with Tonya Riley

Kamala Harris made history as the first Black woman and Asian American to be picked for a major-party ticket. But already, that powerful perch is opening her up to an onslaught of sexist and racist attacks online. 

Social media researchers point to posts in the first 24 hours after Joe Biden picked Harris as his running mate that attacked her appearance, dissected her past relationships and painted her as inauthentic a character attack that they say is more frequently weaponized to attack women online. Other attacks have been reminiscent of the birther conspiracies directed at Barack Obama in his presidential bids, falsely suggesting the Oakland, Calif., native is ineligible to be president because her parents are immigrants.

Social media experts working with the Democrats expect the attacks will only get worse, especially as President Trump escalates his own rhetoric. (He called Harris “nasty” from the White House podium and “a sort of mad woman” in an interview today as his campaign labeled her “phony.”) 

“This disinformation will grow louder and meaner, because she represents the two threats to Republican success: women and Blacks,” said Curtis Hougland, the CEO of Main Street One, a tech company seeking to help Democrats address election disinformation. 

The attacks will be a critical test for the Democratic Party during an almost entirely virtual election cycle. 

The party is still widely seen as at a disadvantage when it comes to competing online with President Trump’s digital army. It's under pressure, especially since the coronavirus pandemic largely shuttered in-person campaign events, to be more aggressive in detecting and responding to online attacks and disinformation directed at candidates after struggling to respond to a wave of online misogyny directed at Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

And this time the toxic nature of the attacks could be far worse, if general trends hold. Women of color are more likely to be targeted than White women online. A widely cited study from Amnesty International found that Black women faced more toxic attacks on Twitter than any other group. 

“There is an intersectionality element there,” said Lucina Di Meco, women's leadership expert and author of #ShePersisted Women, Politics & Power in the New Media World. “The challenges that minority women and Black women face are huge.” 

Di Meco's research during the Democratic presidential primary found the three leading women — Harris, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) — faced more attacks than their male rivals from right-wing and fake-news sites between December 2018 and April 2019, based on an analysis using artificial intelligence. Online chatter about Harris focused on portraying her as inauthentic, underscoring how women are more likely to be attacked for their character than male counterparts, Di Meco said.

The Biden campaign is trying to be proactive in addressing harassment targeting Harris.

“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,” said Biden campaign spokesman Matt Hill. “Their attacks didn't stop Joe Biden from becoming the Democratic nominee and they will not stop him and Kamala Harris from becoming president and vice president.”

As Biden was considering several women of color for a slot on the ticket, his campaign and women’s groups began to plot how they would strike back against inevitable sexism and racism online, as my colleagues Annie Linskey and Isaac Stanley-Becker previously reported. 

“As historic and exciting as it is to have Harris be running, we already knew this would mean she would face a disproportionate level of attacks in terms of her identity, disinformation and attacks rooted in bias,” Bridget Todd, a digital strategist for the women's advocacy organization UltraViolet, told me. “This was not a surprise.” 

The organization created a resource guide that can be used by news reporters and social media users to be able to spot bias online and ways to counter it. 

The efforts reflect a growing sentiment that Democrats can't wait for tech companies to address social media attacks, and they have to take matters into their own hands. Biden and Harris have both sharply criticized social networks including Facebook and Twitter to curtail the spread of hate speech online, and they've called the companies to be tougher on posts from Trump they view as violating the companies' rules. 

Harris also has a force of digital supporters, known as the #KHive, that are planning to come to her aid. 

In the absence of action from the tech company, many of Harris's supporters are taking matters into their own hands. They've become known as the #KHive, a reference that invokes the #Beyhive, the performer Beyoncé's fervent group of online fans. 

Chris Evans, who has been referred to as the captain of the #KHive, says he is well-prepared to respond to attacks on Harris and her record from both the right and the left because he was doing so throughout her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He said many of the attacks and harassment seen in the last day have been recycled from the primary season. The posts started to swell again in recent weeks as speculation mounted that Biden would select Harris as his running mate, he said. 

“The sort of silver lining of how bad and persistent those attacks were in the primary is that we already debunked all of these talking points, so we already have the receipts to come back at them and say here's the actual story,” said Evans, who tweets to his more than 50,000 followers from the handle @notcapnamerica. “We were anticipating to have to do that again. And so the #KHive is ready to get back in there.” 

A hashtag, #WeGotHerBack, has emerged to defend Harris from online attacks. 

Both online and off, conservatives' attacks against Harris have been all over the map. 

Philip Rucker and Isaac reported that “the messages emanating from Trump and his allies about the senator from California varied wildly — casting her as both an overzealous prosecutor too tough on crime and an advocate for defunding the police, and as being so far to the left she would institute socialism as well as too moderate to satisfy her party’s progressive base.” Trump's surrogates called Harris a “far-left radical” as the president focused on her character. 

Conservative influencers often look to Trump and his family members for talking points, researchers say, so these remarks can influence how the attacks online play out. The lack of focus may given the Democrats an online advantage. 

“By and large the positive response to Kamala [on Tuesday] outweighed any of the negative attacks," said Jiore Craig, a vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, who runs the digital practice and works with Democratic campaigns. “Nothing's sticking yet,” she added of the right's attacks so far. “The American people aren't buying what they're selling.”

