How Identity Propaganda Is Used to Undermine Political Power
Soon after Joe Biden chose California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate in the summer of 2020, the rash of attacks began. There was the typical rhetoric of then-President Trump on display in his calling her “nasty,” “disrespectful” and “phony.” There were also conspiracy theories about Harris’s parents’ immigration status and her eligibility for higher office, disingenuous and strategic questions about her Black identity, and stereotyped expectations of her racial and gender identity.
These attacks attempted to undermine the legitimacy of Harris’s candidacy by exploiting her identities and leveraging racist and sexist sentiments. In a recently published article in New Media & Society, we (along with Rachel Kuo) argue that these attacks on Harris should be understood as forms of “identity propaganda”—strategic narratives that target and exploit identity to maintain social and political orders and the power of dominant social groups. While there are many different types of identity that can be strategically mobilized, questioned and undermined, we focus our analysis on the particularly well-established forms of anti-Black racism, misogyny and xenophobia that were on display during Harris’s vice presidential run. These factors have long shaped American political culture and helped whites maintain their dominant group status. We argue that the attacks on Harris in 2020 reveal long-established patterns of “othering” nondominant groups and individuals, “essentializing” (assuming fixed traits) racial, ethnic and gender differences, and calling on nondominant people to “authenticate,” or prove, their group memberships. These patterns are designed to undermine the political standing of political figures from nondominant groups.
Since 2016, the study of mis- and disinformation has been a booming area of research at universities and think tanks. Legal and policy scholars, meanwhile, have translated this research into a set of policy recommendations for safeguarding the public sphere in the age of online platforms. To date, most of this research has focused on whether information is true and its intent (purposeful false information is considered “disinformation” as opposed to “misinformation,” which lacks this strategic intent). Propaganda more expansively concerns deliberate attempts to manipulate the public, including through appeals that mix truths and lies. Taken together, this research has offered important insights into strategic attempts to undermine the factual basis of democratic deliberation, and building from it scholars have offered several compelling proposals to inform everything from platform content moderation to state and federal legislation to regulate digital political advertising.
While the study of mis- and disinformation and propaganda offers an excellent starting point for contemporary challenges to democracy, the attacks on Harris do not quite fit any of these well-researched categories, which focus on revealing ill intent and truth. Raising whether Harris is really Black does not have so easily a fact-checked answer given that it is in the realm of social and political perception. Characterizations of Harris as “disrespectful” and innuendos about her sexual history, meanwhile, are not readily verifiable facts. While these things fall more readily into the category of propaganda in terms of strategic attempts to manipulate the public, researchers have generally focused on factual claims and untruths and very rarely have considered whether—and why—there are underlying patterns of propaganda, especially when race and gender are concerned.
Our research was born of deep consideration of these attacks on Harris and especially their continuity with other attempts to keep nonwhite political figures and groups in subordinate political and social roles. To understand and analyze why attempts to undermine Harris took the form they did, we utilized critical race theory—a methodology and a branch of scholarship that interrogates the institutionalization of racism and its effects on the United States’ legal, political and social system. While currently deeply politicized and weaponized by the political right to elide a racial understanding of U.S. history and present-day inequality, critical race theory provides a powerful set of tools for understanding the relationship between identity, power and information. Naming these things as “identity propaganda” is important because the concept reveals how attacks on Harris are part and parcel of underlying ideas and ideologies that shape how we think about race in America and how strategic political actors can draw on these structures of thought to shore up the groups in power while undermining the claims of those who challenge them.
To provide an example of how identity propaganda works, consider the well-known and well-established “model minority” myth. This myth describes Asian Americans in idealized terms of academic and professional achievement, which elides the heterogeneity within the various groups said to comprise “Asian Americans” and disparities in socioeconomic outcomes within these groups and between these groups and whites. At the same time, it shores up the idea that socioeconomic success is the product of individual initiative and group culture, not determined or extensively shaped by historic patterns of racial discrimination. And, because it is ready-to-hand in American political culture, the model minority myth can be wielded strategically to drive a wedge between nonwhite groups fighting for racial justice and provide a politically convenient justification for inequality.
As this example shows, centering racial analyses through the concept of identity propaganda—including analyses of whiteness—enables researchers and the public to better see the goals and patterns behind these strategic appeals. This includes seeing racial frames in disinformation and propaganda that appeal to whites, or have whites as their primary audience, as racial—such as how the model minority myth can simultaneously have many purposes, including working to justify the social and political power of whites.
Three Types of Identity Propaganda
The concept of identity propaganda helps reveal the structure of the specific types of appeals used to delegitimize and undermine the support of minority politicians. We outline three types of identity propaganda and illustrate their application through Harris’s case. This highlights themes that linked the propaganda directed against Harris to claims made against other nonwhite political figures in the United States.
