By now, it’s common knowledge that Russian companies bought more than 3,000 ads on Facebook, along with countless posts across other platforms. Many, though certainly not all, of those ads featured racist and anti-immigrant messages. It’s impossible to quantify the impact those messages had on vote tallies. On any given day, in any non-presidential election year, social media is crowded with political memes, misinformation and inflammatory content from questionable sources; propaganda is nothing new, and Russia has long been particularly masterful in its application. (So, too, for that matter, has the U.S., never a slouch in the art of political manipulation.) It’s undoubtedly possible that Russia’s deployment of racially divisive digital content, along with a host of other factors, may have helped win the presidency for a dangerous, unqualified liar. It’s also true that a racially divisive digital campaign could only have had impact and influence in a country already rife with bigotry, which savvy Russian actors simply exploited.
Among the media circulated by reportedly Kremlin-backed outlets were ads that played to white racial fears and resentments about African-Americans and other people of color. One Facebook group suggested that members of Black Lives Matter who don’t show proper respect for the flag should “be immediately shot.” The same page railed against “illegals,” ″Sharia law” and the “welfare state,” according to Associated Press analysis. A group called “Secured Borders” posted memes of children’s cartoon character Dora the Explorer “sneaking” across the border, while another post referenced “criminal alien scum [on] our streets.” In a Facebook video, a black woman was depicted firing a rifle without ammunition, a gesture meant to tease white panic and trigger white paranoia about black criminality and violence.
Those ads offer typical racist fear-mongering, but perhaps even more insidious—or clever, if you like—are numerous other angles Russian trolls reportedly took in their digital propaganda campaign. “Williams and Kalvin,” two supposed black rappers who claim to be from Atlanta but have astonishingly thick African accents, posted dozens of pro-Trump messages on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube; the Daily Beast describes an almost comical video scene featuring Williams raising a black-power fist in celebration of Trump. The Internet Research Agency created a fake sex tape featuring a Hillary Clinton lookalike and a black man, a porno aimed at inflaming American fears over miscegenation. A fake African-American social justice group called “Blacktivist” bemoaned “police violence, racism, intolerance and injustice,” cynically elevating real issues as part of an effort that had nothing to do with anti-racism or social justice goals. As with similar ads, a key goal of those posts was to anger whites who encountered them. But Russian trolls also reportedly targeted African-American consumers “to promote overall distrust in the political system with the hope of depressing black voters’ turnout,” according to a politics scholar who spoke with Guardian.
The common thread that runs through these Russian ads and propaganda is clear recognition and understanding of long existent U.S. racial divides. At the end of the day, if the Russian campaign really did sway the election, its creators’ master skill wasn’t so much planting the seeds of division as sowing them, then reaping the rewards. The task merely required awareness of the racial, ethnic and religious rips and tears in America’s frayed national fabric. Ultimately, if the Russian social media campaign was successful, that success proves American bigotry and racism create a national weakness, and a threat to U.S. national security.
It’s fitting that the Russian effort ran alongside—and according to American intelligence agencies, in support of—the Trump campaign. Though the methodology of two differed, the message was identical. At its core, both campaigns conveyed alarmist fears about impending white demographic erasure and power loss, and weaponized disingenuously sympathetic rhetoric to demoralize and depress the nonwhite vote. (See Trump’s patronizing insult-as-empathy question to the black community, “What the hell have do you have to lose?”) Both the Kremlin and Trump, like a long line of U.S. politicians before him, mined racism, leveraging it in bids for power.
Russia, in other words, used the oldest trick in the American political playbook. Prejudice and bigotry make us vulnerable, putting our security under potential threat from both internal and external forces. That sad fact will remain true as long as white racism guarantees it.