Every time an election looms, Baton Rouge resident Ashley Shelton notices the red flags — the signs sprinkled around the city and other parts of Louisiana that give the wrong information about when voters can cast their ballots.

She doesn’t know who the bad actors are. But whenever she sees one of these signs — they usually crop up near predominantly Black neighborhoods — she takes it down, tosses it into the back of her car, and puts up a sign with the correct information.

“It seems like there’s always an attempt in Louisiana to confuse people about when Election Day really is,” said Shelton, the president and founder of the New Orleans-based nonprofit Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, referring to last fall’s statewide elections.

Campaigns to mislead Black Americans and ultimately suppress their votes aren’t new. But as the 2024 elections draw closer, advocates across the U.S. — especially across the South — are preparing for what they believe will be even more intense and sophisticated efforts to deceive, including artificial intelligence-generated voice clones that mimic public figures and dish out false information.

“The way I see it,” explained Sarah J. Jackson, a presidential associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, “[the environment today] is the new literacy test. Those old literacy tests were designed to be impossible for most people to pass. In some ways, what we’re seeing now is a media literacy test: How do you know which information you’re getting from Facebook or X or even robocalls is legitimate?”

To push back against these schemes in the absence of robust federal intervention, advocates are starting to increase their presence in vulnerable communities and make sure that voters understand the perils of disinformation.

Some also are creating digital toolkits, guides, or apps that provide reliable data about key issues and candidates.

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“I think that disinformation is one of the biggest threats to our freedom and our democracy. I often tell folks that whoever controls the narrative controls the power,” said Anneshia Hardy, the executive director of Alabama Values, a grassroots communications organization that this month began testing out Megaphone, an app that counters disinformation by serving as a one-stop shop where residents and advocates can learn about the challenges affecting their communities.

“Narratives and messaging are critical for building equitable power structures, closing the knowledge gap, raising awareness, holding elected officials accountable, and increasing transparency for the public,” she added.

Here’s everything you need to know about what, exactly, disinformation is — including how it differs from its very close cousin, misinformation — and what advocates are doing to protect and empower Black communities.

What is disinformation?

In recent weeks, two images have been attracting lots of attention on social media. Both feature Black men clad in what appears to be “Make America Great Again” apparel. And they’re trying to get other Black men to register to vote, presumably with the Republican Party, which for decades has struggled to appeal to Black voters.

But something is off. Several things, actually. In one image, a picture frame juts out from the house. In the other, a Black man has three arms, and the text on the clothing isn’t legible.

This screen capture of an image circulating on social media shows what appears to be an AI-generated photo of a man with three arms talking with a Black Republican activist. (X)

These are AI-generated images, and they exemplify disinformation — they were designed and sent out into the world to do just one thing: deceive.

Tequila Johnson, the CEO and co-founder of the Nashville-based nonprofit Equity Alliance, said that these images harmonize with disinformation she’s detected in Tennessee.

She’s observed “very deliberate PR messaging” insisting that Black Americans, and in particular Black men, are fleeing the Democratic Party in record numbers and joining the Republican Party. These assertions, however, are specious. The GOP is actually caught in a rut when it comes to winning over Black voters.

Yet, disinformation isn’t always as obvious as an image of a three-armed man. Some of the most common political narratives of the past several years also are examples of disinformation, according to advocates.

“Alabama began its 2024 legislative session this month, and we’re seeing a narrative that the right is pushing about ‘election integrity,’ and [Republican] lawmakers are using this narrative as an excuse to launch some of the most egregious voter suppression bills we’ve seen in the state,” Hardy said.

Take Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Garlan Gudger. It would largely criminalize absentee ballot assistance by outlawing anyone from “ordering, requesting, collecting, prefilling, obtaining, or delivering” an absentee ballot or an absentee ballot application that isn’t their own.

“Bills like this are being presented on the grounds of, ‘Oh, we have to protect elections,’” even though that isn’t an issue, Hardy said, referring to lies about voter fraud, which is so incredibly rare that it’s almost a myth. “Disinformation provides fuel for lawmakers to try to pass unfair policies and adopt fake political realities that disadvantage communities of color.”

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Notably, while some use disinformation and misinformation interchangeably, they’re different. And at the heart of that difference is intent. The former is false information that’s spread with the intent to mislead. The latter is false information that’s spread regardless of intent to mislead — maybe polling locations or mail-in voting rules suddenly change, but someone shares the outdated information.

Jackson echoed Hardy’s concerns, highlighting that allegations of fraud have always given cover to anti-Black voter suppression schemes, from literacy tests to voter ID laws.

What makes disinformation campaigns so alarming today, as the country approaches the 2024 elections, is the fact that they’re increasingly tied to technology.

“Technology is being taken up to spread disinformation at a scale that hadn’t really been possible before,” Jackson said. “With the development and advancement of algorithms and AI, it’s easier, especially but not only online, to engage in deepfakes, cloning — all these things.”

Additionally, algorithms and AI make it simpler to do large sweeps of ZIP codes, census records, and other data that can enable more old-fashioned forms of disinformation, including directing deceitful robocalls and text messages at Black communities.

How are organizers combating disinformation?

Advocates are taking a multipronged approach to tackling disinformation.

For instance, the Power Coalition is bolstering its presence on the ground. The organization is adding about 20 people across Louisiana so that it can strengthen its pre-existing connections with vulnerable groups and act as a resource.

“To build real power, you have to invest. So we’re going to have folks on the ground working with trusted community leaders to address what people are hearing,” Shelton said. “We’re trying to drive a campaign around voter education, because one thing we learned from the redistricting process is that nobody understands all the things that are happening.”

She added that deep listening is a central part of the organization’s mission. It wants to learn about the disinformation that’s shutting Black Americans out of the political process.

Read More: Black Louisianans Enter a New Political Era

Meanwhile, Alabama Values is beta testing Megaphone, an app to beat back disinformation. The app, which will be more widely available to the public this summer, is meant to centralize data-driven content — from videos to stories to polls — covering a variety of topics.

“This is just our way of ensuring that when it comes to building a narrative around issues, people have access to accurate, reliable information,” Hardy said. “We also see this as a way to create a pro-democracy messaging ecosystem. I often talk about the importance of empowering citizen journalists,” or directly impacted people who can bring essential information into their neighborhoods.

While the Equity Alliance isn’t developing an app, the organization is putting out a voter guide and going on what it calls a “barbershop tour.”

The purpose, said Johnson, is to meet Tennesseans where they are and give them pertinent, relevant information at a moment when communities are being bombarded with falsehoods and conspiracy theories.

“Sometimes, the information-sharing is extremely difficult, because it requires a lot of manpower and a lot of outreach,” she acknowledged. “But it’s also really necessary — especially at a time like this.”

Of course, the burden of battling disinformation shouldn’t rest solely, or even primarily, on Black Americans or on other people of color who are already disenfranchised and lacking resources. Federal intervention is necessary.

“I don’t like to displace the responsibility of figuring all this out onto groups or individuals. My position is very much that we need regulation — we need federal regulation. We can’t count on, say, media companies to regulate themselves without being pushed,” said Jackson, also the co-author of the 2020 book #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice.

President Joe Biden has signed an executive order seeking to oversee some AI. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has launched website hubs in seven languages that provide advocates with resources that it views as a counterpunch to disinformation aimed at voters of color. But muscular federal regulation is still elusive.

As a result, advocates remain on the front lines, wrestling with disinformation app by app and sign by sign.

“We’re committed to building an environment where people can get information that they can trust,” Shelton said. “We want people to understand what their power is — and how they can use it to change their communities.”

Brandon Tensley is Worldacad's national politics reporter.