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Black voters wait in line on Election Day 2004 in Riviera Beach, Florida. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Black residents of Florida queue to vote at an elementary school in Riviera Beach, Florida on November 2, 2004. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images) 

In Effort to 'Cultivate Hopelessness,' Trump 2016 Campaign Used Facebook for Deterrence Operation Targeting Millions of Black Voters

The social media giant, said one critic, "is the newest frontier in a long history of suppression of the Black vote."

Brett Wilkins

President Donald Trump's 2016 presidential election campaign sought to persuade 3.5 million Black voters in key battleground states to stay home on Election Day by targeting them with negative Facebook ads about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, according to a Monday report on Britain's Channel 4 News.

A massive data leak obtained by the U.K. outlet shows that four years ago Trump's digital campaign team compiled files on 198 million American voters, which included information about their domestic and economic status obtained from market research companies. An algorithm then divided the voters into eight categories, called "audiences," so they could be targeted with tailored ads on Facebook and other social media platforms.

Some 3.5 million Black voters were categorized by the Trump team as "deterrence," meaning the campaign would not try to win their vote but rather discourage them from voting. Voters placed in the deterrence category were thought likely to vote for Clinton, or to stay home. 

People in this group were disproportionately Black. In Georgia, for example, Black people account for around 31% of the state's population, but 61% of people in the deterrence category. Other states' data showed a similar pattern. Overall, people of color made up 54% of voters in the deterrence category. 


The "dark ads" with which the Trump campaign targeted Black voters heavily attacked Clinton, sometimes claiming she was unsympathetic toward Black people. One showed Clinton in 1996 talking about "superpredators," a racist characterization of some Black juvenile offenders for which she later apologized

Clinton, then first lady, supported the 1994 crime bill—co-authored by current Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden—that fueled mass incarceration of mostly people of color. 

The deterrence operation was reportedly devised in part by Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct infamous British black-ops firm that collected the Facebook data of tens of millions of U.S. voters for the Trump campaign in 2016. Cambridge Analytica also employed what it acknowledged were dirty tricks to influence the outcome of elections for its clients around the world.

In July 2017, former Trump digital director and campaign manager Brad Parscale apparently lied while testifying before the House Intelligence Committee about whether the campaign targeted specific voters.

"I did not target by race specifically in GOTV and/or persuasion efforts," Parscale testified under oath, referring to the campaign's get-out-the-vote strategy.

While it is impossible to determine exactly how successful the Trump effort was, Black voter turnout was eight points lower in 2016 than in 2012. This, however, could be because President Barack Obama, who was tremendously popular with Black Americans, could not run for president again.

Facebook insists that a repeat of the Cambridge Analytica scandal "couldn't happen today." 

"Since 2016 elections have changed and so has Facebook," the social media giant said in a statement on Monday, adding that it has implemented "rules prohibiting voter suppression" and is "running the largest voter information campaign in American history." 

Civil rights leaders and other racial justice advocates called the Channel 4 report the latest chapter in a centuries-old story of Black voter disenfranchisement and suppression.

Jamal Watkins, vice president of the NAACP, told Channel 4 that there is a troubling difference between targeting people for their votes—which his organization does—and attempting to stop them from voting.

"We use data—similar to voter file data—but it's to motivate, persuade, and encourage folks to participate," Watkins said. "We don't use the data to say who can we deter and keep at home. That just seems, fundamentally, [like] it's a shift from the notion of democracy."

Harvard professor Dr. Cornel West called the deterrence campaign "a particular manifestation... [via] the voting booth of suppression, containment, and trying to cultivate helplessness, to cultivate hopelessness."

In a statement, Collette Watson, vice president of cultural strategy at Free Press Action, called on Facebook to "come clean":

We now have the receipts on the ways Donald Trump's 2016 campaign used Facebook to target Black voters and suppress their vote. Facebook needs to come clean about the role it played in discouraging Black voters in 2016, and may continue to be playing in 2020.

Facebook is the newest frontier in a long history of suppression of the Black vote, dating back to the poll taxes of the Jim Crow South and still evident in the recent decision revoking the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people in Florida. We know there are forces in this country who want to take away Black folks' right to vote. The question is whether Facebook's leaders are content providing the tools that make digital racist disenfranchisement possible.

The Trump campaign spent tens of millions of dollars on Facebook political ads in the 2016 campaign. Facebook was willing to pocket this money but has chosen not to be transparent about the ads. As we approach another contentious election it's time for Facebook to make good on its commitment to fight racism and disinformation. It must submit for an independent race-equity audit all 2016, 2018, and 2020 political ads placed by local, state and federal candidates, including their related targeting data.

Annette Clinton, one of the targeted Black voters in Wisconsin—which Trump won by 0.8%told Channel 4 that news of the Trump campaign's suppression effort "makes me want to go out and vote more, actually."

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