The Online Campaign to Manipulate Black Voters: How a Russian internet research agency weaponized Bl
When Russia looked for reliable voters to influence during the 2016 presidential campaign, the target was obvious: African Americans, in general and particularly African American women.
Although Black voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, African American women especially are dedicated Democrats. In 2008 and 2012, Black women voted more than any other racial or ethnic group, and 96 percent of those votes went to President Barack Obama. So it made sense to work at keeping this cohort from the polls, according to digital activist Shireen Mitchell.
Mitchell is the founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women (SOVAW), which raises awareness of online harassment of women, especially women of color. In 1999, she also established Digital Sisters/Sistas Inc., one of the first organizations to advocate for women and girls of color in tech.
SOVAW reviewed 3,500 Facebook ads released by the House Intelligence Committee last May. The ads came from a social media campaign run by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian organization widely believed to have manipulated the 2016 election for Donald Trump.
SOVAW’s analysis, which was released in October, was the first to show how the IRA used Black identity and culture as propaganda tools.
“While the race-based focus of the Russian-purchased ads has been acknowledged in some reporting and previous studies, it has not been pointed out in the media that the themes of Black identity and culture were the focus of the majority of the ads with the intent to engage in voter suppression of Black voters,” SOVAW says.
Facebook and other social media sites allow advertisers to create custom audiences based on location, demographics, and interests. Suppose a wine bar wants to sell bottles of a limited-edition Riesling. It could direct posts exclusively to 45-year-old women who live within a 10-mile radius of the bar and who prefer white wine over red.
The Russian propaganda campaign targeted posts to African Americans in a similar way by exploiting keywords and interests associated with civil rights and social justice.
One way to judge a Facebook ad is to count its appearance in news feeds. Advertisers tally these displays, which Facebook calls “impressions.” (However, impressions don’t count the number of individuals who saw the ad. That metric is called “reach.”) SOVAW’s report found the phrase “Stop police brutality” had more impressions than the simple phrase “police brutality.” Other effective words and phrases included “Malcolm X,” “Martin Luther King,” “Black nationalism,” “black (the color)” and “pan-Africanism.”
“[Black identity] was the center of their targeting,” Mitchell says. “[The Russians] started with the Black community and stretched into other topics.”
The Russians appealed to conservatives with phrases such as “police brutality” and “second amendment.” But SOVAW notes these topics are related to crime and policing, which also affect Black and other minority populations.
Talking to African Americans on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram works because African Americans are deeply embedded in those platforms, says Michelle Ferrier, dean of the School of Journalism and & Graphic Communication at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. She is also the founder of TrollBusters.com, a protection service for journalists experiencing online harassment.
African Americans, Ferrier notes, use Twitter and other social media platforms to get news about Black Americans that is often ignored, left out or presented in a biased manner by mainstream press. As a result, says Ferrier, “There’s a concerted effort to minimize the ways in which we are able to use social media to get our stories out."
Black people’s presence on social media is now being weaponized, she says.
Russian focus on African Americans finally received major coverage when the Senate Intelligence Commission released two reports on Dec. 17.
Researchers from Oxford University and the cybersecurity company New Knowledge studied accounts from Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. The Oxford University analysis spanned 2013 to 2018, while New Knowledge looked at data from 2014 to 2017. All in all, the content reached millions on Facebook alone. As the campaign became revealed, Russians shifted from Facebook to Instagram. Regardless of platform, African Americans were the primary target.
New Knowledge found, “The most prolific IRA 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.” One strategy was to solicit volunteers for protests organized by the Russian Internet Agency website, Black Matters. Another was to recruit ministers and other leaders as speakers for those events.
Oxford University found, “Russia's IRA activities were designed to polarize the U.S. public and interfere in elections by: campaigning for African American voters to boycott elections or follow the wrong voting procedures in 2016, and more recently for Mexican American and Hispanic voters to distrust U.S. institutions.”
But Mitchell doesn’t see these attempts as unique. She maintains they’re an online version of tactics thrown at African Americans for the last three election cycles. She points to Georgia in the 2018 midterms when voters waited in lines for hours at polling places in Black neighborhoods.
Nor were the Russians the only ones using social media to confuse Black voters.
The Trump campaign also admitted running its own voter suppression campaign, aimed at “idealistic white liberals, young voters and African Americans,” according to a story on Bloomberg.com.
In 2016, a Twitter meme urged African-American and Latinax voters to “avoid the lines”’ by texting their vote instead of going to the polls, according to a Washington Post article. One version featured an African-American woman, while another was in Spanish with a Latina. A third featured a seemingly official portrait of Hillary Clinton. But the memes actually came from a Trump supporter, @TheRickeyVaughn.
Mitchell expects more of the same as the 2020 presidential election cycle gets underway. She predicts social media propagandists will pay special attention to Black women because they are such reliable voters. In Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race, 97 percent of Black women voted for Stacey Abrams, compared to 25 percent of White women and roughly 90 percent of Black men. Abrams ultimately lost a close race to Brian Kemp, a Republican.
Mitchell is also cynical about the social media platforms’ willingness or ability to fight campaigns like the ones the Russians mounted, especially when Black women are the targets. She notes nothing has been done about the Twitter account @StopBlackGirls, where demeaning and pornographic images of Black women have lived since 2013.
“We’ve known that [Black women are targeted], but they don’t change the system to support us in any way.”
— Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs