Article originally written for the Michigan Chronicle
By Robert Weiner and John Black
At the National Press Club on May 6, National Urban League President Marc Morial reported that Russian election "trolling" by the millions of hits was far worse than reported in suppressing African-American voting in 2016 and since. Roles played by the supreme court and state legislatures in voter suppression have been a known entity for years, but Russian interference has flown "under the radar," including in the Mueller report, Morial said in releasing the Urban League's Annual Report on The State of Black America. "The extent has not been reported."
According to the National Urban League's report, Russians operated on a platform of racism designed to manipulate the 2016 presidential and 2018 midterm elections. Much of Russian interference stemmed from a St. Petersburg-based troll factory, the Internet Research Agency (IRA). Their goal was to distract and divide American voters, demobilize the electorate and depress the vote.
The IRA used social media as a weapon. They created 3,841 Twitter accounts, posting more than 10 million with 73-million engagements, 470 Facebook pages that reached 126 million people, 133 Instagram accounts posting more than 116,000 posts reaching over 20 million users, and over 1,000 videos posted to 17 different Youtube accounts.
"I was stunned by the magnitude and breadth of these activities," said National Urban League President Marc Morial. He wasn't the only one shocked; the room full of Union League leaders gasped when they learned about the atrocities enacted against black people.
The numbers themself are telling, but the content produced by Russia is damning. They created a campaign termed "Blacktivist" and used Facebook and Twitter to amplify racial tensions. Russia capitalized on the integrity of the Black Lives Matter campaign to gain trust and support for their insidious campaign of voter suppression.
The IRA developed internet personalities that functioned off the trust of the Black Lives Matters hashtag, most famously "Woke Louisa" who exploited the NFL take-a-knee debate. The account gained so much traction that it eventually appeared in more than two dozen news stories from BBC, USA Today, Huffington Post, and others.
There were many other accounts similar to "Woke Louisa" that focused on issues related to police brutality. In all, the IRA put out 1063 videos across 10 different channels focusing on Black Lives Matter and police brutality. 571 of these videos had keywords related to the police and focused on abuses.
"They played both sides of police shootings," Morial said. "They played both sides against the middle." They suppressed African Americans, and pushed up right-wing advocates. By playing both sides "against the middle" the Russians intensified political and racial division, destroyed trust in democratic institutions and spread disinformation.
In an interview with us after the release of the report, Murial said Russia's attacks on American democracy are "central to the intentions of Vladimir Putin. They did it to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump."
Morial showed ads in the massive trolls during the 2016 presidential race where IRA falsely told black Americans in convincing posts that looked real from supposed but fake Hillary Clinton sites that they could "Vote from Home" via text message or tweet or Facebook post -- all not allowed. "They did everything in their power to stop African Americans from voting to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump."
Even less known, in addition to social media, Russia was able to hack into 21 different states' actual voter systems and voter lists. Russia may have been able to further purge African American voters, more so than the states already had.
"We're facing a new problem. It's Russia today, but could be China or Saudi Arabia tomorrow. Russia acted on suppression. While the courts and legislatures are in the open and known, the Russian suppression is operating in subterfuge."
For the first time since the 1960s, voting rights are under attack. At this pivotal juncture in history, where in 2020 one-third of the voting body will be comprised of people of color, protection of voting is more important now than ever before.
Morial demanded that officials and agencies tell Putin, "Never again." "We have no voice without the right to vote, but they will not suppress our vote ever again," Morial declared.
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