First, “othering” narratives, premised on structures of domination, divide people based on preexisting racial colonial hierarchies. They rely on the public’s internalization of Orientalist tropes that establish Western superiority. In the case of Harris, these othering narratives sought to portray her as foreign or “other” to the norm of white political leaders. There are numerous examples of this, perhaps clearest in the repeated claims of right-wing figures such as John Eastman, a Chapman University law professor, who erroneously argued that the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment would require one or both of Harris’s immigrant parents to be U.S. citizens for her to be a natural-born citizen—and thus eligible to be vice president. (Harris is the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father.) Eastman’s false claim was, in turn, circulated on social media tens of thousands of times and referenced by then-President Trump.
This attempt at othering, via the erroneous citing of legal requirements for higher office, can take many different forms. But, at its heart, it is a tactic to undermine the legitimacy and status of nonwhite political figures. Dominant groups—in this case, whites in America—define themselves in relation to an “other” and can leverage perceptions of “otherness” to preserve group status. Indeed, citizenship has long been linked to whiteness in the United States, providing a readily culturally available line of attack on Harris. These claims around Harris are not unique. This attempt at othering a prominent Black woman mirrors the repeated questioning of President Obama’s birthplace and therefore citizenship, including by Trump, in the years before and after Obama emerged as a political figure.
A second form of identity propaganda is the “essentializing” narrative. Essentialism is broadly the “attribution of a fixed essence” to someone’s identity and that of their group. This essentialism is often linked to group stereotypes that are well established and can be exploited to undermine political support. Essentializing narratives are insidious in that they force nonwhite political figures to respond to stereotypes about their cultural and social traits, which in turn are used to delegitimize their claims on political power.
In the case of Harris, essentializing narratives are strategic attempts to exploit her racial and gender identities to undermine her support among the social groups that she identifies with and attempts to represent. To provide a few examples, racist identity propaganda cast Harris as sexually promiscuous, raising numerous unfounded claims of untoward professional and personal relationships. Right-wing figures such as Tomi Lahren stated that Harris slept her “way to the top,” and the “Joe and the Hoe” slogan for Biden and Harris was popularized by right-wing celebrities such as Rush Limbaugh and prominent NBA photographer Bill Baptist. Other prominent figures like Tucker Carlson traded off the “angry Black woman” trope. All of these comments relied on the cultural availability of racist tropes of Black women as hypersexualized and angry.
Finally, “authenticating” narratives question a political figure’s identities as a way to undermine that person’s claims to political representation. By portraying figures as “inauthentic” to the identities they hold, this narrative not only delegitimizes them to the general public but also may impact the support they receive from those with shared identity traits. Calling upon someone to “prove” their identity relies on reductive (and essentializing) understandings of identities themselves. In Harris’s case, throughout her career she has self-identified as Black, even writing that her mother raised her daughters to be strong Black women. Yet, to undermine this affiliation, purveyors of identity propaganda sought to challenge Harris’s representation of herself as Black, including through fabricating claims that she previously represented herself in different ways and by assertions that she was not, in fact, Black. For example, in August 2020 Black right-wing commentator Candace Owens shared a post on Twitter in which she stated, “I am SO EXCITED that we get to watch Kamala Harris, who swore into congress (sic) as an ‘Indian-American’, now play the ‘I’m a Black woman’ card all the way until November.” Similarly, author and failed-U.S. House candidate Angela Stanton King tweeted, “Black America, Is this your Queen? I’m no genius but I’ve been around Black folks all my life and this ain’t it. She has the Red Dot and everything.” Stanton King’s use of “red dot” refers to a bindi, a dot worn on the forehead that holds symbolism within Hindu culture.
Biracial individuals are particularly vulnerable to these identity propagandistic appeals given that they live at the juncture of different cultural and racial identities—which research has shown is socially troublesome given the emphasis on either-or distinctions. Biracial individuals can lay claim to many identities, but they are also vulnerable to attempts to undermine their authentic representation of multiple groups. This can result in the constant questioning of people’s identities for strategic political reasons, such as undermining their credibility to represent these groups. Authenticating narratives, then, question a person’s identity, or call on them to prove their identity, in ways that undermine their political standing with the groups in question or with other groups. In the example above, identity propaganda around Harris was designed to both undermine Harris’s standing with Black voters, a key part of the Democratic coalition, and appeal to whites that the vice presidential candidate was not a member of this group. Authenticating narratives claim that Harris cannot represent herself as Black and at the same time question her credibility in a broader sense.
Strategic racial appeals are only one aspect of identity propaganda—there are many different forms of identity that othering, essentializing and authenticating work upon, just as there are likely other patterns of identity narratives that can weaken the political standing of political figures from nondominant groups. By going beyond assessing claims about candidates as true or false, and focusing on racial and social hierarchies undergirding disinformation and propaganda, researchers and the public would become more aware of the patterns, and power, of attacks directed against nondominant groups. Even more, it would shed a light on how strategic attempts to undermine and weaponize people’s social identities and group memberships for political gain happen in the context of established narratives, tropes and meanings that are deeply embedded and ready-to-hand for people to wield politically.