Standing Up to the Algorithm: Rebuilding our communities with Andre Banks

We welcome Andre Banks for a conversation on the role and influence that our digital connections play in our physical and mental wellbeing. There may be more questions than answers at the end of this one, so consider it the start of a much deeper conversation that will continue.

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Our digital universe was intended to close divides between time and space, to allow us to communicate more clearly and more often. But there is a situation in this digital universe that actually limits our ability to connect. External forces make us question what is true and false. We are at the mercy of algorithms created to shape our opinions and actions online.

Our guest this week has done extensive work on these issues and is here to help us understand the landscape, and the implications of our actions. Andre Banks is the founder and CEO of A/B Partners. Andre works at the top of his field on political communications and digital organizing and serves as the current chair of the board at Color Of Change.

This season, we continue to dig in to all the ways that we come together as a society. But we can’t speak authentically about people in connection to one another without talking about the role that social media plays in how we come to understand one another, and how we push each other apart in the process. Our conversation today takes on the role that mis- and dis-information plays in activism online and in the media, and how it is weaponized to further disenfranchise marginalized communities.

For many, we are inseparable from our digital connections. What role do those connections play in our physical and mental well-being? And how do we build a space for authentic, constructive dialogue in the face of external forces? We are grateful for Andre this week, for sharing such extensive experience and giving us all a foundation for our own work as we reclaim and grow our digital universe.

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Episode Transcript

Carrie Fox: Hi there and welcome to the Mission Forward podcast, where each week we bring you a thought provoking and perspective shifting conversation on the world around us. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm, and certified B corporation. This season, we are digging into all the ways that we, as a people and society are coming together, and the ways that we are pushing farther apart, ideologically, physically, spiritually, culturally. And we can’t talk about people in connection to one another without talking about the role that social media plays in how we are together, how we understand one another. So this week, we bring you a conversation with Andre Banks to do just that. Andre is the founder and CEO of AB Partners. He works at the top of his field on political communications and digital organizing. He’s also the current chair of the board at Color Of Change, an organization where he started as one of the first staff members in its early years.

Carrie Fox: As you’ll hear us explore, there is a situation going on in our digital universe that limits our ability to connect, that makes us question what is true and false. And given his work on these issues, we wanted to hear his take. One last thing, before we get into today’s conversation. I want to share a little primer on the difference between mis and disinformation, as those words get thrown around a lot. Misinformation is perhaps the most innocent of the terms. It’s misleading information created or shared without the intent to manipulate people. An example would be sharing a rumor that a celebrity died before finding out it’s false. Disinformation by contrast refers to deliberate attempts to confuse or manipulate people with dishonest information. These campaigns at time are orchestrated by groups outside the US and can be coordinated across multiple social media accounts, and may also be automated using automated systems like bots to post and share information online.

Carrie Fox: Disinformation can turn into misinformation when it’s spread by unwitting readers who believe the material. This is a conversation on the role and influence that our digital connections play on our physical and mental wellbeing. The truth is that there may be more questions than answers at the end of this conversation. So consider it the start of a much deeper journey that will continue into some of our future episodes. Stay tuned for our conversation with Andre Banks.

Carrie Fox: First, thank you again for being with us today. And for folks who don’t yet know your name and your work, I wonder if you might take a couple steps back and bring us to present day on the amazing work that you’ve been doing, but how you got into the space that you are now in.

Andre Banks: Sure. And really glad to be with you today. I was thinking about this recently that I have of sort of interesting experience in kind of organizing and movement building. And that I’m like just old enough that I began my organizing career before digital organizing was like a huge thing, but exactly at the moment where those sorts of tools were really coming into the world, online organizing, email as like a primary tool of communication, Facebook sort of launched I think the same year that I had one of my first jobs out of college.

Andre Banks: So I sort of started as an organizer, a labor organizer, student organizer, kind of came up through that world and moved into doing a lot of work with racial justice and working with some great organizations like Race Forward and Color Lens magazine, and ultimately landing at Color of Change. And it’s a very, very early stages. As a staff person, now have been there for a few years as the chair of the board. And yeah, just sort of using sort of coming through the last kind of 10, 15, now 20 years, trying to think of what are these different ways that we can use technology to build community and to tell new stories that bring new people in, to shape the country that we’re in and make change. So that sort of led me to start AB Partners, which is what I’m doing now.

