Finally, here’s an official report that says there were dirty tricks in the 2016 elections, just as we’re hearing about more localized dirty tricks in the elections in November.
The report by cybersecurity experts hired by the Senate Intelligence Committee released on Monday says without hesitation that it was the Russians who used a wide variety of social media outlets to spread disinformation aimed at suppressing the black vote in America and to move conservatives toward candidate Donald Trump. It wasn’t a 400-pound guy on a couch in New Jersey, no matter what Trump says.
“The report adds new details to the portrait that has emerged over the last two years of the energy and imagination of the Russian effort to sway American opinion and divide the country, which the authors said continues to this day,” concluded The New York Times.
Of course, dirty tricks have been part of American elections since there was an American election. Just ask Richard Nixon. Or maybe John Adams.
But suppressing the black vote? That, as any number of critics would note, has been an American tradition all of its own. Just this last cycle, we saw Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp win his election over Democrat Stacy Adams, who is black, simply by a series of actions aimed at disenfranchising black voters all around the state. There’s a congressional race still being contested in North Carolina with dirty tricks so bad for the Republican candidate that the GOP is thinking of disowning the candidate.
The remarkable thing here is the breadth of effort that the Russians undertook to target African-Americans, to try to suppress turnout among Democratic voters and to promote the Trump campaign.
There was no attempt to explain exactly why – other than the obvious – that Russians were targeting African-American voters.
On MSNBC yesterday, pundits were talking about the suppression allegations while simultaneously showing televised clips of candidate Donald Trump repeating much of the same messages as in the Russian voter campaigns. But, there is nothing here in writing to suggest that there was more than a topical link, or “collusion.”
Indeed, “Active and ongoing interference operations remain on several platforms,” says the report by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company based in Austin, Tex. One continuing Russian campaign, for instance, seeks to influence opinion on Syria by promoting Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president and a Russian ally in the brutal conflict there. A second report was written by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University along with Graphika, a company that specializes in analyzing social media.
The Russian influence campaign in 2016 was run by a St. Petersburg company called the Internet Research Agency, owned by a businessman, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who is a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Prigozhin and a dozen of the company’s employees were indicted last February as part of the investigation of Russian interference by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel. Both reports stress that the Internet Research Agency created social media accounts under fake names on virtually every available platform. A major goal was to support Donald Trump, first against his Republican rivals in the presidential race, then in the general election, and as president since his inauguration.
The Russian campaign was the subject of Senate hearings last year and has been widely scrutinized by academic experts. The new reports largely confirm earlier findings: that the campaign was designed to attack Hillary Clinton, boost Trump and deepen divisions in American society.
The Washington Post reported last night that the Senate report also detailed efforts by Russia’s disinformation teams to target Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller IIIas a threat to Trump, falsely claiming that the former FBI director was corrupt and that the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election were crackpot conspiracies.
New Knowledge gave particular attention to the Russians’ focus on African-Americans, which is evident to anyone who examines collections of their memes and messages.
The Internet Research Agency also created a dozen websites disguised as African-American in origin, with names like blackmattersus.com, blacktivist.info, blacktolive.org and blacksoul.us. On YouTube, the largest share of Russian material covered the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality, with channels called “Don’t Shoot” and “BlackToLive.”
The report does not seek to explain the heavy focus on African Americans. But the Internet Research Agency’s tactics echo Soviet propaganda efforts from decades ago that often highlighted racism and racial conflict in the United States, as well as recent Russian influence operations in other countries that sought to stir ethnic strife.
Funny how our longtime embrace of dirty tricks actually comes full circle to show us that they were exploiting our most divisive American politics.
Maybe that’s the worst of it. Russians do American dirty tricks better than we do ourselves.