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Welfare queens and red-blooded Americans: How Russia tapped into our racial anxieties to fuel social divisions

A misleading YouTube video titled: “U.S. Welfare Pays for 4 ‘Wives’ Per Husband,” used by Russia to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election.

As the investigation and intrigue into Russian election interference continue, one unexplored arena remains — an introspective look at the United States’ relationship with bigotry.

Inside the Russian operation to sow discord in the American electorate via social media lives truths about the nation’s taste for various biases: Prejudice directed at racial, ethnic and religious minority groups continues to drive our politics, shape and often distort our understanding of public events, crystal clear facts and the content of our policy. Many Americans — particularly white Americans — believe biases exist only among extremists. Others believe there’s nothing more for the country to do to achieve racial equality. But the Kremlin-linked-effort worked precisely because the Russians could see that bigotry is still a major force in American life.

“Russia recognized this as a vulnerability and they are right,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence the day after a hearing this month involving lawyers for Facebook, Google and Twitter. “One of the reasons I wanted people to see these ads was to see how cynical this campaign was but also to recognize that these gaps are a vulnerability. They absolutely are.”

Social media posts painting Muslim immigrants in the image of the 1980s “welfare queen” and ads exploiting fears that police are under threat from black “extremist movements” have been linked to Russian operations.  They use language that, for many Americans, may not seem explicitly tied to racist claims. For instance, one called on Americans to fight back against “social experiments,” employing a phrase historically used disparagingly to describe school and residential integration and extension of the franchise to nonwhites and women.

How Russian Facebook ads worked

Espionage of all sorts often begins by studying the enemy, identifying weak spots that can be exploited, said Ilan Berman, a senior vice president at the think tank American Foreign Policy Council and an expert on security issues in Russia. Those weak spots include embarrassing secrets, private peccadilloes, grave ethical or legal failings or things that expose hypocrisy. Armed with this insight into the targeted individual or country — and if possible, compromising proof — it becomes possible to manipulate the target to serve another country’s ends. 

In this case, the United States — a republic founded in pursuit of liberty through equality, maintained by impregnable democratic institutions — and its national identity were targeted. But the way in which Russia aimed to expose this as a hypocritical lie or a wildly inconsistent truth is itself important. The history of American politics is littered with examples of racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-Islamic appeals. The content of the ads, the posts, the videos and the tweets dispatched by Russian Internet operatives and bots seized on this history and infiltrated an estimated 150 million of Americans’ online lives.

Kremlin-linked teams with names like the Internet Research Agency identified the issues around which American regard for equality regularly breaks down. The Russian operation combined this with knowledge of some of the country’s most widely believed stereotypes and ideas about who does and does not belong, who is a real American, who should not suffer and who should. Then, they adapted and embellished those ideas for the modern age.

Welfare queens and red-blooded Americans

Consider the ongoing life cycle of a single online video, titled “U.S. WELFARE PAYS FOR 4 ‘WIVES’ PER HUSBAND.”

The video first appeared in August 2014, on a YouTube channel operated by an outfit calling itself CleanTV. In March 2016, the same video appeared on a Facebook page belonging to “Secured Borders,” among the online accounts now identified as arms of the Russian disinformation operation.

In it, as images of President Barack Obama, an Islamic symbol, the Michigan Department of Human Services and burqa-clad women play, an unseen narrator with a vaguely British accent claims that Muslim immigrant men with multiple wives are collecting social aid fraudulently, gaming the system to evade work and integration into American life. It all happens over a soundtrack suited for the peak crisis-resolution scene in an action hero movie.

The American stereotype at the core of the video is the brown-skinned welfare cheat known as the welfare queen. Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan created and advanced the concept of a plethora of welfare queens — amoral, scheming yet also lazy black women — during his failed 1976 presidential campaign. That is an idea so pervasive most Americans remain unaware that white, working-class Americans make up the majority of those receiving public aid. 

