The New York Times reports today that the Russian effort to influence the U.S. election in 2016 was heavily targeted at African Americans. The effort sought to disenfranchise black voters and suppress the minority vote by swaying political opinion and sowing divisive information.
Moreover, efforts continue to manipulate the American public at large with a targeted disinformation campaign via social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The campaign is run by a St. Petersburg, Russia company called Internet Research Agency, which is owned by a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Goal: Sow Discord, Get Trump Elected
The company created accounts designed to look like they belonged to Americans and they worked extensively to grow the following of those accounts, often building an audience with one theme and then shifting to another.
The NYT cites the example of an Instagram account, @army_of_jesus, that first posted in January 2015 images from the Muppet Show before shifting to the Simpsons, but by early 2016, it posted Jesus-focused memes associating them with Trump while associating Hillary Clinton with Satan.
The goal of the campaign was simple: hype Trump, discredit Clinton and exacerbate existing divisions in American society.
While it’s impossible to know for sure if Russian efforts ultimately impacted African American turnout in 2016, Black voter participation declined for the first time in 20 years in the last presidential election, with only 59 percent of black voters exercising their rights, compared with close to 67 percent in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center report.
Also, overall voter turnout was lower in 2016 than it was in 2008 (61.4 percent compared with 63.6 percent). And while Russian efforts to sow discord, primarily through leveraging political and racial strife in the nation may have been significant, so too were the social problems that have existed and have worsened in the age of Trump.
These include issues like police brutality, unequal justice and the growing economic divide along color lines. Because these issues are some of the most pressing in the Black community, they are particularly effective issues to exploit in a disinformation campaign targeted at Black voters.
However, it’s not as if the Russian campaign only targeted Black voters. According to the Times, there were 30 Internet Research Agency Facebook pages targeting African-American audiences, amassing 1.2 million followers compared with 25 pages targeting the political right, drawing 1.4 million followers. Just seven pages targeted the rest with 689,045 followers.
So while African Americans may have been disproportionately targeted, they weren’t alone. Some Black voters may have been dispassionate about Hillary Clinton and unenthused about an election in which the nation’s first Black president was no longer on the ballot, which could have left them on the sidelines.
Adding the Russian disinformation campaign to fuel strife and apathy only exacerbated the issue, and likely contributed in part to the decline in voter turnout
Lessons to be Learned
There are three lessons to be learned as a result of this election and the massive influence campaign designed to help Trump:
1. All Elections Matter. Every single one. Black voters interested in actively fighting for political, economic and racial justice in America cannot afford to “sit this one out.” We can’t afford to be apathetic or disengaged. If there’s a glimmer of hope that Americans are beginning to recognize this, it’s the midterm elections where 49 percent of eligible voters participated (compared to 36 percent in 2014 and 41 percent in 2010)
2. Social Media Outlets Bear Responsibility and must get much better at finding and removing information placed by foreign companies that is designed to manipulate American voters with false and misleading information. They must be held accountable to be transparent about what they’re doing to fight these disinformation attacks.
3. Addressing Social Issues is Ongoing and Necessary Work. Every American regardless of race should be advocating for political, social and economic justice. It is vital to the effort to ensure a better, more equitable America and encourage peace at home, and this Russian disinformation episode serves to prove that sowing discord around these issues may potentially impact future elections, if these attacks are allowed to continue.
Our government must do all that it can to ensure that our elections are without foreign political influence, starting with holding social media companies accountable for their role in this last
election’s disinformation campaign.
There is too much at stake -- for ALL Americans.
Stacy Fitzgerald is a Washington, DC area Gen Xer whose obsessions include politics, traveling and food and wine ventures.