Misinformation targeting Black consumers flourishes

Flipping white cubes for change wording from "fake" to "fact" on blue background , 3d rendering.

By Elijah Pittman

Misinformation is a term that has been thrown around loosely in American politics, especially in the wake of the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. 

Fox News, Joe Rogan and Facebook have all played key roles as some of the largest purveyors of misinformation in America since the 2016 presidential election. In April 2023, Fox News fired its most popular host, Tucker Carlson, over his spread of conspiracies and misinformation on his talk show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” which led to a lawsuit against Fox.

Rogan’s podcast episodes have peddled many COVID-19 conspiracies, among them being that the vaccine alters genes and that the health risks from the vaccine are greater for young people than from COVID-19 itself.

Facebook, the largest social media platform in the world, received significant flak for its platforming of misinformation. According to CNN, misinformation accounted for the majority of engagement with far-right posts compared to posts from the far-left on Facebook. 

Misinformation that targets the white American public has been under a microscope in mainstream American media; however, misinformation targeted at Black communities has been left largely unacknowledged and running rampant. 

“The core thing is having a basic understanding of what misinformation is,”said Dr. Jason Johnson, professor of media literacy at Morgan State University. “You have propaganda where you convince or change opinions; advertising, which is trying to get you to buy into something; and slander, which is dishonest or negatively frames things. All of these can be a part of misinformation.” 

Johnson said that misinformation, especially under the guise of gossip, is not a new phenomenon and has existed in literate communities since their existence. He cites a humorous example of citizens of early civilizations writing on walls in town centers to gossip about extra-marital affairs among their government officials.

“So it’s not that Black people are any more susceptible to misinformation than white people; we are not,” Johnson said. “The difference is that when you compound the lack of education and the lower literacy levels of Black people, it means that the amount of information that we consume collectively may not be as big.” 

The Shade Room, a popular “gossip and news” social media account that covers Black pop culture and viral topics, tailors its content to satisfy the desire for gossip. However, the mixing of gossip and news dissemination can be an quick gateway to misinformation. 

“A year ago, you had all of these articles–and the Shade Room did one–where it was like, the Biden administration is, you know, refusing to fund HBCUs. It wasn’t true,” Johnson said. “The budget hadn’t changed at all. In fact, the Biden administration was giving more money.” 

Hollywood Unlocked, which has a similar platform to The Shade Room, reported on Instagram that Queen Elizabeth II died in February 2022. The queen, however, didn’t die until September 2022. 

When the owner of Hollywood Unlocked, Jason Lee, was confronted about the story, he refused to retract it and defended his evidently faulty sources. Hollywood Unlocked has more than 3.4 million followers on Instagram, which is far less than The Shade Room, but demonstrates the trickle-down effect of such a large account. 

Black Wealth, another account on Instagram that follows the “gossip and news” format, has also spread misinformation. Black Wealth, which has more than 290,000 followers, frames itself as a media/news company “normalizing excellence and generational wealth.” 

In June, Black Wealth posted that Venus and Serena Williams were the first Black women to own an NFL team, the Miami Dolphins. Stephen Ross is the majority owner of the team. The Williams sisters do own a 0.5% stake each. The post attempted to frame the Williams sisters as NFL team owners in an attempt to promote Black excellence and wealth. 

“People form their opinions not because they can recall the actual facts that they built their opinions on,” Johnson said. “They start passively collecting information over time and develop a point of view that even they can’t explain with points of logic. 

“That’s usually the goal of disinformation,” he said. “It’s not usually to persuade someone. It’s usually to get them to detach and to become paranoid and to become cynical so that they do not organize and resist.” 

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