As special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Kremlin intensifies upon the one-year mark of Trump’s election victory, Americans are still reeling over the methods Moscow used to exploit their racial discord.
Media have reported extensively on how Russian-based actors with alleged ties to the Kremlin used Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Google and other platforms to manipulate America’s political divisions.
Whether it involved images of militarized black women firing rifles, marginal YouTubers attacking Hillary Clinton, or Russian trolls training black people how to defend themselves, it is unclear what impact any of these efforts actually had on voters.
Clinton Watts, a former FBI agent whose primary research focuses on Russian cyber propaganda, told the Washington Post that Russia has worked to play all political factions against one another to ascertain their efforts’ effectiveness.
“I call it reconnaissance by social media,” Watts told the Post.
A recent study (pdf) from the the Project on Computational Propaganda found that Americans shared misinformation from Russian links on social media more in swing states than noncontested ones last year. The question is, while someone may have clicked on a Russian-bought ad or followed or shared content from a Russian troll account, did those impressions equal votes at the ballot box? And, more directly, how many of them made a difference?
We may not know the answers for some time.
What is clear is that none of the racial strife the Kremlin was trying to exploit was born in Russia. America was a white supremacist nation long before Kremlin insiders long thought about weaponizing social media.
One of the missing caveats in news coverage on Russian meddling is self-reflection about what this all means for Americans. If we are to believe that the Kremlin’s use of social media is important enough to hold congressional hearings to grill social media executives, then what are the implications for the consumers?
Are Americans truly at risk of being influenced by social media campaigns by foreign states aiming to turn them against one another? If that is the case, then cleansing platforms of Russian trolls may simply be a bandage on a problem that requires open heart surgery.
No matter how diligently social media companies work to repeal Russian trolls, none of that will address why 53 percent of white women chose their race over their gender when voting for a man with a well-documented history of alleged sexual harassment.
No matter how many Russian-linked social media impressions Americans clicked on, it will not tackle the uncomfortable truths behind why white lower-income and working-class Americans elected a man who vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act (which Trump strategically called “Obamacare”), even though most of them actually need it.
And no in-depth results on how Russian-backed ads influenced Americans will solve the most important question of all: Why did so Americans fall for it?
The answer will not be found at the steps of the Kremlin.
The reality is that it doesn’t take much for white Americans to get riled up against anyone they feel is a threat to their whiteness; nor does it require a foreign entity to do so.
One of the oldest attempts at misinformation aimed at white people sparked the 1906 Atlanta race riot. Black people began populating the city at the turn of the century, causing white residents to fear their presence and begin plotting ways to undermine them, often with violence.
As NPR reports, the two men running for governor of Georgia at the time plotted on ways to keep black men away from the polls. The white newspapers ran editorials warning white women not to sit near black bus drivers for fear that black men on the street would “get ideas.”
The publications ran stories falsely accusing black men of assaulting white women. They weren’t true, but 12 black people and two whites were killed in the race riot in the city, though many historians say the number killed equaled dozens more.
We don’t have to trudge the annals of history to realize how easily white people can be manipulated.
Studies less than a few years old regularly find that white people see black girls as older than they actually are and as less innocent than white ones. White people tend to see black men as more threatening than white men of the same size. A 2017 study finds (pdf) that white people severely underestimate racial economic inequality, assuming that black people are doing better than they actually are.
It certainly is not a stretch to argue that anyone with the right racist messaging, not just the Kremlin, could manipulate white people who hold such views.
President Donald Trump is a prime example.
Russia did not elect Trump. White people driven by racial anxiety did that. There are studies and news reports exploring the racial fissures involved in why Trump was so persuasive with so many white voters, but few are willing to indict them for supporting a racist.
While it is important to explore the ways in which Russia manipulates social media to sway the American public—the New York Times’ investigation into millions of Kremlin dollars bankrolling investments in Facebook and Twitter is a great start—the real come-to-Jesus investigation should focus on Americans who can be so easily swayed by fake news designed to tap their racial fears.
When those House and Senate hearings take place on the Hill, perhaps we’ll realize that Russia may have meddled in the 2016 election, but white supremacy hacked America long before Russian President Vladimir Putin had a chance to order his intelligence agencies to finance social media ads that have no power to cast a ballot in the United States.