Stop Digital Voter Suppression (with Shireen Mitchell)
In 2016, the Russians targeted Black voters on social media, hoping to suppress voter turnout. It worked. Now it's not just the Russians doing it.
Black voters—and in particular Black women, who reliably vote in higher numbers by percentage than any other demographic—are the backbone of the Democratic Party. Consider: After losses in (very white) New Hampshire and (not quite as white, but still very white) Iowa, Joe Biden appeared headed to defeat in the 2020 primaries. Then Rep. Jim Clyburn endorsed him, and Black voters turned out in vast numbers in (much more diverse) South Carolina, propelling Biden to a decisive, no-doubt-about-it victory—and sparing the party and the world the McGovern 2.0 nightmare of Bernie Sanders, who would not even deign to join the party, at the top of the Democratic ticket.
Yes, yes, I know. You “feel the Bern.” You’re quite sure Sanders would have defeated Trump. He’s the only one with the courage to stand up for the little guy, etc. That motley army of seething ideologically pure progressives who don’t vote out of protest would have shown out and carried the day, etc. The reality is that Sanders is not terribly popular with Black voters, with women, or with centrists. In other words, the majority of the party doesn’t much like him. He couldn’t beat Hillary in 2016, he couldn’t beat Biden in 2020, and he would have been eviscerated by the ruthless rightwing media machine, what with his proud socialist views and his pro-Soviet sympathies and his history of ugly misogyny. Moscow cannily recognized this, which is why they supported his campaign.
Black voters are the backbone of the party. They are also a bellwether: if that demographic is lukewarm on you, you’re not winning a national election as a Democrat. Republicans know this, which is why they use every tool in their expansive toolbox to suppress the Black vote. Russia, which backed Trump in both 2016 and 2020, knows this, which is why it employed active measures expressly to suppress the Black vote. By 2020—after the report by Stop Online Violence Against Women (October 2018) and the Mueller Report (April 2019) and Volume 5 of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report (August 2020) laid out how Russian operatives used disinformation campaigns to dissuade African-Americans from voting—the only person who seemed oblivious to the importance of the Black electorate was Tom Perez. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Perez was the head of the DNC at the time. He spent most of the election cycle playing Trilby to Bernie’s Svengali. We are lucky we survived.
The first detailed analysis of Russia’s targeting of Black voters was produced in the fall of 2018 by a research organization called Stop Online Violence Against Women (SOVAW). The group analyzed the 3,500 Facebook ads purchased by the Internet Research Agency—the rogue Russian troll outfit indicted by Robert Mueller.
“What we did was, we took those ads. We did a data visualization based on the connectedness of what the ads were pushing,” Shireen Mitchell, SOVAW’s founder and today’s guest on the PREVAIL podcast, explains. “And we did a link, a web of nodes about it. . . .When we saw that, we realized there were key groups that were named, but done very differently. So the way they used Black identity was, one, to deter Black voters. The other [way] was to anger other groups.”
Mitchell and her team found that the IRA was primarily focused on the Black community. The Kremlin’s goal was twofold: to generate disinformation to convince Black voters not to vote the top of the ticket (“There’s no difference between Trump and Hillary; why bother?”) and to boost white turnout, by blowing dogwhistles.
The Facebook ads were critical to Trump’s narrow Electoral College victory. As the report explains:
During the 2016 campaign, Trump raised $280 million via Facebook. Just days before the election, Trump’s team paid for voter-suppression efforts. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, it targeted three Democratic constituencies—“idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans”— sending them videos precisely tailored to discourage them from turning out for Clinton. Theresa Hong, the Trump campaign’s digital-content director, later told an interviewer, “Without Facebook we wouldn’t have won.”
However, the wording of Facebook's statement about these ads avoids stating that the majority of the Russian IRA ads were based on race. Yes, there were other societal arcs and commentary, but the focus of the overwhelming majority of these ads was on race with Black Identity at the center. This theme lines up to only one demographic target on the list of Trump's voter suppression campaigns: African American. A case in point would be using Hillary Clinton’s statements on the super predator and the Black community, such as
“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.”
“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.”
The goal, Mitchell tells me, was “to get Black people to go vote, but just don’t vote top of the ticket. That’s how Michigan was won. Michigan in 2016, when Hillary lost, was 90k people—90k people—did not vote top of the ticket in Michigan. Ninety k!” Trump won by 77,000—total. “In Michigan alone, he only won by 11k. So imagine: if people voted top of the ticket, would they have voted for him?”
Again: a Russian disinformation campaign designed to convince Black voters that there was no difference between Hillary and Donald and to leave the top of the ticket blank as a sort of protest helped sway 90,000 Michigan voters to show up at the polls, vote down ballot—but not choose a president. Trump won the state by the narrowest of margins: just 11,000 votes.
In 2016, the Russian digital voter suppression campaign worked. Close elections are won at the margins, and Kremlin fuckery did just enough to swing the vote Trump’s way. Back then, the Russians did the heavy lifting. By 2020, however, homegrown operatives were savvy enough—and had always been racist enough—to do it themselves.
“This is now not a foreign thing happening,” Mitchell says, ominously, “even though that may be where it started. This is a domestic [problem]. So who domestically is participating in it?”
Congress needs to figure this out, and pass legislation to protect us from these tactics. Digital voter suppression is still voter suppression.
Greg Olear talks to the data analyst and disinformation fighter Shireen Mitchell, founder of Digital Sisters/Sistas and Stop Online Violence Against Women, about her background in the tech world, Russian disinformation campaigns that target Black voters, the fascist Supreme Court, and what allies can do to help. Plus: no stairway.
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Photo credit: A node map from the 2018 SOVAW report.