Our top tabs

Social media companies are touting their efforts to address voting misinformation ahead of the conventions. 

Facebook said today it would start labeling posts about voting from any user with a link to its new voting information center, my colleague Rachel Lerman reports for The Technology 202. The center is designed to correct misinformation about voting and post relevant announcements about mail-in ballots, registration deadlines and other election issues.

The center is designed to dispel misinformation about voting and post relevant announcements about mail-in ballots, even as Trump repeatedly attacks that method on the social network. 

"One of the things that we have learned through all of our work, including when covid-19 hit, is making sure people have accurate, authoritative information is one of the most important things we can do," Emily Dalton Smith, Facebook's head of social impact, told Rachel. 

Here's what other platforms have planned:

  • Twitter will broaden its policies to limit misleading statements about vote-by-mail. So far the platform has only cracked down on statements about specific instances, leaving some Trump tweets slammed by voting rights advocates untouched.  
  • Google launched two search features that will allow voters to find information on how to register and vote based on their search location. 
  • YouTube will begin surfacing information panels when users search for 2020 federal or presidential candidates in the coming weeks. It will also provide fact-check panels for other election-related searches.
U.S. companies are pushing back on the Trump administration's plans to restrict business transactions involving WeChat. 

The messaging app, which is owned by Chinese company Tencent, is one of the most popular ways for Americans to communicate with people living in mainland China, where many American messaging services and social networks are banned. Businesses raised concerns in a call with the White House yesterday that limits could make them less competitive in the world's second largest economy, the Wall Street Journal's John D. McKinnon and Lingling Wei report.

Some of the largest U.S. companies, including Apple, Ford Motor, Walmart and Disney, participated in the call. 

“For those who don’t live in China, they don’t understand how vast the implications are if American companieren’t allowed to use it,” said Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council told the Journal. “They are going to be held at a severe disadvantage to every competitor,” he added.

WeChat is ubiquitous in China, and it is heavily used for digital commerce and financial transactions. It's also a key marketing hub for any company doing business in the country. 

The companies sought greater clarity on the broad order, and they're hoping the administration will narrow it as it's implemented in the coming weeks. 

Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft will work with the government to combat 2020 election interference.

Verizon Media and smaller tech companies, including Pinterest, Reddit and the Wikimedia Foundation, will also participate, Mike Isaac and Kate Conger at the New York Times report. Discussions between the big four tech companies and government agencies have been ongoing since U.S. intelligence reports revealed online interference played a part in the 2016 election. 

Government participants include the FBI, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security. 

Both the private and public sectors have increased efforts to combat election misinformation and other foreign interference online. Facebook and Twitter both began piloting programs in the 2018 midterms to crack down on posts trying to suppress voters. 

Uber is threatening to temporarily shut down in California if the state requires it to classify drivers as employees.

Uber and its competitor Lyft have less than a week to appeal an injunction granted by a California judge Monday that would ban the companies from classifying their drivers as independent workers and force them to begin paying associated employee benefits. Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi doesn't think the company could convert its tens of thousands of workers in the state quickly enough, he told Stephanie Ruhle at CNBC.

“Any business model that relies on shortchanging workers in order to make it probably shouldn’t be anywhere, whether California or otherwise,” California Attorney Genera Xavier Becerra said in response to the comments by Khosrowshahi. Becerra and three city attorneys brought a lawsuit against the companies, accusing them of misclassifying their drivers. 

Uber and Lyft are backing a $110 million-dollar ballot proposal to overturn the worker classification law this November. 

Trump tracker

A network of fake Chinese accounts has been posting videos bashing Trump's foreign policy decisions.

The network has spread content on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, researchers at network analysis firm Graphika found, Craig Timberg and Shane Harris report. The videos, which are in English, target Trump's latest moves against China, including shutting down China's consulate in Houston and threats to ban TikTok and other Chinese apps. 

The revelation of the network follows reports from U.S. intelligence officials that the Chinese government wants to discredit Trump ahead of the election. Graphika did not connect the network with the Chinese government, though it seemed aligned with Beijing's interests.

Social media companies have repeatedly taken action against the network, according to previous research by Graphika. None of the videos flagged in Graphika's new report attracted large audiences.

The network used artificial intelligence to fake profile photos and often released responses in just a day after news hit. But the videos were also riddled with odd translations and broken English, researchers found.

Inside the industry

‘Boogaloo’ groups continue to pop up on Facebook despite the platform's crackdown.

At least 110 groups affiliated with the boogaloo movement have been created since the platform designated it a dangerous organization in June, according to a report from the tech watchdog Tech Transparency Project. Some of the groups already have thousands of members and have facilitated the sharing of bomb-making manuals, Tess Owen at Vice News reports

“The biggest concern is the ability to reach such a large number of people,” said Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency Project. “That increases the number of people who may be unstable. One person could take these manuals, find them useful, and carry out a lone-wolf attack.”

Facebook also continues to recommend boogaloo groups to users despite promising to stop, Paul alleges. A representative for Facebook told Vice they had not seen the report and could not comment on whether the content flagged fell under its dangerous organization policies.

More industry news:


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  • The Aspen Institute will hold an event “Virtually Alone: The Future of Human Connection” today at noon.
  • The Project On Government Oversight will hold a virtual town hall discussing the dangers of facial recognition and how to respond today at 3:30 p.m.

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