In a startling revelation this week, Russian hackers launched an online campaign to dissuade African Americans from voting for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election.
According to a report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Russian influence campaign used a variety of tactics to try to suppress turnout among Democratic voters and unleashed a torrent of activity on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to accomplish its plan. The report adds new details to the framework that has emerged since the election that Russia tried to sway the election and racially divide the American electorate.
The report by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company in Austin, Texas, stated that “active and ongoing interference operations remain on several platforms,” highlighting as well that Russia sought to influence American opinion on Syria by promoting its president, Bashar al-Asaad, who is a Russian ally in the ongoing civil war there.
The new reports largely confirm earlier findings that the campaign orchestrated by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) was designed to derail the Clinton campaign, support candidate Donald Trump, and exacerbate the nation’s existing sociopolitical divide.
“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,” the report stated. Reportedly, Russian hackers used Gmail accounts with American-sounding names and recruited and sometimes paid unwitting American activists of all races to stage rallies and spread false content. A disproportionate amount of these persons were African American.
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” of false accounts. In some cases, Facebook ads were targeted at users who had shown interest in topics like Black history, the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, etc. Reportedly, the most popular of the Russian Instagram accounts was @blackstagram which had 303,6663 followers.
The IRA created dozens of websites disguised as African American in origin, with names like “blackmattersus.com, “blacktivist.info,” and “blacksoul.us.” On YouTube, the largest share of Russian material covered the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality by way of channels called “Don’t Shoot” and “BlackToLive.”
Renee DiResta, one of the authors of the report, said the IRA “leveraged pre-existing, legitimate grievances [among African Americans] wherever they could.” During the summer of 2016, the Black Lives Matter movement had become center stage, therefore the Russian operation took advantage of it and helped to orchestrate the “Blue Lives Matter” rebuttal when pro-police pushback became apparent.
“Very real racial tensions and feelings of alienation exist in America—and have for decades—and the IRA didn’t simply create them, but rather exploited them,” DiResta said.