Jun 10, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Why Russia will keep poking America’s racial wounds

Illustration of the American flag with the stripes replaced with caution tape.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The 2020 election will bring more Russian-backed online disinformation campaigns aiming to exploit American protests over police brutality and systemic racism in order to foment division and distrust, experts predict.

Where it stands: There’s nothing new about Russia’s tactics — its intelligence agencies have been using disinformation to cynically aggravate U.S. racial tensions all the way back to the Cold War era. But we can’t resolve this problem with cyber countermeasures and informational defenses. It will require actually tackling the root problem of racial injustice itself.

Background: Russia’s pro-Trump electoral interference campaign in 2016 was “part of a broader, sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign designed to sow discord in American politics and society,” according to a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report released in 2019.

  • “No single group” was targeted more on social media by Russian disinformation than black Americans, according to the same report — with the majority of the posts on Russian accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube centering on racial issues.
  • Much of the content on these accounts focused on police violence. In 2016, Russian accounts also encouraged black Americans not to vote at all or to cast a protest vote for a third-party candidate for president.

According to the SSCI report, in 2016, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a state-backed Russian troll farm and disinformation shop, was particularly focused on issues surrounding race and content aimed at black Americans.

  • On Facebook, 66% of the IRA ads were related to race, and its location targeting “was principally aimed at African Americans in key metropolitan areas,” according to the report.
  • A major IRA Facebook page, “Blacktivist,” had over 11 million user engagements.
  • On Instagram, half of the 10 most popular IRA accounts were aimed at black Americans. And on YouTube, 96% of the IRA’s activity was focused on “racial issues and police brutality.”

Flashback: This strategy by Russia has deep roots.

  • During the Cold War, a major prong of the U.S.-focused KGB disinformation operations was aimed at exacerbating racial tensions. In the run-up to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, notes the SSCI report, “KGB officers mailed falsified communications from the Ku Klux Klan to the Olympic committees of African and Asian countries.”
  • It also sent letters to five dozen black organizations leveling false accusations of “atrocities” committed against black Americans by an extremist Jewish group.
  • Since 2016, the track record of social media companies in regulating disinformation on their platforms has been mixed, at best. Twitter and Facebook have both routinely made public announcements regarding takedowns of disinformation networks on their platforms, but it’s a Sisyphean task.
  • Twitter has created a labeling system for “synthetic and manipulated media” and banned ads from overt state-controlled outlets. Facebook also recently banned ads from state media platforms in the U.S., but it still accepts advertising from these media outlets abroad. It is also labeling content from explicitly state-backed news sources.
  • But many critics — including some Facebook employees — believe the company’s approach to regulating incitement and misinformation is too lax.

The big picture: The 2020 election will take place amid a larger information warfare environment where countries like China and Russia will use the U.S. government response to COVID-19, and ongoing protests and unrest, to cast doubt on the moral authority of U.S. leadership and the efficacy of liberal democracy more broadly.

Be smart: Russia’s online disinformation campaign in 2016 had far-reaching influence.

  • Facebook believes 126 million people may have seen Russian propaganda on its platform connected to 2016. Twitter has said 1.4 million of its users were exposed to Russian disinformation.
  • Russian operatives created Facebook groups and organized rallies and demonstrations around these fake groups.
  • In one case, Russian operatives scheduled dueling protests on the same day in Houston, causing Muslim civil rights activists to square off with anti-Muslim Texas secessionists. Footage from the event shows an anti-Muslim protestor waving the Confederate flag while others hold a banner that reads “White Lives Matter.”
  • Russian trolls even created a fake group called “Don’t Shoot Us,” which posed as a Black Lives Matter affiliate and operated on multiple social media platforms.

Our thought bubble: Racism and police violence in America are a national moral crisis. That crisis also creates fractures that have — and will continue to be — exploited by hostile foreign states.

  • In that sense, the moral crisis is also a national security problem. The most effective way to end that vulnerability is to remedy the underlying injustice.

The bottom line: We can count on Russian operatives to fill social media with deceptive, divisive messages. But it was American police officers who shot Tamir Rice while he played in a park, killed Breonna Taylor in her own home and asphyxiated George Floyd outside a convenience store. The wounds Russia keeps pouring salt on are American-made.

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