Russian operatives used Facebook ads to exploit America’s racial and religious divisions

The video taps into that racial dog whistle, with wholly inaccurate information about Muslims in the United States who have access to federal aid. It rests on the assumption that all Muslims are immigrants and their community “drains on our tax-funded” program. They are excluded, by nature, from the “hard-working red-blooded Americans.”

Then, there’s that reference to multilingual phone systems, a well-known flash point in the culture wars. Federal law requires government agencies to make information and services available in a variety of languages. 

The video appeared on Facebook in March 2016 and has been viewed nearly 1 million times. The Secured Borders account has been removed from Facebook.

Glenda Gilmore, a professor at Yale University and a historian of 20th-century America, said the video hits many cultural soft spots.

“It might push some evangelical buttons around polygamy and get your anti-welfare, anti-black, anti-immigrant crowds riled,” Gilmore said. “Your fiscal conservatives wouldn’t be happy and folks who dislike Obama. And, it manages to couch it all in the kind of language that’s common. This is really some impressive work for a variety of terrible reasons.”

The long game

This is not the first time that Russia has weaponized American social divisions, said Gilmore, who has studied the way that the USSR and later Russia used the United States’ formal and informal Jim Crow arrangements to encourage people to join the Communist Party in the United States or defect and move to the USSR.

Even during the Cold War, the USSR often used evidence of racial conflict, inequality and disparity to paint the United States as a country that lies about its core values and ethics. It has been a favored route to undermine the moral standing and influence of the United States around the world.

The Soviet Union also publicly critiqued America’s propensity for lynchings, extrajudicial punishments and long sentences for African Americans to evade international questions about its own human rights abuses. In some parts of the United States, large numbers of Communist Party members were black. A small number defected while other blacks refused to engage in civil rights activism out of fear of being labeled a communist. Allegations of communist involvement or sympathies and anti-Americanism became one of the go-to damaging critiques of civil rights activists in Cold War America.

“Even with that history, it has to be said that what you see in these social media posts and the materials is really quite sophisticated,” Gilmore said.

Calls for change

After white nationalists used Facebook and Twitter to rally supporters in Charlottesville this summer, 19 civil rights groups sent a letter to Facebook calling on the company to disclose all the ads, accounts, pages and public events traced to Russian operatives that targeted LGBT Americans and racial, ethnic and religious minority communities. They also called for an independent third party to examine the civil rights impact of the platform’s policies and how organizations — including hate groups and political entities — use it to “stoke racial or religious resentment or violence.”

“We believe Russian operatives simply exploited and took advantage of weaknesses,” said Madihha Ahussain, special counsel for anti-muslim bigotry at Muslim Advocates, an organization that signed the letter. “They could see that the platforms did not remove or prevent this kind of content.”

Rashad Robinson is president of Color of Change, an Internet-based civil rights group that also signed the letter. During the election, Robinson saw some content on his Facebook and Twitter timelines from a known Kremlin-linked account operating under the name, “Blacktivist.” Sometimes Blacktivist expressed what were anodyne views about subjects like quality policing and public safety atop iconic images of famous activists like Angela Davis or video of alleged incidents of police abuse. Other times the content seemed inflammatory and out of line with what civil rights activists generally advocate, he said. And he noticed that Blacktivist had hundreds of thousands of followers, more than many well-known civil rights organizations and activists.

“I remember thinking, ‘Who is Blacktivist?’ ” Robinson said. “It did seem strange. Of course, I never imagined that it was the Russians.”

Blacktivist’s paid posts were sometimes targeted at Facebook users who read stories involving issues of particular concern to black Americans. Other times, it targeted users of the social media platform has identified as likely conservative Americans, according to reports shared with the congressional committees investigating the social media companies. Much of Blacktivist’s paid Facebook content was targeted at people using Facebook and living in Ferguson, Mo., or Baltimore.

“Russians are incredibly savvy about our culture, American culture,” Berman, the American Foreign Policy Council senior vice president, said. “And let’s be honest. It’s not incredibly hard. We are a remarkably open society. The idea that we are having this freewheeling debate where 1,700 podcasts a day opine about the president’s latest tweets is novel for them [Russians]. But it’s also fodder.”