Why Did Russians Target African-American Voters to help Donald Trump?


What did the social media webpages Black4Black, Fit Black, Nefertiti’s Community, Pan-African Roots, Williams & Kalvin, Blacktivist and Woke Blacks have in common? They were all Russian fronts. These pages and many others were part of the Russian government’s efforts to demobilize Black voters during the 2016 election.

One of the most striking revelations to come out of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian interference was the intensity of Russia’s efforts to influence African-Americans.

Russian Disinformation Efforts
Target African-American Voters

The
Internet Research Agency, the arm of Russian intelligence responsible for the
interference, created 81 Facebook pages that attracted more than 1,000
followers. Thirty of the pages explicitly targeted Black audiences, attracted
almost 1.2 million followers and generated tens of millions of likes and shares.
The Russians’ efforts were not limited to Facebook—they were active also on
Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and other social media platforms.

How did
the Russians use these fake accounts? They spread disinformation designed to
hurt Hillary Clinton. These sites spread false rumors that “Hillary received
$20,000 donation from the KKK towards her campaign” and advocated that Black
voters stay home or vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. Russian
intelligence exploited Americas’ racial divisions in an effort to keep African-Americans
from the polls. This was done with the express intent of helping Donald Trump
win.  

Though it
is impossible to assess the success of the Russian campaign to suppress Black
votes, one fact is clear—Black turnout was down in 2016. This decline proved
fatal for Clinton’s campaign.

African-American Voter Participation Dropped in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin

ACLU Voter Suppression Infographic

Nationally, Black turnout fell 4.7 points from 2012 to 2016. Almost 2 million fewer African-Americans voted in 2016. This is one of the biggest recent declines in turnout from one election to the next of any group. Obviously, fewer Black voters is bad news for the Democrats, but what was even worse was that the biggest declines in African-American turnout occurred in some of the most competitive states.

A recent analysis from a team of academics estimated voter turnout by race for each state in 2012 and 2016. It found that some of the biggest declines in Black turnout occurred in Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin—states that were decided by narrow margins.

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In fact,
the authors of the study concluded that Clinton would have won Michigan, Pennsylvania
and Wisconsin (and just narrowly lost North Carolina and Florida) if Black turnout
had reached 2012 levels. Clinton would be president had she carried those three
states.

What
caused this decline in Black turnout? The Russians, possibly with the help of the
Trump campaign, are obvious scapegoats. This is also a convenient explanation
for the Democratic Party. It allows Democrats to externalize the blame for a
decline in support among their most loyal voters. However, while the Russian
disinformation campaign did play some role, much of the blame lies elsewhere.

African-American Voters were
Impacted by Voting Restrictions in 14 States

One story that has been underreported is that there were systematic efforts to suppress the Black vote, especially in the South. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 14 states implemented new voting restrictions between 2012 and 2016. These included new voter ID laws, the closure of polling places and a rolling back of early voting in key swing states such as North Carolina and Ohio.

The U.S. Supreme
Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and this ushered in a brand-new
wave of efforts to keep African-Americans from the polls. Some of the
preliminary data suggest these attempts were successful.

Democratic Candidates are Dependent
on African-American Voters to Win

African-Americans represent 25 percent of all Democratic voters and Democratic presidential candidates need strong support from the African-American community to win. African-American voters put Obama over the top in 2012. But Obama energized the Black community in ways that Clinton did not. Much of the Clinton campaign’s focus was directed at attracting the support of White suburban women. This came at the expense of shoring up the support of African-Americans and other core Democratic groups.

This gamble failed to pay off. Clinton lost the majority of White women and lost support among African-Americans. Her failure is especially glaring given the massive increase in Black turnout during the 2018 midterms.  

The
Russians’ disinformation efforts targeted at African-American voters was likely
effective to some degree. That said, the drop in African-American turnout from
2012 to 2016 was so large that a combination of Russians’ disinformation
efforts, voter suppression and Clinton strategic misstep explains most of this
decline.

The Democrats need to rectify these problems in 2020 to win the White House. One way to do this is to nominate a candidate who will credibly speak to African-Americans’ concerns. Trump’s base of voters shows no signs of going away, so whomever the Democrats’ nominate will need to campaign to ensure the African-American voter shows comparable numbers as 2012 and 2018 to solidify the Democratic base. Otherwise, Trump will win another term and the country will experience another four years of turmoil.

Josh Zingher is an assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshuaZingher. 



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