Carrie Fox: That’s amazing. And we’re going to talk a little bit about AB Partners. We’re also going to talk about a campaign, although campaign doesn’t feel even big enough to talk about Win Black [Polante 00:04:55] was. So we’re going to get there in a minute. So I want to dig into what you were doing in the lead up to and through the most recent presidential election.

Carrie Fox: But I want to set some groundwork first for our listeners, right? There is a situation going on. There is a big situation going on in our digital universe that actually limits our ability to connect, right? It frames how we understand the world around us. It makes us question what is true and false, and you are steeped inside that space. And I’m curious if you can paint a picture for us on really what’s going on in the digital universe that folks may not realize or understand.

Andre Banks: We’re really in sort of unprecedented times. I think we’ve always… like lies and mistruths are not new. Those are old, but I think the way and the scale and the speed at which lies and mistruths can be delivered is new. That is something that really has shifted in I think the last five to 10 years in particular. One way that this really came to attention was in the 2016 presidential election. We all know how that one turned out. Hillary did not win for people who weren’t paying attention for the last five years. But after the fact of the election, the Senate did a big report on misinformation and actually looking at how were people being misleaded? What were these communities online that were confusing people? And what they found was that the number one target of misinformation in 2016 were African-Americans, black people.

Andre Banks: The second target were Latinx Americans. And what they saw were Russian foreign agents, trolls, bots, all of these different actors, some organized political actors, all conspiring to give people bad information about the election. So this is everything from lies about the candidates and their background to telling people the wrong date for the election, casting certain characters and organizations as nefarious that haven’t actually done bad things. And so what we actually saw was the ability for not like thousands or hundreds of thousands of, but actually millions of people to get drawn into communities that were focused on misinforming them, giving them the wrong information they needed to be able to participate in our democracy.

Carrie Fox: So I have heard you say, we sometimes undervalue our own vote and people sitting across an ocean actually realized that we, our individual votes can really make a difference about who’s in the White House. So I want you to expand on that a little bit and talk about, I suspect that that was part of, though not the full reason why you launched Win Black Polante. And so maybe start by giving us some context for what Win Black Polante was and is, and why you took that on?

Andre Banks: That was exactly what motivated me to start it. And I think when I saw that, I was like, so people are sitting in some basement in St. Petersburg, Russia targeting black people on Facebook in Ohio, where I’m from, trying to convince them not to vote for Hillary. And instead to either usually to sit out the election and not participate in most cases or to vote for a different candidate. And I was like, that is really something else. Like that is not just your everyday run of the mill thing. Now, let me go through their thought process. Why would they feel that way?

Andre Banks: And what you come to really quickly is that black Americans, when organized together have enormous political power. We have the ability to shape the outcome of a presidential election. In places like Michigan, which were critical in 2016 and 2020. In 2016, I think that Trump won by 10,000 votes. That is like a small percentage of black voters showing up or not showing up could be that margin of difference.

Andre Banks: So actually just peeling off 10,000 people from all of the Michigan voters, black voters, actually could have changed the outcome in that election in 2016. And I was like, whoa, that blows my mind. And I was like, if these people can sit in a basement somewhere in Russia and like play that game, I can certainly organize with my friends who’ve been doing organizing and doing communications in this country and we can play that game on our own and actually make sure that we’re countering the worst misinformation, but also making sure our folks are getting good information. So that’s really where Win Black Polante started.

Andre Banks: So we first kind of make connections with people who are monitoring this information to understand where those threats were coming from. But then we did on the other side, connected with organizers and in states all across the country, ultimately 20 states who were really the people who were knocking on doors, making phone calls, doing that hard, critical work of getting people engaged in the election. And we sort of sat in between the two and said, here’s the threat. Here are the people who need to be prepared to tackle the threat. Let’s make a lot of great information, good digital content that counters misinformation, and gives people the information they need to vote and participate. And let’s make it focused on black people and Win Black and Latinx people in Polante. So that was really how we got started and sort of built that network of folks to be able to push back in the ways that we thought would be smart.

Natalie S. Burke: So Andre, I have a couple of questions for you. One is that… And Carrie will tell you, this language is really important to me. And so I would love it if you could talk a little bit about the difference between misinformation and disinformation and why is it that black and brown people were the targets? What was it that made those outside actors think that black and brown folks were vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation?

