I’ve said this several times over the past few weeks, but no vote is more important for Democrats than the Black vote. Literally, in most statewide races, and certainly in the Presidential election, Democrats cannot win without the Black vote. Period.
We have power, but we aren’t the only ones that understand just how much power we have.
Based on an exhaustive report released yesterday studying Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections, the primary focus of Russia’s social media strategy wasn’t conservatives, it was Black voters.
I read the report and I need to break down its findings for us this morning because it’s clear to me that not only are we fighting voter suppression at home, but we are also fighting voter suppression from foreign powers – both groups clearly understand that when we are focused and empowered and free to vote – we can’t be stopped, but both groups also know that we are vulnerable targets for voter suppression.
Let me break down what Russia did, why I think they did it, the impact I think it had, and what we can do about it moving forward.
Since 2012, at the start of Obama’s second term, the Russian government began building fake accounts all over the Internet. Previously we understood that these accounts were on Facebook, and that Facebook ads were purchased, but the report yesterday made clear that it was far more than that. Russia began developing fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Tumblr, and on every blogging platform. By the time the 2016 election came along, they had been developing these accounts and their following for four years.
Some accounts had a few hundred followers, some had a few thousands, some had tens of thousands, and one account, on Instagram, for instance, had 300,000 real followers.
And guess who the accounts were targeting? Us. That account on Instagram with 300,000 followers was named Blackstagram – and for years and years it mainly posted about stuff that a traditional Black Instagram account would post about – ranging from Black culture, Black memes, civil rights, police brutality, etc. Then – as the 2016 election came closer and closer, it pivoted. All of their accounts pivoted. After gaining the trust of millions of followers, these accounts were actually seen hundreds of millions of times across the Internet, and instead of just posting random Black content, they started posting memes about how voting never really changes anything for us, they started posting memes about how voting for Jill Stein, or a third party candidate, was better for us than voting for Hillary Clinton, they started doing anything and everything they could to discourage Black folk from voting, or from voting for Hillary
And Russia did this because they clearly know that if you want to sway an election to a Republican in this country, you don’t need to sway tens of millions of voters, you just need to convince a small percentage of Black folk that staying home is a good idea. You just need to convince a small percentage of Black folk that their vote doesn’t really matter.
And here’s the thing – Russia did this because they also know what all experts know, no other ethnic group in America uses social media as much as us. In part because we don’t have our own outlets or platforms nearly as much as other groups, social media is a refuge for us where we laugh, and cry, and celebrate, and mourn together. We set the trends on social media – and because we are major consumers on these platforms, it also makes us extremely vulnerable to lies and rumors – not just about politicians, but anything. And in 2016, this report on Russian interference makes it clear that Russian not only spent years, but millions of dollars, put themselves in a position to play us in the most destructive way possible.
While it’s hard to gauge the full impact, what I do know is that we weren’t ready for such a thing. And I want to close by giving us some quick tips on how we protect ourselves moving forward.
Unfollow all social media accounts that aren’t from verified brands or from actual human beings that you can see in real ways offline. The accounts that Russia built were all generically named Black accounts. A few looked like they belonged to real people, but if you don’t know the brand or the person, unfollow it. Don’t share memes or posts from accounts – no matter how harmless or funny or even serious unless they are from sources that you know and trust. That’s how they are building up their audience.
And I’ll close with this – be very selective about who and where you get your news from. I trust the Tom Joyner Morning Show. I trust all of our staff. I trust Roland Martin. Trust sources who’ve paid their dues, but don’t be swayed by random accounts.
We have to be smart and discerning moving forward. We have no idea what Russia or other nations or even American corporations may do in 2019 and 2020 to suppress our votes. Let’s be smart and continue to organize.