Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner, and Bria Snell are juniors at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, and one of eight team finalists in NASA’s Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge, a national competition where students research NASA technology then create something new for use in their everyday lives.
On a mission to improve the water quality inside public schools, the girls engineered a water filtration system designed to rid drinking fountains of chlorine, copper and lead, and submitted their idea in the form of a multimedia poster.
The contest’s next stage involved public voting, which was, NASA later explained, a way of encouraging students and the larger community to engage with science, technology, engineering and math. NASA judges would still have the final say, using a set of rubrics to determine which winning team would be invited to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to receive an award and participate in special workshops.
But the system was rigged, according to anonymous posters to 4chan, one of the internet’s most odious websites and a destination for racism and misogyny as well as the spread of conspiracy theories and hoaxes.
“NASA getting forcibly redpilled about minority collective voting power,” one poster wrote, using a term popularized by misogynist online communities who use the phrase to mean “enlightened.”
Another poster urged someone to post the NASA poll on the The_Donald, a subreddit devoted to Donald Trump and well known for its white supremacist ideology. “DO NOT MENTION /POL/ OR 4CHAN,” the poster added, with the idea that they could say “the Twitter liberals are voting for these girls just because they’re black.”
Increasingly, 4chan is the starting point for hoaxes that make it into national media. In the wake of a school shooting or a mass attack, posters often collaborate to spread disinformation as to a person of interest’s identity or motivation. Most recently, the day following a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a post claimed that the alleged shooter, Nikolas Cruz, had been a member of a fringe white-supremacist group called the Republic of Florida. The information was shown to be false only after it was reported by ABC News, The Associated Press and other outlets.
This isn’t the first time NASA has been the object of 4chan attention. The site has been a meeting place for posters who question NASA’s general veracity and those who dabble in conspiracy theories — like questioning the legitimacy of the moon landing.
NASA quickly discerned 4chan’s intentions in contest voting. In a statement announcing the early closing of the public vote, NASA said it had become aware that trolls were using “social media” to “attack a particular student team based on their race and encouraged others to disrupt the contest and manipulate the vote.”
“NASA continues to support outreach and education for all Americans, and encourages all of our children to reach for the stars,” the statement said. Contest winners are expected to be announced later this month.
Back on 4chan, users are now complaining about the NASA shutdown and what they claim is unfair media attention — and are now doubling down on their racist and sexist posts.
Meanwhile, a statement published to the girls’ Twitter timelines reads, “Words cannot express how enjoyable this academic project has been from start til now. In addition to making it to the finals, this past week all three girls were inducted into the National Honor Society.”
CORRECTION (May 3, 2018, 3:35 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the time frame depicted in the movie “Hidden Figures.” It is the space race of the 1960s, not World War II.