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Racist disinformation COVID-19 vaccine campaigns are endangering the Black Community

OPINION: Perpetrators of these disinformation campaigns are placing their bets that whether you realize it or not, you will carry out their damaging mission.

Disinformation campaigns targeting the Black community are far from new. Decades ago, the FBI engaged in disinformation tactics as part of its Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) operations to discredit Black organizations like the Black Panther Party.

Over the past five years, Senate intelligence reports and numerous independent studies demonstrated how Russia singled out Black people through social media to exploit fraught race relations in this country and to suppress the Black vote. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the same tactics used in political disinformation campaigns have been deployed to stymie public health efforts; again, targeting the Black community.

Regardless of whether one supports or opposes taking a COVID-19 vaccine, bad actors targeting a community disproportionately impacted by the pandemic with disinformation vaccine deterrence campaigns should be cause for alarm. The information Black people receive to make health care decisions should be factual and science-based.

One does not have to look hard to find plenty of reasons why many in the Black community have a justifiable skepticism or mistrust of the health care system, and mistrust in the government to act with care and in good faith. Across the socioeconomic spectrum, Black people too often endure worse medical outcomes compared to other races. Studies have shown that a number of medical formulas in determining things like kidney treatment and birthing options have racist assumptions that raise the threshold required for Black patients to receive care.

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

The monstrous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which for decades Black patients were withheld treatment without their consent or knowledge, offers indisputable evidence that the government has at times demonstrated an inhumane willingness to make Black patients its sacrificial lambs. None of that sordid history should be overlooked; however, it is irrefutable that the inequities and horror stories Black people have been subjected to are being exploited and weaponized as a deterrence to the COVID-19 vaccines.

Just days into August 2021, a new disinformation campaign dubbed “Stop Vaxxing Blacks” was created on 4Chan, an anonymous message board. Users created anti-vaccination memes using images of Black people and logos of prominent organizations like Black Lives Matter. The memes contained inflammatory statements like “white vaccines don’t ask permission to enter black bodies” and invoke injustices such as Jim Crow segregation and apartheid.

Y’all I’ve just been alerted about a disinformation campaign trying to infiltrate Black Twitter via digital Blackface and memes to deter us from taking the #COVID19Vaccine. This is what I’ve been warning y’all was happening. Wake up people! Report fake accounts under #askmewhy https://t.co/xsObsqNWaw pic.twitter.com/19kdBCNuy0

— BlackWomenViews Media (@blackwomenviews) August 7, 2021

One user bluntly admitted the purpose was to “create stigma towards vaccine passports so the [government] f*cks off.” The user displayed his low regard for the intelligence and discernment of Black people as their statement continued: “By stimulating the tiny ***** brain with propaganda, vaccine passports could be prevented from becoming policy due to inferred racist connotations. Try to keep up n******”. 

As part of the “Stop Vaxxing Blacks” campaign users executed their plan to infiltrate Black social media with accounts using fake profile pictures and names of Black people. The posts were then amplified in a coordinated manner. By posing as Black people, it creates the appearance of widespread sentiment originating from within the Black community. The campaign instructed users to hashtag #askmewhy along with #BLM, #WeCantBreathe, and other racially specific hashtags in order to drive Black users to the propaganda.

It is important to recognize that in addition to the potential harm caused to those who are directly exposed to the disinformation, the impact is exponentially larger as the telephone game of social media occurs. Before long, the narratives originating from propaganda memes are incorporated into regular conversations on and off social media without an obvious connection to how the talking points were created or a consideration of their intent.

Beyond social media, disinformation campaigns are also being waged on the airwaves and in literature being distributed in Black communities. Prominent anti-vaccination promoter Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is linked to the film, Medical Racism: The New Apartheid, which uses medical racism as a pretext to discourage Black people from getting vaccinated. Several participants in the film, like professor Naomi Rogers, complained that their participation in the film was solicited under deceptive circumstances and their views supporting vaccination were not represented. 

There have been multiple news reports of fliers discouraging Black people from getting vaccinated containing disinformation being circulated in predominantly Black areas and events. While those that are opposed to getting the vaccine might not disagree with the sentiment of anti-vaccination literature or media, they should be dubious of the notion that so many outside forces are taking a particular interest in deterring Black people from getting the shot out of altruism. In fact, it is hard to identify any area in which the health and well-being of the Black community are prioritized over other demographics. 

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Given that another COVID-19 wave spurred by the Delta variant is wreaking havoc on the country, and Black people have higher hospitalization rates and the highest mortality rates from COVID-19, it is not hyperbolic to say that the consequences of disinformation are deadly. So what can you do to avoid being an unwitting foot soldier in the disinformation war waged on our community? For starters, be mindful of and vet the COVID-19 vaccine information you share; particularly when it is in a meme format.

To a degree, a critical analysis of all information received, even that from the scientific community and the government, is healthy skepticism. However, it is clear that for some, the same standard of scrutiny and skepticism directed at the CDC and the medical community is not applied to anti-vaccine content and opponents of the COVID-19 vaccines. Information opposing the vaccines must be vetted for legitimacy and accuracy as well. Also, anecdotes about adverse COVID-19 vaccine experiences should be vetted and weighed against the trends identified from the 4.5 billion doses of the vaccines that have been administered worldwide. 

It is understandable why one might not trust the government, the medical community, or the COVID-19 vaccines; but for the sake of the Black community please do not trust disinformation created and disseminated by the likes of racist 4Chan users. The perpetrators of these disinformation campaigns are placing their bets that whether you realize it or not, you will carry out their damaging mission.

Reecie Colbert is a political commentator and founder of BlackWomenViews Media, a social media haven for the expressions of unbossed and unfiltered Blackness. She appears weekly on the Roland Martin Unfiltered Show and the Clay Cane Show on SiriusXM UrbanView. 

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