Andre Banks: Absolutely. Yeah, no, it’s actually really important because we see a lot of misinformation and disinformation in the world, and sometimes it can be a little hard to pull apart which one is which. But basically misinformation is really like false information that gets spread, whether or not it’s like trying to mislead people. It’s just like things that are untrue that get out there. So sometimes misinformation can actually be innocent. So, you know, you can genuinely think you heard something about a candidate or you heard a bit of information, but you just got it wrong. You were like, oh, I thought the date for this was… election day was Wednesday, but really we all know it’s Tuesday and then you’re spreading the wrong information. So that’s misinformation, but it can have a really harmful effect.

Andre Banks: Disinformation is a little bit different because it’s really meant to twist facts with the intention to mislead. So the idea is actually to take things that look very close to the truth, tweak them just enough so that they’ve kind of feel based in reality, but really where you’re trying to lead someone down a different dark road. So we sort of look for both of those. We look for the places where we often say that there’s a lot of misinformation that’s living not just from Russian foreign agents, but in our own families, like text threads where people are spreading information. Oh no, you, the vaccine, it’s like you shouldn’t get this one or you shouldn’t get that one. I’m like nobody on here is a scientist, nobody here’s a doctor. But we look out for that stuff, but then we’re also looking for those places where it’s more coordinated disinformation

Andre Banks: And to the question of like why us? Why target us? I think one, I think there’s a couple of things that we noticed. One, the ways in which we saw people, especially in 2016, get targeted with disinformation was by organizing communities online. So like Facebook groups that were actually targeted toward black Americans talking about real concerns about issues that black Americans have in our lives. So they were about criminal justice and mass incarceration. They were about jobs and wages and being able to provide for our families. But instead of saying, mass incarceration is a huge problem. That’s why we need to each be empowered and a part of politics so that we can change who’s elected, and we can have people who are elected, who will make these changes in government. Instead, they said the opposite. They said, mass incarceration is a problem, which is why we should know as black people, we should sit this one out. This is a system that’s never going to do for us. It never has. We should just check out of the system. We shouldn’t participate at all.

Andre Banks: And so I think that there was this sense of like the real grievance that black people have combined with that kind of political power that we have, and people saw the opportunity to exploit the space in between that.

Carrie Fox: So talk to us a little bit more about how Win Black Polante informed the work you’re doing now. And as we are suddenly already back into another election cycle, it’s amazing that I am already seeing ads on the evening news already, but what do you think needs to happen as we look ahead to the 2022 midterms?

Andre Banks: Yeah, I think the big thing that we realized in 2020 was that you can try to push back defensively against disinformation and misinformation, but the best thing that we can do is actually tell great powerful stories consistently every day to our communities and keep folks in our version of the story, to actually be proactive, to actually talk to people about why it’s important to vote, how their vote matters, how we actually cast our ballots in a sort of an electoral system that’s changing and where the rules change from year to year. So I think one of the big things that we’re focused on now is like making sure that that work continues to happen, not just like in the months before an election, but actually every day and on a whole range of issues.

Andre Banks: So we’re working right now with a group really focused on climate equity on the sort of misinformation that’s coming from the fossil fuel industry that really just tries to discredit people who are pushing for faster, more aggressive action on climate change. And trying to make sure again, that we are like countering those stories, putting out the right stuff and getting those up to scale in the states that matter.

Carrie Fox: So here’s a question for both of you, or maybe a prompt for some conversation for both of you. So if we think about this season, we’re talking about being in community with one another and all of the various ways that we are in community. How has the COVID experience, living through the COVID experience changed how we are in community, right? We hear people saying, oh, we’re on zoom. We have more intimate experiences with one another now. We’re using technology as a way to come together. And yet there is a complete difference to how we think about being together, right?

Carrie Fox: And so you’re talking Andre about the spaces that we occupy that are digitally together and how we have to still find spaces. And this is Natalie where you live on how folks actually do come together and connect and relate often over issues that they don’t agree on. Right? So how we create those spaces where we’re not in echo chambers together, but we’re in spaces where we’re learning from one another and challenging one another. So somewhat open, maybe not even a direct question, but how you think about how the world and the universe of communications and connection has changed post-COVID.

Andre Banks: In one sense, digital communications have become even more powerful in some ways, as we just have been forced to be more at home, forced to be farther away from people. But I think one thing that I always try to tease out is like digital communications covers a lot of different kinds of things in my mind.

Andre Banks: So for example, I consider my iMessage thread that has my mom, my grandma, my brother, my sister-in-law, my sister on it, that we’re communicating each day about like things that are going on in our lives. That’s a form of digital communication, but that’s also I think a family space where we are able to come together, even though almost all of us live in different states now. And so I think there’s this way in which we’ve both, we see digital communications pushing us farther out where we’re sort of more abstracted from information, but there’s also some ways that we’ve taken some of those things back to recreate some of those intimate spaces that we really had to give up across the last year.

