for debate time at #DemDebate2?
These are my people not her people.
— Ali Alexander (@ali) June 28, 2019
Alexander’s tweet then quickly was copied verbatim and amplified by conservatives. It was even quoted tweeted (and later deleted) by Donald Trump Jr., who wrote, “Is this true? Wow.”
Other Democratic candidates condemned the claims as the racism they are. “The attacks against @KamalaHarris are racist and ugly. We all have an obligation to speak out and say so. And it’s within the power and obligation of tech companies to stop these vile lies dead in their tracks,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in a tweet. And Sen. Cory Booker tweeted, “@KamalaHarris doesn’t have shit to prove.” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also tweeted about it, writing, “The coordinated smear campaign on Senator @KamalaHarris is racist and vile. The Trump family is peddling birtherism again and it’s incumbent on all of us to speak out against it.”
The New York Times reported on another case of disinformation Saturday. A Trump campaign consultant, Patrick Mauldin, has created a website, JoeBiden.info, that mimics a campaign website at first glance but is actually a repository for gifs and videos of the former vice president touching women and children.
Click on the “new t-shirts” bright red banner at the top of the site, and you’ll be able to purchase tees that say “Joe Biden touched me” or “Hidin’ from Biden” or are emblazoned with doctored images of Biden putting his hands on the shoulders of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Mauldin, who creates digital content and videos for the Trump campaign, told the Times that the site was designed to help Democrats “face facts.” To explain why he kept his association with the site anonymous, Mauldin said, “people tend to dismiss things that they don’t like, especially if it comes from the opposite side.”
And, speaking to the Times, Trump’s campaign communications director, Tim Murtaugh. essentially condoned this type of behavior saying it was “great that talented supporters of President Trump use their time to help his re-election,” and added, “We appreciate their efforts in their own time with parodies like this that help the cause.”
Biden isn’t Mauldin’s only target. He has also set up websites called “Millionaire Bernie,” “Elizabeth Warren for Chief” and “Kamala Harris for Arresting the People,” targeting what he believes is each candidate’s weakness.
While Russian interference was the theme of the 2016 election, people like Mauldin and Alexander prove that trolling from inside the country may be just as, if not more effective.
This post has been corrected to remove the reference to a BuzzFeed story that claimed bot networks were sharing Alexander’s tweet. Twitter has confirmed the tweet was not shared by automated accounts.