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June 2023

Juneteenth: How Misinformation Shapes Our Past and Present

By Liz Courquet-Lesaulnier

This is what you’ve probably been told about Juneteenth: Enslaved Black people in Texas had no idea they were free until June 19, 1865, the day U.S. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the Civil War and the freedom of enslaved Black people. 

“Maybe there’s a grain of truth to it, but it’s not the whole truth,” says Evan Feeney, a deputy senior campaign director at Color Of Change. What we’ve been taught about Juneteenth is part of the “propaganda about the story of Blackness in America right now,” he says.

Believing that white Texans were blissfully unaware of the end of the Civil War or the Emancipation Proclamation issued on Jan. 1,  1863 — more than two years before Juneteenth — flies in the face of the communication capabilities of the era. The telegraph had been operational since 1844, efficiently conveying crucial news across the nation, such as President Abraham Lincoln’s executive order — the Emancipation Proclamation. In addition, with the war and emancipation being a hot topic, newspapers nationwide — and in Texas — widely reported on the pivotal news well before Gen. Granger’s arrival.

Enslaved Black people weren’t oblivious to their freedom either. The issue was not their unawareness of the Emancipation Proclamation, but rather the cold, calculated refusal of white Texans to adhere to it or communicate about it. It was only when Gen. Granger arrived, backed by the military might of U.S. troops, that the enslaved Texans’ right to freedom was communicated and enforced.

Deliberate misinformation was a problem. Some oral histories hold that, despite the Civil War’s end, some slave owners kept the enslaved working through the agricultural season by saying that the war was not over or that the South had won the war.  

But why twist the truth about Juneteenth or refuse to teach it at all?

To “stall or outright crush movements for progress and liberation,” Feeney responds. “Misinformation has long been a historical tool of white supremacy to dismantle the growing power of Black folks.”

Color Of Change is working across a range of areas to combat forces pushing disinformation and misinformation — from battling the spread of hatred on social media and misinformation to keep Black people from voting to fighting book bans aimed at keeping Black history out of classrooms and libraries. 

Book bans continue the tradition of withholding information

If today’s record number of book bans that overwhelmingly target texts by Black authors or that teach about race or racism are allowed to stand, the nation’s children are less likely to learn the facts about the brutality and violence used by white people to withhold civil rights and political power from Black people historically and in the present. Similarly, children also may not learn the truth about the Black heroes who fought — and continue to fight — to create change.

A report released in April by PEN America found 1,477 separate instances of book bans between July and December 2022. Shockingly, “74% are connected to organized efforts, mainly of advocacy groups, elected officials or enacted legislation.”  

Much of this legislation takes its cue from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his “Florida is where woke goes to die!” movement. In January, DeSantis and the Florida State Board of Education blocked The College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies course from being taught in the state. 

A COC petition demanding that the course be reinstated notes that DeSantis and the State of Florida have “led the charge in the national erasure of Black history and culture.” 

The College Board announced in February that it had removed lessons on critical race theory, Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration and reparations. In response, COC members have put pressure on The College Board and major book publishers to “stand up and unequivocally say that what’s happening in Florida and other states is wrong,” Feeney says. These bans are an “attack on civil rights.There can’t be any equivocating about it.” 

Misinformation continues to drive investments in policing

Half-truths and outright lies aren’t just being told about Juneteenth. Feeney says the truth about current movements against mass incarceration also is being attacked. Current misinformation and disinformation about a supposed crime wave in the United States is “one of the most pernicious forms of misinformation that is happening right now,” Feeney says. COC is “very focused” on the issue because misinformation about criminality “is foundational to the prison industrial complex,” he explains.

Prison profiteers “have a vested interest in saying that there’s crime and crime should be more harshly punished,” says Feeney. They need to create public fear of high crime rates “because it puts people in their prisons, and they really need to justify the exorbitant costs that they charge the state by falsely stating that certain people are more violent or need to be under a more intensive guard in stricter, harsher conditions.” 

A COC report released earlier this year, “Policy Blueprint for Ending Carceral Profiteering,” details how more than 4,000 corporations pocket an estimated $80 billion per year by charging incarcerated people and their families for everything from phone calls and health care to soap and other hygiene items.

