How Disinformation Destroyed Democracy at SXSW!!!!

How Disinformation Destroyed Democracy. SXSW Online 2021.

Community voting for the 2021 SXSW conference ends this Friday! Here’s the panel Shireen Mitchell, Safiya Umoja Noble, Ph.D. and I are proposing. You can vote for the panel at Please help get the word out! There’s information about how to vote and other ways to support this panel at the end of this post.

How Disinformation Destroyed Democracy

Building on their successes in 2016, foreign and domestic actors ramped up disinformation and digital voter suppression for the 2020 election. All too often tech platforms took no meaningful action to stop disinformation. As the election grew closer, grassroots groups fought back. As well as successfully pressuring tech platform companies to act, grassroots organizing — including disinformation monitoring and response projects — proved a valuable complement to other efforts. Learning from what worked, and what didn’t, is key to ongoing successes.

We submitted the proposal in early October. As the election grew closer, grassroots projects fought back more and more effectively. The Real Facebook Advisory Board’s work successfully pressured Facebook to do better. Organizations like Media Justice, United We Dream, PEN, Stop Online Violence Against Women, ReFrame, Common Cause and others in the Disinfo Defense League provided training, analysis, and toolkits — and called media attention to it. Grassroots projects like Shireen’s Stop Digital Voter Suppression and Indivisible’s Truth Brigade complemented other efforts.

And it’s made a difference this Election Season. Media is getting better at not amplifying disinformation. More headlines used strong language like “false”, “lies”, and “racist”. Tech companies started (sometimes) enforcing policies, removing problematic features, and optimizing for something other than ad sales and engagement.

So a couple of (clearly-false) stories their creators had expected would have a huge impact … fizzled. False claims of “fraud” have been swiftly and firmly countered. Here in Washington state, the comprehensive sexual health initiative and candidates like T’wina Nobles, Carolina Mejia, Tarra Simmons,and Chris Reykdal overcame disinformation campaigns and won. Votes from youth and Black, Native American, and Latinx communities — people who are the most heavily targeted by voter suppression — made the difference in elections around the country.

Here’s Shireen and Safiya, along with Ruha Benjamin and Fadi Quran of Avaaz, in a video on voter suppression that came out just a few days after the SXSW deadline.

The Real Facebook Oversight Board: Voter Supression

But it wasn’t all good news. Disinformation against Biden and Harris was very successful with some audiences. Disinformation and digital voter suppression made the difference in several state and local races around the country. Here in Washington, Angie Homola (targeted by disinfo about her employment history and whistleblowing activity) is a few hundred votes behind as I write this, and R-90 disinfo may have been the difference in several legislative races.

Now, Facebook’s “top 10” are once again mostly disinfo, and they’re saying that encouraging murder doesn’t violate their terms of use. Meanwhile, the right wing is trying to build up its own online universe with apps like Parler. As ridiculous as the false claims of voter fraud are, a high percentage of Trump supporters believe them. As I write this there is an attempted coup in progress.

We’re not out of the woods yet. So now’s a good time to look at these experiences and see what lessons we can can learn.

One of the lessons I personally learned is the value of getting accurate voting information out early and often. Community voting counts for about 30% of whether a SXSW panel gets accepted. You can vote for the panel at Please help get the word out! There’s information about how to vote and other ways to support this panel at the end of this post.

We interrupt this post for a public service announcement. Disinformation is an ongoing problem and we all need to get better at dealing with it. Please take a couple of minutes to watch this short video by Shireen, edited by Kamaria Daniel, on how you can help in the fight against disinfo.

There’s a lot more information on responding to disinfo in Think before you engage or share and Educate yourself — and your friends and family.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled post.

There are other panels about the election and disinformation on the SXSW schedule (I’ve got a short list below) but as far as I could see we’re the only ones talking about this critical nexus. And all of us were on the frontlines of the fight against disinformation and digital voter suppression: Shireen and Safiya with the Real Facebook Advisory Board, me and Shireen with Washington Indivisible groups, Shireen with the Stop Digital Voter Suppression project, a training session for the DNC, and did multiple talks as part of the Disinfo Defense League’s #DisruptDisinfo Week of Action …

So please vote for the panel at — and please help get the word out! There’s information about how to vote and other ways to support this panel at the end of this post.

Here’s a segment on Inequality in America: How Black Voters Are Being Targeted With Misinformation, on NBC4 Washington.

How to vote for this panel — and how to get the word out

  • You can vote for our panel on the SXSW site. If you have never used the SXSW panel picker before, you’ll need to create an account. Once you do, click the up arrow or VOTE UP button on the left-hand side.
  • The deadline is November 20 at 11:59pm PT unless they extend it (which sometimes happens to SXSW deadlines). For more information about the Community Voting process, read the PanelPicker FAQ and visit the SXSW PanelPicker page.
  • It’s also helpful if you leave a comment — saying why you’re voting for it, asking or answering a question, and so on. To leave a comment, you’ll need to log in separately via Twitter, Facebook, or Disqus… I hate software. Still, comments are doubly helpful: the selection committee takes them into account. And, if other people see that somebody has commented, they’re more likely to comment themselves.

It’s also helpful of you share the link with your friends and colleagues who might be interested. If they’re experienced with SXSW (or good at navigating somewhat-clunky websites), point them to Otherwise, you can share this post with him.

Some other interesting SXSW panels

Once you’ve created your account, you can vote up other panels as well. If you are good at navigating somewhat-clunky websites you can search by keyword and tag and so on. Twitter searches for SXSW are likely to be heavily biased towards panels from white guys and people working for large corporations but if you skip over them there is often a lot of interesting stuff that it’s really helpful to boost.

Here’s three panels about the election and disinformation that caught my eye:

And a few on other activism-related topics:

strategist, software engineer, entrepreneur, activist ...