Andre Banks: So I think I have seen a lot of change in that end. I think because of the last year, now I feel like there’s such a much stronger desire to actually come together physically in-person to see each other, to be with each other, to have the conversations that we couldn’t have had face to face for the last 12 to 18 months. And so I’m looking forward to kind of what the rest of 2021 and going into ’22 brings?

Natalie S. Burke: You have me stewing on this one, Carrie, because I think we are about to recalibrate communication. It’s something that we are certainly thinking about within my own organization, as we go back to in-person work. What does that mean for how we communicate with one another and how we’re in relationship with each other? And to do that in a way that we use communication as a mechanism to curate the culture that we want to see emerge post quarantine and post COVID. So I think that that’s a really important thing that we are doing it intentionally, but the other part that has emerged for people is the need to take a break. That fatigue is real. And in that, I think people have become increasingly aware of the difference between the information they are fed versus the information that they find, and the role in a sense that the algorithm plays in the view of the world that we have, unless we consciously seek to broaden our view of the world.

Natalie S. Burke: And absent that, our ability to be in relationship with one another is being limited by entities that are not us. There’s a lot of power in this because power is that ability to define reality for yourself and for others. So who’s defining reality for me every single day? So I think as I speak to people, what I recognize is this idea of the information you’re being fed versus the information that you find has become more and more important, even for people who are not information junkies like I might be. Folks who now are starting to say, hmm, I’m starting to notice. And then fill in the blank. Things that, because the pace of life did not allow them to pay attention in detail to how things were being put in front of them and around them, in a sense how sometimes they were being drowned by ideas and how narratives were being driven and pushed by people who don’t have their best interests at heart, or really have any interest in them whatsoever.

Natalie S. Burke: I think now people, people who in my own life, people who I have met over the past year have talked about becoming aware. And I think there’s something to be said for that. It feels a little bit like the matrix in a lot of ways. And so, I hope that coming out of this, that that awareness continues to ramp up because I think it’s in that awareness that we can begin to hold those entities accountable, whether they are spreading misinformation, disinformation, or crafting narratives about us without us. And that is one of the things that drives me absolutely nuts. An example, and I think Carrie, we’ve talked about this before, has to do with, well, why aren’t black people getting vaccinated?

Natalie S. Burke: If one more person tries to shove it down my throat, that it’s about Tuskegee, I’m going to scream. I work in public health, right? You’re taking a small, and when I say small, a small thing and blowing it up in a way that you are actually blaming black people for not getting vaccinated. It’s blame, that’s coming with that. Right? And then shame associated with it instead of looking at, and thinking about the systems and the policy decisions that have been made that have locked black people out of getting vaccinated in the earliest stages. I’m going to stop there because I can keep going. You know how I feel about this.

Carrie Fox: I do know how you feel about it.

Andre Banks: Yeah, I am so with you on this one. I just feel like it’s… Yeah, it’s just really, really tough in this moment to like… It’s hard to be able to understand what’s happening in our media environment. And I think that this thing of like media literacy, we found in Win Black ended up being one of our main lanes of what communication. So we were like, okay, here’s how you vote. This is the election day. This is how to send in your ballot. But just as important to us was like, here’s how you can tell good information from bad. This is when you should be asking, who is the source of this before you just believe it, here’s how you intervene in your family chat or friend’s thread when they talk about Tuskegee.

Andre Banks: And you’re like, wait, hold on a second. Is that the problem? Or is the problem that actually there are no vaccine appointments available in proximity to people who actually want to get them. Or is that the issue? So I think that… And we found actually that the work that we did in the media literacy lane was some of the most effective. People are really interested in like hearing that, understanding more about how to identify that difference and actually being able to be advocates themselves. So like, what is good information versus bad? So I think this is just really, really important and more important every day.

Carrie Fox: Yeah. I agree. And Natalie, I know how you feel and I’m glad you brought that up. I think we can’t bring that up enough on this show and in conversation to reinforce it and to break the false narrative that’s there, but it’s interesting.

Carrie Fox: What I’m sitting on is… So personally I left Facebook many years ago. I was very happy to give that up because I knew I did not like the way it felt for information to be pushed to me on that platform. And I remember how many of my family members said, are you crazy? How are you going to stay connected to us? And I thought there are plenty of ways to stay connected. We do not need the platform, but it has become a default for so many people to say, well, that’s the natural way that we share information or scale information or stay connected to one another.

