One difference between Russian and Republican efforts to quash the black vote: The Russians are more sophisticated, insidious and slick. Documents released by the Senate Intelligence Committee, first reported by my colleagues Craig Timberg and Tony Romm, show in previously unknown detail a complex, high-tech, surreptitious strike on American democracy, targeting African Americans. Unlike the Republican sledgehammers used to suppress votes and thwart electorates’ decisions in various states, the Russians are sneaky, using social media come-ons that ostensibly had little to do with the 2016 vote. In fact, the Russians were devoted to supporting the Republican presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, undermining Democrat Hillary Clinton and using black voters as the main vehicle. “Messaging to African Americans sought to divert their political energy away from established political institutions by preying on anger with structural inequalities faced by African Americans, including police violence, poverty, and disproportionate levels of incarceration,” said the report by the Computational Propaganda Research Project. “These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African American community was to boycott the election and focus on other issues instead. This often happened through the use of repetitive slogans.”
Now the question for Washington is what the Republican-dominated government will do to protect the integrity of the electoral process, particularly in the black community, from foreign and domestic actors who seek to damage democracy.
Republican efforts to suppress the vote are blunt. Almost 1,000 polling places across the country have closed since the Supreme Court struck down key sections of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, “many of them in southern black communities,” Pew Charitable Trusts reported in September. Restrictive voter registration policies and gerrymandering are other tools state and local officials employ to keep the black vote down.
“This report makes clear that racism and discrimination are national security threats to the United States. A hostile foreign power used American social media platforms to deliberately target and suppress the vote of African Americans as part of a conspiracy to undermine our democratic processes. We not only need to hold such bad actors accountable — we also need to hold accountable the companies that allow such exploitation to occur,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“Congress needs to take action now to protect the right to vote for all Americans, including African Americans, and to safeguard our democracy against interference and manipulation,” she added. “Part of such action must include protection of civil rights and data privacy, in order to reduce the risk of exploitation of African Americans’ Internet activity.”
Russian targeting of the African American community “isn’t a totally new strategy for the Russians,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the committee’s vice chairman. “During the Cold War, the KGB tried to spread ‘fake news’ smearing Martin Luther King, Jr., and Russian intelligence officers were responsible for concocting the rumor that the AIDS virus was developed by the CIA to target non-whites.”