Russia is reportedly continuing its U.S. election interference tactics that it deployed in 2016, in particular targeting race as a method to depress minority voters and turnout. Russia stoked anger and fear through the spread of disinformation in the U.S. to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election, as a bipartisan report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found [Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, and Volume 4]. Russia's primary method of disinformation used social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. A March 10, 2020 article in the New York Times reports that, in the 2016 election, Russian "operatives tried to stoke racial animosity by creating fake Black Lives Matter groups and spreading disinformation to depress black voter turnout." Russia is now expanding its efforts to interfere with the 2020 U.S. elections. Russia’s current goal, according to multiple intelligence officials, is to create chaos within the United States by using racial discord as a wedge. American officials have noted several ways that Russia has tried to spread disinformation, create fear, and stoke anger. According to the NYT article, the two primary methods are (1) incentivizing white nationalist groups to spread more hate and (2) manipulating black groups by infiltrating them to create more divisions and fear. Race is being weaponized by Russia in its efforts to interfere with the 2020 U.S. election.
In the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, black voter turnout was down. It is clear from Russia's 2016 disinformation campaign targeting minority voters, particularly black voters, that Russian interference is highly sophisticated and advanced. As noted in the New York Times article, many of the accounts on Instagram targeting a black audience dated back to January 2015. The Russian interference on the African American community goes beyond Facebook and Twitter voter disinformation. It is on Instagram and other platforms.
With regards to the 2020 election, direct action is being taken now in contrast to 2016. The FBI has a Foreign Influence Task Force to investigate election interference. According to the NYT, "[t]he F.B.I. is scrutinizing any ties between Russian intelligence or its proxies and Rinaldo Nazzaro, an American citizen who founded a neo-Nazi group, the Base." A VOA article dives into efforts being made to decipher false information on social media. Being aware of the role of Russia in the suppressing of minority and particularly black votes changes things. Various advocacy groups are taking actions to combat the disinformation and hold both social media platforms and government official accountable. "Social media companies pledged new security measures aimed at finding and removing coordinated manipulation campaigns before they spread fake content," VOA reported.
Many African American voters get their political news through the use of social media (50% in 2014). That is why it is imperative that they be made aware of Russia’s role in disinformation and also the ways in which they are being targeted. In an interview with NPR, Charlene Oliver of the Equity Alliance talks about how groups like hers plan to get out the black vote and the impact that knowing Russia’s role in 2016 has on their work. For many people, the effectiveness of Russia’s interference in 2015 came as a surprise. Now groups like the Equity Alliance are using the lessons from 2016 to drive their voter protection efforts for this year’s election. Oliver mentions that voter information is essential to combat online disinformation meant to suppress the vote. With advocacy groups working for direct voter education, others are working to hold government officials accountable.
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, asked to be informed about the steps the United States Justice Department is taking or has taken to address the ongoing Russian interference on the election. In the letter they note how Russia has evolved in their spread of disinformation. The attacks have moved to areas of the web that are less monitored such as private groups on social media platforms and also private chat groups. In these groups Russia attempts to stoke racial tensions in America and evoke fears in an effort to keep voters away from the polls. The NAACP is asking Attorney General Barr to prohibit voter suppression efforts through the use of the Voting Rights Act and also through executive action to promote election security. They also note that African American voters must both contend with domestic and international voter suppression efforts, so it is imperative that policy action be taken.
According to some legal experts, however, Barr seems to be protecting President Donald Trump, whose campaign benefited from the 2016 Russian interference. Barr is investigating the origin of the federal investigation into Russian interference, in an apparent attempt to discredit the Mueller Report and the entire U.S. investigation into Russian interference. In an op-ed, Emily Bazelon and Eric Posner list the questionable actions of Barr, "an attorney general whose loyalty to a president stands ahead of his fidelity to the rule of law."
With the awareness of the role of Russia in 2016, the spread of information in the 2020 election is being watched closely. As noted in the NAACP letter to Barr, Russia will not use all of the same election interference methods they used in 2016. New methods will be created. That is why greater safeguards should be adopted by both the U.S. government and by social media companies. It is unclear how the nationwide and international protests of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's brutal killing of George Floyd, along with the separate killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in Georgia and Kentucky, will change the dynamics of the 2020 elections. It is possible that, instead of depressing voter turnout, the protests will lead to greater voter turnout, with more people civically engaged and demanding accountability.
-written by Bisola Oni