Report: Russians Targeted Black Americans in Social Media Campaigns to Disrupt 2016 Election

Some of the Facebook ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues, released by members of the U.S. House Intelligence committee, are photographed in Washington.
Photo: Jon Elswick (AP Photo)

When most people hear the word “propaganda,” it probably sounds like a far-off concept or idea or something that only happens in other countries and never here in the United States.

The fact is that the U.S. launched full propaganda campaigns as part of the war effort during both WWI and WWII. Propaganda is a part of our everyday lives here in the United States, and it comes in many forms, including radio and television commercials, print advertisements and the kinds of “news” reports that come out of outlets like InfoWars and Breitbart.

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Even some of your favorites—people we like to look at in a good light—have used propaganda. The 2008 presidential campaign for Barack Obama is one huge example of that. Emotional words in advertising are a form of propaganda, and the Obama campaign made heavy use of the words “hope” and “change”—words black people have been clinging to since the days of slavery—during that election cycle. Those words have a certain type of appeal to black people and could have played a part in getting them out to vote in droves that year.

It should come as no surprise then that a new report reveals that Russians utilized some of those same techniques during the 2016 election, specifically targeting black Americans on social media.

The New York Times reports that New Knowledge—a cybersecurity firm in Austin, Texas—worked with researchers at Columbia University and Canfield Research LLC to put together a report that says Russian efforts to sway American opinion and divide the country are still ongoing today.

The report is one of two that was commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee and based on data provided by social media companies whose platforms were used in the Russian operations including Facebook and Twitter.

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The other report, according to the Washington Post, was put together by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and Graphika, a network analysis firm. The report found that the Internet Research Agency, a Russian operation whose members have already been criminally charged with “violating U.S. criminal laws in order to interfere with U.S. elections and political processes,” divided Americans into separate interest groups that were then targeted with specific messaging over time. That targeted messaging is said to have peaked at key political moments such as during presidential debates or party conventions.

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party—and specifically Donald Trump,” the Oxford report says. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”

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Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, its ranking Democrat, both agreed that Monday’s reports show the need for increased diligence when it comes to social media and the ways that it can be used to spread misinformation.

Of particular interest to black people is a note in the New Knowledge report that says: “The IRA created an expansive cross-platform media mirage targeting the Black community, which shared and cross-promoted authentic Black media to create an immersive influence ecosystem.”

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The New Knowledge report also says that Russians posted more than 1,000 YouTube videos for their disinformation campaign. Their efforts on Instagram generated more than twice the “engagement” among users than either Facebook or Twitter. “Engagement” refers to how often people interacted with a post—either by liking, sharing or commenting—rather than just seeing it on their screens.

According to the Times, the Internet Research Agency is owned by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian businessman said to be a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin was one of the 13 people indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in February of this year as part of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

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The Internet Research Agency devoted a lot of time and effort toward black Americans according to the New Knowledge report. A collection of their memes and messages can be seen here as proof of that.

The report says “The most prolific I.R.A. efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted black American communities and appear to have been focused on developing black audiences and recruiting black Americans as assets.”

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The agency reportedly used Gmail accounts with American-sounding names to recruit and sometimes pay unwitting American activists of all races, but there was a disproportionate focus on the pursuit of black Americans according to the report.

From the Times:

Of 81 Facebook pages created by the Internet Research Agency in the Senate’s data, 30 targeted African-American audiences, amassing 1.2 million followers, the report finds. By comparison, 25 pages targeted the political right and drew 1.4 million followers. Just seven pages focused on the political left, drawing 689,045 followers.

While the right-wing pages promoted Mr. Trump’s candidacy, the left-wing pages scorned Mrs. Clinton while promoting Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. The voter suppression effort was focused particularly on Sanders supporters and African-Americans, urging them to shun Mrs. Clinton in the general election and either vote for Ms. Stein or stay home.

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As the Times notes, it’s hard to say whether those efforts had any significant impact, but the fact remains that black voter turnout for a presidential election was down for the first time in 20 years in 2016.

Color of Change, which has been working with Facebook to address the problems of race-specific issues to its platform, told The Root that Facebook has not acted fast enough to combat the issues on its network—issues it has been made aware of for some time now.

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“Facebook has not moved quick enough to address these problems, and what we are continuing to find out is how much action will need to be taken to repair the huge damage that has been done to our communities, our democracy,” Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, said.

“Race was able to be weaponized on their platform, and it is indicative of how they have not been diligent about preventing that,” Robinson continued. “The more information that can come out and the more good journalism that can expose what is happening at Facebook, the more power we have to force them to tell the truth and keep them on an honest path to recognize that these problems won’t be solved overnight, and they are going to have to put real work into it.”

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According to the Post, the authors of the Oxford report feel the same. They pointed out the “belated and uncoordinated response” on behalf of social media companies to the disinformation campaign, and even after it was discovered, the companies failure to share more with investigators. The authors of the Oxford report said that in the future, the companies need to provide data in “meaningful and constructive” ways.

And the most insulting part of it all?

According to the New Knowledge report, the Russians were so arrogant about what they had done that after the election, they put up posts mocking the mere suggestion that Russians had interfered with the U.S. election.

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In a post quoted by the Times they wrote “You’ve lost and don’t know what to do? Just blame it on Russian hackers.”

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About the author

Monique Judge

News Editor for The Root. I said what I said. Period.