NASA announced last month that a team of three students from Washington D.C. were finalists in its prestigious high school competition. The lone all-black, female team to make it that far had developed a method to purify lead-contaminated water in school drinking fountains.
“Hidden figures in the making,” one of the teens wrote in a celebratory text message to her teammates and coaches, referring to the 2016 biopic about the three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s.
But the inspiring story turned ugly once public voting became involved during the next stage of the competition. The Banneker High School students – Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner and Bria Snell, all 17-year-old high school juniors – managed to gain votes for their efforts via social media.
Meanwhile, according to The Washington Post, a subversive campaign against the trio took root on 4chan, the anonymous internet forum where users are known to push hoaxes and spew racist and homophobic comments.
The anonymous posters used racial slurs, argued that the students’ project didn’t deserve to be in the finals and said the black community was voting for the teens only because of their race. They urged people to vote against the Banneker trio, and one user offered to put the topic on an Internet thread about Donald Trump to garner more attention. They also recommended computer programs that would hack the voting system to give a team of teenage boys an advantage.
NASA said in a statement that voting was compromised, prompting it to shut down public voting earlier than expected. The space agency said it encourages the use of social media to build support for projects but wrote in a statement Tuesday that public voting was ended because people “attempted to change the vote totals.”
“Unfortunately, it was brought to NASA’s attention yesterday that some members of the public used social media, not to encourage students . . . but to attack a particular student team based on their race and encourage others to disrupt the contest and manipulate the vote, and the attempt to manipulate the vote occurred shortly after those posts,” the NASA statement read.
“NASA continues to support outreach and education for all Americans, and encourages all of our children to reach for the stars.”
The federal agency named eight finalists and said it will announce the winners this month. In addition to the public voting, judges assess the projects to determine the winners, who are invited to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for two days of workshops, with the winning team receiving a $4,000 stipend to cover expenses.