Russian Trolls and the Trump Campaign Both Tried to Depress Black Turnout


Many of these messages were explicit, talking at length about how not voting was the right step, and attacking Hillary Clinton for past statements, such as a 1990s comment about ” superpredators.”

The New Knowledge report concurs, noting that “the most prolific IRA efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted black American communities.” A sprawling visualization in the report shows the extent and interlinkage between various parts of the push-the graphic is such a mess of spaghetti ties that it’s almost impossible to track individual connections, which seems like the point. New Knowledge, too, highlights the extensive voter-suppression efforts.

Persuading African Americans to stay home was a staple of the Trump campaign’s approach, too. Barack Obama had twice won the presidency by motivating black turnout. Trump’s path to victory hinged on getting as many white voters to come out as possible while hoping the Obama coalition stayed home-or persuading them to do so.

Trump enacted a crude version of this from the stump, attacking Clinton and Democrats for their treatment of black voters, but making only peremptory, sloppy attempts at outreach (“What the hell do you have to lose?”), while continually treating minorities as an other. Meanwhile, his campaign was conducting a more elaborate version electronically, as Businessweek reported in late October 2016:

Instead of expanding the electorate, [the campaign chairman Steve] Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.

The reporters Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg described an animation that a staffer had produced with cartoonish characters, reenacting Clinton’s “superpredator” remark. As officials told them, this was part of the attempt to persuade black voters to stay home.

At the time of the story, this seemed amateurish to many observers-the Clinton campaign was believed to possess a fearsome data machine, while the Trump team was messing around with memes. Then came the election results, with Clinton’s shocking loss. In retrospect, it’s clear just how powerful this kind of lo-fi influence operation can be, even if it’s impossible to calculate the specific impact it had on the election.

The new reports don’t just show the scale of the Russian efforts-they also show how similar the content and techniques of the IRA and the Trump campaign were. Trump’s critics have speculated about possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian trolls, but so far-despite the many Trump associates who had contacts with Russian officials, no evidence has appeared connecting the campaign to the IRA.