According to volume two of a report from the Senate Committee on Intelligence regarding the Russian social media campaign to interfere with the 2016 U.S. elections, no group was targeted more than Black Americans.
“By far, race and related issues were the preferred target of the information warfare campaign designed to divide the country in 2016,” the report says. ” Over 66 percent of the Facebook advertisements paid for by the group contained a term related to race, and locational targeting used for the ads was aimed at Black Americans in key cities. One of the top-performing pages used by the group was named “Blacktivist,” generating 11.2 million engagements on Facebook. In 2017, the BLacktivist account had more likes than the Black Lives Matter account.
African-Americans were also encouraged to deepen their engagement with IRA operatives by using their influence to encourage targets to share personal information, sign petitions, and join or teach self-defense courses. In one instance, the IRA-owned Facebook page “Black4Black” solicited personal information from Black-owned businesses in exchange for free social media promotions. In another, a Black activist was paid $700 to teach 12 self-defense classes in a local park in order to promote the IRA-administered “BlackFist” Facebook page.
These pages and activities were found to be a part of the Russian “Left Troll” campaign, which featured a number of accounts and posts focused on cultural identity, including racial, gender, sexual, and religious identities. Moderate Black Americans were targeted with messaging and divisive content intended to mimic the substance posted by activist movements like Black Lives Matter. Accounts created and shared content intended to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and erode her political support from the Left. On YouTube, many of the videos posted by these accounts either discouraged Black voters from participating in the 2016 election at all, while others encouraged support of Jill Stein.
The report also found that in the three months prior to the 2016 elections, the top-performing intentionally false stories created by Russian assets on Facebook outperformed the top news stories from 19 major news outlets. Specifically, the top two performing false stories alleged Pope Francis’ endorsement of Donald Trump for President (960,000 shares, reactions, and comments) and a false report claiming WikiLeaks’ confirmation of Hillary Clinton’s sale of weapons to ISIS (789,000 shares, reactions, and comments).
The efforts to undermine the U.S. political process did not end in 2016. The report found that on Tumblr, pages targeting young Black teens and twentysomethings were active well into 2018, and attempted to influence the mid-term elections as well. Now, efforts are underway to affect the 2020 elections. “Detecting foreign influence operations on social media becomes more difficult as enabling technologies improve,” the report states. “In addition to the growing number of actors engaged in social media-facilitated, online manipulation efforts, the technology that aids in developing more realistic and convincing propaganda material also continues to advance.”
While the larger social media platforms have begun to increase their detection capabilities to prevent interference, disinformation tactics have now switched to other platforms such as WhatsApp, WeChat, and Telegram. “These direct interactions are much harder to detect,” the report states, “and if these tactics scaled, they could have a significant effect on target audiences.”
The best way to protect yourself and ensure that you’re not an unwilling participant in disinformation, propaganda, or foreign attempts to influence U.S. elections is to be aware:
- Read Carefully to determine if what you’re reading is an editorial or opinion piece.
- Check Your Sources to ensure the article is from an original, non-biased source.
- Look at Opposing Views to get a broader understanding of the topic.
- Use Fact-Checking Sites like Snopes, Factcheck.org, or PolitiFact.
- Check the “Contact” Page of any website sharing political news to ensure they have legitimate contact information.
Jenn Bentley is a freelance journalist and editor currently serving as Editor-in-Chief of Big Easy Magazine. Her work has also been featured in publications such as Wander N.O. More, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, Examiner.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_