New Knowledge, an Austin-based cybersecurity company, published a report on Monday about Russian interference in the 2016 election. The extent to which such meddling affected the race’s outcome is still up for debate, but if nothing else, the tactics used by the Internet Research Agency — the Putin-linked, St. Petersburg–based firm that coordinated the efforts — lend insight into what the meddlers were thinking. Black Americans were a point of special focus, according to a New York Times analysis of the findings — a fact that echoes past reporting on Russian attempts to exacerbate America’s racial divisions. From the Times:
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.” In some cases, Facebook ads were targeted at users who had shown interest in particular topics, including black history, the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X. The most popular of the Russian Instagram accounts was @blackstagram, with 303,663 followers.
In particular, the report identifies 81 Facebook pages created by the IRA, 30 of which targeted black Americans and amassed 1.2 million followers. Perhaps surprisingly, this more or less mirrored the company’s Facebook targeting of the political right, which took the form of 25 pages en route to 1.4 million followers. But the goal was not division for its own sake. An electorate polarized along racial and political lines was part of a voter-suppression effort aimed at ensuring that conservatives backed Donald Trump in large numbers and that black people did not vote at all or, if they did, voted for Jill Stein instead of Hillary Clinton:
While the right-wing pages promoted Mr. Trump’s candidacy, the left-wing pages scorned Mrs. Clinton while promoting Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. The voter suppression effort was focused particularly on Sanders supporters and African-Americans, urging them to shun Mrs. Clinton in the general election and either vote for Ms. Stein or stay home.
The Russians seem to have internalized the same lesson that modern-day Republicans inherited from Jim Crow segregationists: Black voters, who today overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, are the enemy, and discouraging their political participation is a more reliable way to cement GOP wins than most viable alternatives. These alternatives include convincing skeptics that conservative ideas are actually good. In many recent cases, Republicans have failed to convince so much as a simple majority, losing the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, ceding historically vast ground to Democrats in November in Congress’s more majoritarian body — the House of Representatives — and maintaining their slim Senate advantage due to the anti-democratic biases of a system that grants asymmetrical power to the least populous states.
The threat to dominance posed by their lack of popularity is real, and Republicans know it, and they have responded by trying to thwart black votes. Many of their recent efforts are part of the well-documented fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, which cleared the way for many states and districts — mostly in the former Confederacy — to change their voting laws without federal “preclearance” for the first time in decades. States like Georgia and North Carolina have gone to extreme measures to lock in Republican power — the latter through racist gerrymanders and restrictive voting covenants that, according to one federal court, “[targeted] African-Americans with almost surgical precision”; and the former, most notably, in the recent election of Brian Kemp. The Republican governor-elect served until November as Georgia’s secretary of state, a position he used to purge 1.4 million voters from the rolls, place holds on 53,000 voter registration applications — most of which were filed by black applicants — and advise on the shuttering of more than 200 voting precincts, mostly in poor and rural areas. “I don’t know a single black person in Georgia that doesn’t believe that race was stolen,” LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told Mother Jones of Kemp’s election.
This approach is not revolutionary. The previous decades’ segregationists were driven by a similar ethos, noting correctly that their way of life could only be guaranteed at the ballot box by keeping black people away from it. This was accomplished through poll taxes and literacy tests as well as intimidation and physical violence. Black voting-rights workers and would-be voters alike were harassed and threatened by white police, denied work and housing, stripped of public assistance benefits, chain-whipped by Klansmen, murdered in broad daylight by prominent politicians, and shot during drive-bys in their cars and at restaurants to deter them. Rarely was anyone punished for these crimes.
Monday’s revelations about Russian efforts to suppress black votes express a similar understanding of political power in the United States. It was not a sophisticated understanding — no insider knowledge of polling trends or special access to U.S. voting infrastructure was required. Nor did it need to be. Russian meddlers had to know this one thing about American politics and exploit it. Black people are now beset by suppression efforts on multiple sides, from a hostile foreign government in addition to their own elected officials. It is a mantle carried Stateside by Republicans, but became entrenched much earlier by segregationists who wished to maintain a racist status quo. As such, it remains fertile ground for anyone seeking to shift the course of an American election. Russia may have taken advantage of these fault lines to help elect Trump in 2016. But U.S. history could not have provided them with a better blueprint.