WASHINGTON -- NASA has ended online voting for a high school science challenge after trolls apparently attempted to manipulate voting and disparaged a trio of African American female students who had pulled into the lead.
Banneker High School 11th-graders India Skinner, Mikayla Sharrieff and Bria Snell entered NASA's Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion & Research Challenge, which encourages students to adapt technology developed by the space agency for use in everyday life. The team, which goes by the nickname S3, used water purification technology from 1994 to create a device that could be installed in school water fountains and be used to detect chlorine, copper, bromine and other impurities.
The team noted the impact that lead pipes can have on water quality, adding that public schools in their community were being renovated after a recent spike in lead levels in several Washington-area schools.
"As a result, we have a mission to be a part of the community activism and history in the making. Our water filtration system can help aid in that mission," the team said in a press release.
S3 was one of eight teams that advanced to the final round of the competition. Voting then opened up to the public, and many teams used social media to drum up support for their project.
But NASA abruptly closed voting on April 30 after hackers seemingly attempted to change vote totals on its online platform.
"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 agency said in a statement.
Others have identified anonymous message board 4chan as the source of the apparent attack on the voting system. In an April 28 thread that it still publicly available, one user encouraged others to vote for male students so that they could "[go] to NASA for something great instead of losing because they're not dark enough."
They included a screenshot of a tweet noting that S3 is "the only black finalist" in the competition.
The thread is littered with racial slurs and disparaging remarks about the team of African American girls, their research and perceived "forced diversity." Users posting on the site had avatars showing Pepe the Frog, an internet meme claimed by the white nationalist movement, and Nasim Najafi Aghdam, the 38-year-old woman accused of opening fire at YouTube's San Bruno headquarters in April.
Users continued to discuss ways to vote multiple times and potentially set up a bot to automatically submit votes. A screenshot posted early in the thread showed the team of girls initially winning 79 percent of the vote compared to the second-place team's 13 percent. Later in the thread, a user posted a screenshot that appeared to show the Skinner, Sharrieff and Snell with 0 percent of the vote and -21 votes. That user claimed he or she had manipulated a database to change vote totals.
After ending voting, NASA said in a statement that it had an "accurate record of the voting results prior to the attempted disruption" and would soon announce the winner based on that total.
Skinner, Sharrieff and Snell have not publicly commented on the controversy, though they have thanked others for their support over the course of the challenge.
"I am so glad that we were able to spread awareness about the science field and show the world that everyone can excel in scientific endeavors while helping their community," Snell wrote in an April 28 tweet.
Many have since rallied around the all-female team. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser has committed $4,000 to help S3 continue their research, and a GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $20,000 for the team.
'I am actually angry at this forced diversity': NASA shutters contest as trolls disparage black female team, hack voting
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