Carrie Fox: And there needs to be, I hope, a return back to the connections that we have with one another, right? Because I think that really gets Andre and Natalie to what both of you are saying, which is digital media can be a wonderful tool for sharing and connecting, but it can also weaponized for individuals who already may be Natalie to what you said vulnerable to not seeing or hearing the full story. And so, they are maybe more likely to trust the information that comes to them. And so, being aware and understood of the limitations of how we use those tools. So as we wrap down, Andre, I wonder if the last question we can toss at you and then I’ll give you the last word if there’s anything else, but what do you think is necessary as we now look ahead to disrupt some of the dangers that we know that exist on and in digital media?

Andre Banks: Well, I mean, I think you went to Facebook and I think that’s a good place to go in this conversation. I think it’s really important to acknowledge that the spread, the viral spread of misinformation and disinformation, it’s not purely organic. That actually the companies who build the algorithms and who create the platforms that like we all use to share information play a huge role in what could be a healthy or unhealthy media environment. And so, I think one thing that we have to look at going forward, and I know Carrie, you and I have talked about this a lot is like really making sure that those companies are accountable and have standards and are regulated and actually can’t just spread viral white supremacist ideology, like in a way that actually hasn’t been possible in 70 years.

Andre Banks: We all decided after the Second World War, we probably shouldn’t let people just kind of spread that kind of ideology like ad nauseum, because it does a bad thing in a society and it undermines democracy. Now, all of a sudden we have this like coming up and people storming the Capitol in January. We’re not talking about small problems or like a little bit of spam on your Twitter feed. We’re talking about really fundamentally undermining like our institutions. And so I think being able to hold these companies accountable, and I think a part of us being literate about media is also understanding the role that these big companies, the Facebooks, the Googles, the Apples play in shaping how we are able to pass information to each other and then how we are able to consume it.

Andre Banks: So I think a huge part of this next step is all of us knowing more about that, holding those companies to account. And then, also making sure that we’re playing our own role and making sure we know what information is good, spreading things that are worth spreading and not the things that aren’t, and we’re working together to do that.

Natalie S. Burke: I have one burning thing, Andre, and I have heard this more times than I care to remember. This idea that black people in particular are not interested in real information. They only want garbage information. They want entertainment, but you’ll find they go on TikTok, but that they’re not really in "real information." What would you say as a sort of a closing statement to people about what you know is true about particularly what black people think and feel about information? What have you learned and what’s true?

Andre Banks: That perspective is lies, lies, all lies. And I’m actually going to like throw the book at people on this one. We did in part to counter this because I hear this all the time as well, but no, it’s not true. I was like, don’t take my word for it. We actually partnered last year with a group called Harmony Labs to look at where black people actually consume information online and like what we’re looking for and what we found was actually, as you would expect, a group of millions of people, a very diverse spectrum of where we are online and what we’re looking to do. And actually, we were able to build out some different profiles of different kinds of ways that we see sort of black people trending online. And what we saw was really interesting stuff. People who were really looking for ways to be entrepreneurs and build their sort of like job and career opportunities.

Andre Banks: We saw people who were not surprisingly starting young families who were looking for stuff that people who are like building young families look for. Houses, insurance, schools for their kids, really looking for educational opportunities for their kids, things for them to participate in. So I think it’s just completely untrue. I think black people, like every other group, are extremely diverse. And the way that we show up online is usually looking for what we all want, good information that helps us have richer, better, bigger, fuller lives. And a piece of that is entertainment, for sure. We’re looking at sports and we’re looking at cool stuff, but actually not any more than we’re looking for an opportunity to go to night school or to like start our own business. So I think it’s really just a misinformation just to say the least that we’re not sort of out here, doing more than just looking at the shade room.

Natalie S. Burke: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that, Andre.

Andre Banks: Sure.

Carrie Fox: Well Andre, thank you again for spending some time with us today. And for those of us who are in this space of platform accountability and transparency, we know there is no shortage of work to do, and I am really glad that you and the AB team are on the case here. So thanks so much for sharing some of your insights with us today.

Andre Banks: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

Carrie Fox: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of Mission Forward. Mission Forward is produced with the support of Nimrah Haroun and the Mission Partners team. Engineering by Pete Wright. Music this week is First Light by Evert Z and Roots by Josh Leak. Thanks for your support and we’ll see you next time.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.