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Russia’s Voter Suppression Operation Echoed Trump Campaign Tactics

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(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The big new development in the Russian collusion story is a pair of reports examining how Russian agents used social media to help Donald Trump’s presidential campaign by trying to suppress black votes, along with those of other demographic groups generally unfriendly to Trump. As NBC News put it, with blunt candor: “Russia Favored Trump, Targeted African-Americans with Election Meddling, Reports Say.”

The two reports were commissioned by the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, which assigned independent researchers to examine Russian influence efforts across multiple social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. This massive influence campaign—it led to more than 300 million engagements between 2015 and 2017, researchers say—was orchestrated by the Internet Research Agency, the Putin-aligned Russian firm, a dozen of whose employees were indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in February.

An earlier piece on Bloomberg News emphasized that the Russian effort focused particularly on discouraging African Americans from voting:

Among the groups most heavily targeted by the Russians: African-Americans. The researchers found a cross-platform effort to target black Americans, often with memes about police brutality, and later feeding them voter suppression messages. Among the narratives shared with black audiences was a meme "I WON’T VOTE, WILL YOU?" Another said "Everybody SUCKS, We’re Screwed 2016.”

As many Twitter users have noted—and as astute Bloomberg Businessweek readers may remember—this attempt to dissuade black voters sounds eerily familiar. That’s because the Trump campaign itself tried to do something similar: Back in October 2016, just before the presidential election, a colleague and I visited the campaign’s data headquarters in San Antonio and were shown examples of stealthy Facebook ads targeting African Americans—so-called “dark posts”—that were meant to sully Hillary Clinton’s image by playing up racially inflammatory comments she’d once made and thereby weaken her black support. Here’s what we wrote at the time:

“We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior [Trump campaign] official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans. Trump’s invocation at the debate of Clinton’s WikiLeaks e-mails and support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership was designed to turn off Sanders supporters. The parade of women who say they were sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton and harassed or threatened by Hillary is meant to undermine her appeal to young women. And 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.

On Oct. 24, Trump’s team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts”—nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as [digital director Brad] 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.”

In light of the new research reports on Russian meddling, several readers contacted me to ask if I think the Russians colluded with the Trump campaign to discourage African-American votes. Could it be pure coincidence that both entities were targeting same people, at same time, for same end, using the same means: social media?

The short answer is: I don’t know. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Robert Mueller and his investigators may shed light on the answer. For what it’s worth, Parscale and other Trump officials have in the past vehemently denied—including to me personally—colluding with the Russians. (Parscale didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment for this column.)

As a political reporter, I’ve learned never to rule out anything when it comes to Trump. But there are differences worth pointing out between the black-voter dissuasion efforts I witnessed in San Antonio and the Russian efforts described in the new reports. The key difference, as the researchers describe it, is that Russian agents sought to infiltrate black groups and gain members’ trust over a long period of time in order to manipulate them later on. The Trump campaign ads I saw simply sought to deliver a negative message—or a quick succession of negative messages—in the closing weeks of the campaign to discourage low-propensity black voters from showing up.

Researchers described the Russian social media campaign in detail. “The greatest effort on Facebook and Instagram appears to have been focused on developing Black audiences. There was significant and extensive integration into the Black community, particularly on Facebook, via the creation of a dedicated media ecosystem, the sharing and cross-promotion of legitimate media content, and ongoing attempted development of human assets. The degree of integration was not replicated in the Right-leaning content.

“…There were several variants of suppression narratives, spread both on Twitter and on Facebook. These included malicious misdirection (text-to-vote scams deployed on Twitter), support redirection (‘vote for a 3rd party!’), and turnout suppression (‘stay home on Election Day!’).

The Trump campaign also wanted black voters to stay home on Election Day. But as officials described it to me at the time, their effort was targeted at a specific group of African-American voters: Haitian-Americans living in South Florida. The Trump campaign targeted them because it was an article of faith among its senior staff that Haitian Americans were susceptible to negative messaging about Hillary Clinton. The conservative author Peter Schweizer argued in his 2015 book Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich that many were disillusioned by the Clinton Foundation’s efforts after it made expansive promises about helping to rebuild Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. At that time, Hillary Clinton was secretary of state and her husband was appointed co-chairman of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission. This clip from the Clinton Cash movie gives a flavor of the anti-Clinton argument:

Trump’s braintrust had enough faith in this thesis that it didn’t limit the campaign’s efforts to social media. Trump himself visited Miami’s “Little Haiti” neighborhood during a September 2016 campaign swing and promised to “be a friend” to Haitian-Americans. News reports at the time, such as this one from the Associated Press, suggest that targeting Haitian Americans wasn’t a fanciful notion:

“It is true that some members of the Haitian-American community have questioned where the billions of dollars in earthquake aid went. In March 2015, some Haitian-Americans protested in front of Clinton’s New York office, according to local news reports. Marleine Bastien, a longtime Haitian-American activist and executive director of a Florida-based advocacy group, Haitian Women of Miami, said that six years after the earthquake, there are still questions about how the money has been spent. But more pressing to the Haitian-American community, she said, is the issue of Haitian immigrants detained at the U.S. southern border since late September and then deported.”

None of this rules out the possibility that the Trump campaign and the Russians colluded to discourage African-American voters. But neither do Monday’s reports make new connections I can see that add evidence to the suspicion that they might have. Russians wouldn’t have needed inside information to know that discouraging black voters would help Trump. If there’s a danger here for Trump, it’s that the Russians might have offered to help anyway.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jillian Goodman at jgoodman74@bloomberg.net

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