Russian Disinformation Targeted African Americans in 2016Photo by Ricardo Ceppi/Getty Politics Features 2016 Election
The most common thing that non-political folks get wrong about Russia and American politics is that they are supposedly wedded to Trump. While Russia clearly backed Trump and Robert Mueller has uncovered coordination (or collusion) between the Kremlin and Team Trump, the reason why the Russians did it is to sow chaos—that is their true aim—not to help specific candidates. The endgame of all Kremlin meddling in our politics is to create further discord in American society, and Trump is simply a means to that end.
The Kremlin has had a longstanding policy dating back to the dawn of the Soviet period in the early 1900s of using America’s historic racism against itself. Here is a speech excerpt from Carter Page, a member of Team Trump who has been pushing pro-Kremlin policy for years, demonstrating exactly how Russia uses American racism to try to make Russia seem more sympathetic. Per Page:
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has stated, “I’d grown up fearing the lynch mobs of the Ku Klux Klan; as an adult I was starting to wonder if I’d been afraid of the wrong white people all along – where I was being pursued not by bigots in white robes, but by left-wing zealots draped in flowing sanctimony.” From U.S. policies toward Russia to Iran to China, sanctimonious expressions of moral superiority stand at the root of many problems seen worldwide today.
There is no equivalence between the United States’ treatment of African Americans and its Russian foreign policy, yet Kremlin propaganda constantly inflames legitimate grievances while equating the two, so it should come as no surprise that the Kremlin spent a good chunk of 2016 targeting African Americans. Per The Washington Post:
A report prepared for the Senate that provides the most sweeping analysis yet of Russia’s disinformation campaign around the 2016 election found the operation used every major social media platform to deliver words, images and videos tailored to voters’ interests to help elect President Trump — and worked even harder to support him while in office.
The Russians aimed particular energy at activating conservatives on issues such as gun rights and immigration, while sapping the political clout of left-leaning African American voters by undermining their faith in elections and spreading misleading information about how to vote. Many other groups — Latinos, Muslims, Christians, gay men and women, liberals, Southerners, veterans — got at least some attention from Russians operating thousands of social media accounts.
A second report — released Monday after being prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee by researchers for New Knowledge, Columbia University and Canfield Research — emphasized this aspect of the Russian operation, saying, “The IRA created an expansive cross-platform media mirage targeting the Black community, which shared and cross-promoted authentic Black media to create an immersive influence ecosystem.”
Huge: Instagram was actually a bigger, and more effective, Russian influence tool than Facebook was, according to data analyzed for Senate Intel. “More content was created on Instagram, and overall Instagram engagement exceeded that of Facebook.” https://t.co/oAcas5uAth
— Sarah Frier (@sarahfrier) December 17, 2018
BREAKING: We now know that Black American voters must contend with both overwhelming domestic suppression efforts and foreign interference on a massive scale. Congress must investigate Russian attempts to manipulate Black voters. Read our statement: https://t.co/WQ0yMkOVjTpic.twitter.com/OmmNoVNUVD
— Legal Defense Fund (@NAACP_LDF) December 17, 2018
Again, this is nothing new, and thoughts like this, which hint at even more collusion between Team Trump and Russia on this topic, are betrayed by the facts of history.
So now the question becomes: how did Russia know to target African American voters, and especially in certain key states. I think we’ll get our answers in the coming months from the Mueller probe. https://t.co/J85YRZWGwZ
— Amy Siskind (@Amy_Siskind) December 17, 2018
America was built on the backs of slaves and on the graves of the natives. White supremacy is literally baked into our society. Hitler even wrote in Mein Kampf how much he admired our racism and how he wanted to use it as a model for Germany. No one needs to tell the Russians to use legitimate grievances to target black voters, they’ve done it for a hundred-plus years, as Julia Ioffe wrote in The Atlantic:
During the Cold War, the Kremlin similarly sought to plant fake news and foment discontent, but was limited by the low-tech methods available at the time. “Before, the Soviets would plant information in Indian papers and hope it would get picked up by our papers,” says John Sipher, who ran the CIA’s Russia desk during George W. Bush’s first term. The Soviets planted misinformation about the AIDs epidemic as a Pentagon creation, according to Sipher, as well as the very concept of a nuclear winter. “Now, because of the technology, you can jump right in,” Sipher says.
In 1932, for instance, Dmitri Moor, the Soviet Union’s most famous propaganda poster artist, created a poster that cried, “Freedom to the prisoners of Scottsboro!” It was a reference to the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama, and then repeatedly—wrongly—convicted by all-white Southern juries. The case became a symbol of the injustices of the Jim Crow South, and the young Soviet state milked it for all the propagandistic value it could.
It was part of a plan put in place in 1928 by the Comintern—the Communist International, whose mission was to spread the communist revolution around the world. The plan initially called for recruiting Southern blacks and pushing for “self-determination in the Black Belt.” By 1930, the Comintern had escalated the aims of its covert mission, and decided to work toward establishing a separate black state in the South, which would provide it with a beachhead for spreading the revolution to North America.
If we are truly concerned about Russian disinformation inflaming racial tensions in America, the best thing that we could do is launch an ambitious project to end the racial injustices deliberately intertwined into our society. That Kremlin messaging on American racism has historically proven to be somewhat effective is not an indictment of those who believe it—but of our American system. This reality will not change until we change.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.