Debunking 3 viral falsehoods about Kamala Harris

Davey Alba, The New York Times

Posted at Aug 15 2020 06:34 AM | Updated as of Aug 15 2020 10:35 AM

Sen. Kamala Harris, (D-Calif.) participates in a news conference at the outset of President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, in Washington, Jan. 16, 2020. False and misleading information about Harris has surged in the days since she joined the Biden ticket, spread by both Trump supporters and some on the far left. Anna Moneymaker,The New York Times

As Joe Biden announced that he had selected Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his vice presidential running mate, internet trolls got to work.

Since then, false and misleading information about Harris has spiked online and on TV. The activity has jumped from two dozen mentions per hour during a recent week to over 3,200 per hour in the last few days, according to the media insights company Zignal Labs, which analyzed global television broadcasts and social media.

Much of that rise is fueled by fervent supporters of President Donald Trump and adherents of the extremist conspiracy movement QAnon, as well as by the far left, according to a New York Times analysis of the most widespread falsehoods about Harris. On Thursday, Trump himself encouraged one of the most persistent falsehoods, a racist conspiracy theory that Harris is not eligible for the vice presidency or presidency because her parents were immigrants.

“Sadly, this wave of misinformation was predictable and inevitable,” said Melissa Ryan, chief executive of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches disinformation.

Many of the narratives are inaccurate accusations that first surged last year during Harris’ campaign to become the Democratic presidential nominee. Here are three false rumors about Harris that continue circulating widely online.

The ‘PizzaGate’ Conspiracy Theory

On Wednesday, a day after Biden announced his selection, the falsehood that Harris is connected to a child-trafficking conspiracy known as PizzaGate was published on the conspiracy-mongering website Infowars, which set off a round of sharing on social media.

PizzaGate hinges on the baseless notion that Hillary Clinton and Democratic elites ran a child sex-trafficking ring through a Washington pizza restaurant. According to the rumors about Harris, she is tied to the conspiracy because her sister was invited by John Podesta, Clinton’s presidential campaign manager, to a “Hillary pizza party” in 2016.

By Friday morning, more than 4,200 tweets discussed the unfounded theory about Harris’ connection to PizzaGate, according to Dataminr, a social media monitoring service.

On Facebook, users in dozens of QAnon groups and pages posted about the rumor. The falsehood reached up to 624,000 people, according to The Times’ analysis. On Instagram, which Facebook owns, 77 more posts tried to spread the lie further.

And on YouTube, a QAnon channel with over 100,000 followers pushed the conspiracy, too.

“Remember, we know what pizza was code language for,” Daniel Lee, a YouTube personality popular in conspiracy circles, told his audience. The video was viewed 30,000 times.

A Facebook spokeswoman, Liz Bourgeois, said in an email Friday that “it’s up to our fact-checking partners to determine which claims they rate, and they take a number of factors into consideration.” She acknowledged that as of Friday afternoon, there were no fact-checks so far on the widely shared posts falsely tying Harris to PizzaGate.

Twitter said Friday that it permanently suspended people associated with QAnon who used many different accounts or tried to evade a previous suspension.

“We deploy a number of tools to add context to and address misinformation,” including applying labels, not recommending tweets and limiting the reach of tweets, a Twitter spokesman, Trenton Kennedy, said.

YouTube said Friday that it was reducing the spread of borderline content on the video site, including QAnon content, but that the video flagged by The Times did not violate its guidelines.

Harris’ Heritage

Falsehoods about Harris’ heritage — in particular that she is “not Black” — were among the most widely spread misinformation that Zignal Labs tracked. Since Tuesday, the argument had been mentioned over 40,000 times, the company found.

“Kamala Harris is not an American Black,” said one tweet that collected 2,300 likes and shares after it was first posted Wednesday. “She is half Indian and half Jamaican. She is robbing American Blacks of their history. Kamala is as Black American as Obama.”

In a Facebook post Tuesday night, Candace Owens, a right-wing commentator, posted a widely shared post questioning Harris’ heritage. “I am SO EXCITED that we get to watch Kamala Harris, who swore into congress as an ‘Indian-American,’ now play the ‘I’m a black a woman’ card all the way until November,” she wrote.

Facebook soon added a fact check to Owens’ post, requiring users to click past a label noting that third-party fact checkers found “this information has no basis in fact.”

Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, was born in 1964 in Oakland, California, a few years after her parents arrived in the United States. According to The Associated Press, Harris has long identified as Black; she was not sworn into Congress identifying only as Indian American. In interviews, Harris has regularly spoken about how her mother, who was from India, raised her as Black.

Owens did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Still, on Facebook, other memes labeling Harris as “Kamala Dolezal” were liked and shared thousands of times, according to the Times analysis. The posts referred to Rachel Dolezal, a former official at the NAACP who was later revealed to be white and was charged in 2018 with welfare fraud.

Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who teaches digital ethics, said she was “absolutely not surprised” by the viral misinformation questioning Harris’ heritage.

“Regardless of political party, sexism and racism have long been fixtures in American public life,” Phillips said.

Jussie Smollett

One of the most convoluted lies that has spread on social media involves actor Jussie Smollett and the baseless allegation that Harris is his aunt and knew in advance that Smollett was planning to stage an assault against himself early last year.

According to the unsubstantiated narrative, when the Chicago Police Department and the FBI investigated the alleged assault, Harris appeared in Smollett’s phone records, so she must have been in on the hoax.

The right-wing website True Pundit published an article pushing this argument in November. The article gained new prominence on social media this week, shared nearly 2,000 times on Twitter and reaching 180,000 people, according to CrowdTangle, a tool to analyze interactions across social networks.

A February 2019 article on FactCheck.org concluded that there was no relation between Harris and Smollett, and that evidence of her role in the hoax was nonexistent.

Harris did initially condemn the news of the apparent attack on Smollett, but when police said the assault had been staged, she put out a new statement saying she was “sad, frustrated and disappointed” by the development.