Did Racist Hackers Inadvertently Help 3 Black Teen Finalists In NASA Competition?

Did Racist Hackers Inadvertently Help 3 Black Teen Finalists In NASA Competition?

Racist trolls may have inadvertently attracted the kind of attention money can’t buy for the people they were trying to hurt when they targeted the only all-female, all-Black team of high school finalists in NASA’s coveted national science competition.

Three teenage girls in Washington, D.C. — Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner and Bria Snell — earned a spot in the NASA contest finals after they came up with a way to purify lead-contaminated water in school drinking fountains.

Their project aims to purify public school water through filtration jars that filter water while detecting pH imbalances.

The team from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School was the only all-female, all-Black team to make it that far in the competition, according to The Washington Post.

As part of the competition, they needed to earn public votes. In the case of a tie, the voting would be the tiebreaker. So the 17-year-old high school juniors turned to social media to raise awareness of their project, Huffington Post reported.

Their project and nine others went up for a public vote on the website for the NASA Goddard‘s Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge (OPSPARC).

“Public voting starts today and we need YOUR vote! We are the only team from the east coast & female minority group!” Mikayla said in an April 23 tweet.

“Hidden figures in the making,” Bria tweeted, referring to the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures,” the true story of unsung African-American female mathematicians who worked at NASA in the ’60s, CNN reported.

The day before the voting was set to end, their project had 78 percent of the vote, according to Blavity.

Enter the trolls. Users on 4chan —an anonymous Internet forum known to spew racist and homophobic comments ― targeted the girls, according to the Washington Post. They said the teens’ project didn’t deserve to make the finals, and that the voting was skewed because the Black community was only voting for the girls because they were black. It is alleged that 4chan hacked the NASA website and skewed the votes.

NASA closed the voting early, and posted this on their website:

“Unfortunately, it was brought to NASA’s attention on Monday, April 30, that some members of the public used social media, not to encourage students and support STEM, but to attack a particular student team based on their race and encouraged others to disrupt the contest and manipulate the vote, and the attempt to manipulate the vote occurred shortly after those posts.”

The trolls urged people to vote against the Banneker trio, the Washington Post reported on May 2. “One user offered to put the topic on an internet thread about President (Donald) Trump to garner more attention,” the Post added. “They recommended computer programs that would hack the voting system to give a team of teenage boys a boost.”

The teens girls’ experience garnered tweets from public figures including Chelsea Clinton, Rolling Stone senior writer Jamil Smith, and Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Space.com reported.

“It is disgusting that a group of hateful, racist hackers tried to ensure that this team would not win the competition,” Johnson said in a statement on May 4.

The team now has its own GoFundMe campaign that has raised $24,635 for the teen scientists as of Wednesday, May 9. The money was raised by 244 people in eight days.

The students told The Washington Post they are happy their project got positive attention from around the country.

“In the STEM field, we are underrepresented,” Mikayla said. “It’s important to be role models for a younger generation who want to be in the STEM field but don’t think they can.”

The winners will be announced later in May.