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Russian Facebook Ads Targeted American Voters by Exploiting Racial Tensions on Both Sides

The House Intelligence Committee released more than 3,000 Russian Facebook Ads, a quarter of which were about race.
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Last week, the US House Intelligence Committee released approximately 3,517 Facebook ads purchased by the Russians between 2015-17, meant to influence the 2016 election, all of which are available to download. USA Today conducted a study of the ads and concluded that more than half of them dealt with issues related to race. 

According to the USA Today report, Russian purchased an average of 44 racially tinged ads per month between 2015 and the summer of 2016. However, starting in September 2016, they started buying an average of 400 racially tinged ads per month. Here are two from October of 2016 that illustrate how this strategy worked:

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One day, they would post a Back the Badge ad, microtargeting likely voters who had already liked groups with names like "Police Wives Unite" and "Officer Down Memorial Page." Another day, they would post the Blacktivist ad, which targeted people who had liked pages for historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. By exploiting America's failures to confront race, they could pit whites and blacks alike against the Democratic Party. 

One ad purchased in the first quarter of 2016, reads, "Why don't american [sic] cops realize that being black is not a crime? African american [sic] kids are being shot only for playing with toy guns...Our Government is blind, they simply don't want to pay attention to this legalized homicide." That ad, and many others like it, were promoted by Williams Kalvin, an African-American duo who swore they were from Atlanta but in reality were working for the Kremlin, bashing Hillary Clinton and claiming that they stood behind Donald Trump. Closer to the election, they even told black people not to vote at all, writing, "This time we choose between two racists. No one represents black people."

At least 25% of the ads depicted racist police brutality, targeted towards protest groups like Black Lives Matter and those who liked its Facebook page. Blacktivist, an account linked to the Kremlin, released ads supporting Colin Kaepernick's protests, as well as organizing protests honoring the deaths of victims like Freddie Gray. Some of them quoted tweets from black activists like Delo Taylor, whose tweet saying "blue lives do not exist" appears in one of their ads. 

Taylor, who has been on Twitter since 2009, regularly tweets vitriol against the Democratic Party, and is a good example of the type of person the Kremlin targeted through their disinformation campaign. Although the Facebook ads weren't always explicitly anti-Clinton or pro-Trump, a significant portion of them were made in support of Bernie Sanders, most famously the "buff Bernie coloring book" ad, and ads showing the Vermont Senator criticizing the Clinton Foundation. Taylor, who supported Sanders until he lost the Democratic nomination, switched to backing Jill Stein, another beneficiary of Russian ads including one from Blacktivist a few days before the election that said, "Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it's not a wasted vote."

That the Russians would know exactly how to push our buttons on race is no surprise. Since the Soviet Union, they have loved to pretend they are further ahead on race-related issues than America is, even making propaganda films like Circus, a 1936 melodrama about an American woman who escapes to Russia with her mixed-race child to find a better life. The reality is, no matter how much criticism the United States deserves for its inability to deal with its race problem, they are still miles ahead of Russia. When studying at the Moscow Art Theater between March and May of 2015, I saw more than 40 plays at various Russian theaters, and I can count the number of black actors I saw on one hand. Worse, the place where I saw more blacks on stage than anywhere else was, ironically, in the circus. Let that sink in. 

Russians also have no compunctions about using racial slurs to describe black people as well. In David Corn and Michael Isikoff's Russian Roulette, it is reported that Putin and his advisors would regularly refer to Barack Obama as "monkey," and occasionally, Putin himself would use the n-word. FIFA recently charged Russia with racism for chanting slurs against black French football players during a game. Before the 2014 Winter Olymipcs in Sochi, Russian figure skater Irina Rodnina posted a meme of the President and First Lady as chimps, which drew protest from the US Embassy. Putin then chose her personally to light the Olympic torch. Chekhov may have pioneered the concept of subtext, but Russia's racism is anything but subtle.

In that sense, it takes racists to know how to inflame racial tensions. The Russians succeeded in manipulating us on race because they have never confronted their own prejudice. And they knew that by sending us into a circular firing squad over sensitive subjects, they could sneak their candidate into the White House.