Following up on yesterday's Washington Post story on the details of Russia's propaganda operation to help Donald Trump, we learn from the NY Times that the primary thrust of the operation was to get black voters to abandon Hillary Clinton, or better, vote for Jill Stein.
The Russian campaign was the subject of Senate hearings last year and has been widely scrutinized by academic experts. The new reports largely confirm earlier findings: that the campaign was designed to attack Hillary Clinton, boost Mr. Trump and exacerbate existing divisions in American society.
But the New Knowledge report gives particular attention to the Russians’ focus on African-Americans, which is evident to anyone who examines collections of their memes and messages.
“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,” the report says. Using Gmail accounts with American-sounding names, the Russians recruited and sometimes paid unwitting American activists of all races to stage rallies and spread content, but there was a disproportionate pursuit of African-Americans, it concludes.
The report says that while “other distinct ethnic and religious groups were the focus of one or two Facebook Pages or Instagram accounts, the black community was targeted extensively with dozens.” In some cases, Facebook ads were targeted at users who had shown interest in particular topics, including black history, the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X. The most popular of the Russian Instagram accounts was @blackstagram, with 303,663 followers.
The Internet Research Agency also created a dozen websites disguised as African-American in origin, with names like blackmattersus.com, blacktivist.info, blacktolive.org and blacksoul.us. On YouTube, the largest share of Russian material covered the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality, with channels called “Don’t Shoot” and “BlackToLive.”
The report does not seek to explain the heavy focus on African Americans. But the Internet Research Agency’s tactics echo Soviet propaganda efforts from decades ago that often highlighted racism and racial conflict in the United States, as well as recent Russian influence operations in other countries that sought to stir ethnic strife.
Renee DiResta, one of the report’s authors and director of research at New Knowledge, said the Internet Research Agency “leveraged pre-existing, legitimate grievances wherever they could.” As the election effort geared up, the Black Lives Matter movement was at the center of national attention in the United States, so the Russian operation took advantage of it, she said — and added “Blue Lives Matter” material when a pro-police pushback emerged.
They knew just where to hit us, and all they needed to do in an election where 125 million votes were cast was to affect a fraction of a percentage point towards Trump in a few key states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Trump won in part because of the effectiveness of these targeted efforts. Going after the most reliably Democratic bloc of voters in America worked. And Steve Bannon told us exactly what the Trump campaign was doing.
To compensate for this, Trump’s campaign has devised another strategy, which, not surprisingly, is negative. Instead of expanding the electorate, Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans. Trump’s invocation at the debate of Clinton’s WikiLeaks e-mails and support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership was designed to turn off Sanders supporters. The parade of women who say they were sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton and harassed or threatened by Hillary is meant to undermine her appeal to young women. And her 1996 suggestion that some African American males are “super predators” is the basis of a below-the-radar effort to discourage infrequent black voters from showing up at the polls—particularly in Florida.
On Oct. 24, Trump’s team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts”—nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.” The aim is to depress Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” says the official. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”
We now know that Parscale and Bannon had help from Russians doing the same thing, specifically targeting black voters to get us to stay home. It worked well enough that Trump won the election.
They knew the Russians were helping, and they welcomed it.