Feeney says national retailers also are using misinformation and disinformation around crime to cover up poor business decisions and to thwart unionizing efforts.

“We’re seeing retailers like Target and Walgreens constantly citing anecdotal, one-off stories of something being taken from one of their stores as a supposed national trend of organized retail crime. But there’s no data that backs up that that’s actually happening,” Feeney says. 

In Portland, Oregon, outdoor gear retailer REI said “they were going to shut down a couple of stores in the city because of organized retail crime. And then it came out that they’re shutting them down because the stores are actually unionizing.”

Feeney says misinformation around Black people perpetuating a crime wave has had fatal consequences, as seen in the chokehold killing of Jordan Neely in a New York City subway in May. Media reporting about his killing illustrated how news outlets often unquestioningly report — and quote verbatim from — press releases from law enforcement agencies. 

“This is what led to everyone from the New York Times to MSNBC choosing to report Jordan’s killer’s side of the story before reporting on the Jordan Neely side,” Feeney says.

As a result, Feeney says, COC members are putting “pressure on media outlets to more seriously consider how they’re reporting information and statistics that come from law enforcement, and that come from retailers who have a vested interest in this narrative being pushed forward. And now that we have rapidly scalable digital mass media, it is easier than ever for anyone to take up the mantle of misinformation,” Feeney says. That puts the safety of Black people at risk and also has the greatest potential to suppress Black voting power.

Now misinformation is rampant online

Indeed, according to 2021 Pew Research Center data, 77% of Black Americans use some form of social media, compared to 69% of white Americans. Black people are also heavier users of Twitter and Facebook than any other race or ethnicity, making the community a prime target for misinformation and disinformation. 

Feeney says Facebook has financial and personal political interests in allowing misinformation and disinformation to spread “because they don’t want to make an enemy of someone who could be the next possible president, the next regulator, the next person who is going to be signing off on laws regulating their business model. They have a vested interest in ensuring that every possible political candidate is on the platform, even though it is morally unjustifiable.”

Twitter, on the other hand, says Feeney, appears to be promoting content “largely aligned” with owner Elon Musk’s personal beliefs. 

The reinstatement of former President Donald Trump and other white nationalists to Twitter under Musk’s leadership allows the rampant spread of disinformation, misinformation and hate on Twitter.

A new report from the Center For Countering Digital Hate shows that 99% of the time, Twitter fails to remove hate speech posted by Twitter Blue users. “So if you’re paying $8, you can kind of say whatever you want on the platform,” Feeney says. 

In addition, the report found that accounts posting hate speech “benefit from algorithmic amplification as a result of their paid subscriptions.” 

Reining in this promotion of hate is why COC’s Black Tech Agenda urges Congress to regulate technology companies, including “directing social media companies to evaluate algorithms that shape the online experience or to follow civil rights laws.”

Feeney says COC also is very concerned about the role Twitter could play in the 2024 election with basically no guardrails. 

“The amount of intentional and unintentional misuse of information that is going to happen on that platform over the next year is going to be a firehose. It’s going to be hard to contain and I don’t think people are fully prepared for the impact,” Feeney says.

A fitting example of misinformation, Feeney says, is when Musk tweeted in June 2020 that Tesla and SpaceX would recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. He didn’t disclose that employees who wanted to observe it and get paid “still have to take their own PTO time.” 

In today’s landscape of misinformation and distorted narratives, COC’s mission is more crucial than ever because of the power of accurate information to bring about justice.

How COC is working for change and you can help

Although Juneteenth is “supposed to be an opportunity for folks to celebrate how far we’ve come,” Feeney says, it’s also a stark reminder that accurate information equals power. 

As Christopher Wilson of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History wrote, Juneteenth is “really a story of power traveling slowly, and of freedom being seized.”

To seize that power, Feeney says, when you see a news article, a meme, a story — something forwarded by friends or family — ask yourself: Is there more to this? 

“That’s what our opposition is hoping that we don’t do,” he says. ”Take that second and ask, ‘Can I find out something more about that? Or am I just going to accept what I’m being shown at face value?’ “

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