Images disseminated in November 2016 were designed to encourage voter suppression in the black community. (New Knowledge/New Knowledge)
Columnist

One difference between Russian and Republican efforts to quash the black vote: The Russians are more sophisticated, insidious and slick.

Documents released by the Senate Intelligence Committee, first reported by my colleagues Craig Timberg and Tony Romm, show in previously unknown detail a complex, high-tech, surreptitious strike on American democracy, targeting African Americans. Unlike the Republican sledgehammers used to suppress votes and thwart electorates’ decisions in various states, the Russians are sneaky, using social media come-ons that ostensibly had little to do with the 2016 vote.

In fact, the Russians were devoted to supporting the Republican presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, undermining Democrat Hillary Clinton and using black voters as the main vehicle.

“Messaging to African Americans sought to divert their political energy away from established political institutions by preying on anger with structural inequalities faced by African Americans, including police violence, poverty, and disproportionate levels of incarceration,” said the report by the Computational Propaganda Research Project. “These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African American community was to boycott the election and focus on other issues instead. This often happened through the use of repetitive slogans.”

Now the question for Washington is what the Republican-dominated government will do to protect the integrity of the electoral process, particularly in the black community, from foreign and domestic actors who seek to damage democracy.

Republican efforts to suppress the vote are blunt. Almost 1,000 polling places across the country have closed since the Supreme Court struck down key sections of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, “many of them in southern black communities,” Pew Charitable Trusts reported in September. Restrictive voter registration policies and gerrymandering are other tools state and local officials employ to keep the black vote down.

“This report makes clear that racism and discrimination are national security threats to the United States. A hostile foreign power used American social media platforms to deliberately target and suppress the vote of African Americans as part of a conspiracy to undermine our democratic processes. We not only need to hold such bad actors accountable — we also need to hold accountable the companies that allow such exploitation to occur,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“Congress needs to take action now to protect the right to vote for all Americans, including African Americans, and to safeguard our democracy against interference and manipulation,” she added. “Part of such action must include protection of civil rights and data privacy, in order to reduce the risk of exploitation of African Americans’ Internet activity.”

Russian targeting of the African American community “isn’t a totally new strategy for the Russians,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the committee’s vice chairman. “During the Cold War, the KGB tried to spread ‘fake news’ smearing Martin Luther King, Jr., and Russian intelligence officers were responsible for concocting the rumor that the AIDS virus was developed by the CIA to target non-whites.”

Another report from New Knowledge based on data supplied by the committee lists “Extensive Operations targeting Black-American Communities” by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA). “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,” according to the report. In February, the Justice Department named IRA in an indictment against 13 people and three Russian companies charged with interference in the presidential election.

The operations included “an expansive cross-platform media mirage targeting the Black community, which shared and cross-promoted authentic Black media.” While African Americans were not the sole target, they were the prime one: “The degree of integration into authentic Black community media was not replicated in the otherwise Right-leaning or otherwise Left-leaning content,” according to the report. Ninety-six percent of more than 1,100 YouTube videos produced by the disinformation campaign focused on Black Lives Matter and police brutality. Thirty Facebook pages “targeted Black audiences and amassed 1,187,810 followers.”

Many of those efforts began well before Trump’s electoral college victory and did not appear directly related to his campaign. Dubbed “narrative laundering,” those efforts were designed to suck consumers into a popular message, such as supporting black business. One strategy was “to ingratiate their (social media) Pages with the authentic Black media community so that they in turn were promoted by legitimate Black cultural entities.”

This primed the black community for later messages meant to sap political strength. “As the election became imminent,” the report said police brutality and other “themes were then tied into several varieties of voter suppression narratives: don’t vote, stay home, this country is not for Black people, these candidates don’t care about Black people.”

The “voter suppression operations” included “malicious misdirection” tweets “designed to create confusion about voting rules” and “turnout depression” messages such as “stay home on Election Day, your vote doesn’t matter.”

Noting that black voter presidential election turnout declined in 2016 for the first time in two decades, the Congressional Black Caucus called on Congress and Trump “to take the security of our elections seriously … to stop foreign election meddling efforts.”

The reports prompted the NAACP to call for its partners, social media followers and supporters to sign off “Facebook and Instagram for a week to remind people of their obligation to its users and the need to protect our vote,” said President Derrick Johnson. “We’re the canary in the mine, if voter suppression and election manipulation is acceptable only because it happens in our community, it’s just a matter of time before all communities are facing the same type of vulnerability.”

Read more:

New report on Russian disinformation, prepared for the Senate, shows the operation's scale and sweep

Russian disinformation teams targeted Robert S. Mueller III, says report prepared for Senate

Russian troll farm, 13 suspects indicted in 2016 election interference