Press Release: Facebook Ads that Targeted Voters Centered on Black American Culture with Voter Suppression as the End Game

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For Immediate Release
October 11, 2018
Contact: Shireen Mitchell, 202-642-1881

Stop Online Violence Against Women Report: Facebook Ads that Targeted Voters Centered on Black American Culture with Voter Suppression as the End Game.

 

Washington, DC— Today, Stop Online Violence Against Women released a report analyzing the 3,500 ads released by Congress that were bought by the Russian Internet Research Agency on Facebook. This report, using a brand new data visualization, reveals that the race-based focus of the Russian-purchased ads, which has been acknowledged in some reporting and previous studies, were in fact majority-focused on the themes of Black Identity and culture. The Black Identity ads were used in two-fold purpose, to engage in voter suppression of Black voters, while boosting voter turnout of White voters.

“When the ads were released to the public the initial analysis revealed racial division and discord, what wasn’t discovered were the tactics and the targets of these ads, says Shireen Mitchell, Founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women “This report not only puts the targets in perspective but includes a timeline of how long these activities were unnoticed before the 2016 election.”

The data visualization reveals linkages between Black Identity keywords and other topics. The overall positive messages for Black cultural identity on the platform lead to voter-suppression tactics of Black voters while the same messages, connected to other groups, were used to exacerbate racial tensions in order to motivate voters to get out the vote.

“When Congress released the 3,500 Facebook IRA ads, Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election through social media came into clearer focus,” says Whitney Phillips, Assistant Professor of Communication, Culture, and Digital Technologies in Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University. Phillips is also the author of the three-part series, “The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators Online.

“Published reports have shown that these ads were focused on weaponizing racial identity and stoking cultural tensions,” says Phillips. “This report from SOVAW reveals the extent to which Black American culture was specifically targeted, with the explicit goal of suppressing voter turnout. It also contextualizes these efforts alongside racist media manipulation and disinformation campaigns spanning a half-decade. The report emphasizes the persistent threat these efforts pose to black voter turnout in the upcoming 2018 midterms and beyond.”

While the midterm elections quickly approaches, there is a lot of attention on the parties efforts for voter turnout, but almost no attention to the currently active voter suppression campaigns. As political ads have become embedded in the technology ecosystem there are several voting blocks targeted for voter suppression based solely on identity.

The election is days away and we are still unclear on how Russia’s political ads influenced communities of color during the presidential election,” says McKensie Mack, Director of Art+Feminism. “This report presents a new look at the 3,500 ads released by Congress. The data visualization shows the overwhelming focus of ads on Black Identity. We know that Black voters are one of the most critical keys to elections in the United States, and it seems Russia did as well.”

“The sobering analysis in this report documents that Russian ads were overwhelming focused on Black American Culture, and often specifically on Black women with the goal of voter suppression,” says Jessie Daniels, Professor of Sociology at The City University of New York, and a Fellow at The Data & Society Research Institute. “This report is an urgently needed reminder that we ignore the way racism is woven into technology at our own peril.”

Facebook has reluctantly admitted to missing the mark on data privacy through apps, a data breach that affected 90 million users revealed a few weeks ago, and they are continuing to remove and ban accounts of real activists. Facebook’s goals of growth, valuation, scaling and increasing users are currently at odds with the bad actors on the platform.

“We are fully aware that user growth and scale equates to increased accounts, impressions and people on these platforms,” says Kaliya Young, co-founder of the Internet Identity Workshop and co-founder of Human First Tech. “However, there is a misconception about how this affects digital identity and how cultural identity is used on these platforms. This isn’t just about algorithms it’s about human persuasion. This report reveals how it was impossible for the platform algorithms to keep up with artificial versions of Black Cultural identity.”

Although many of the ads were documented through Facebook these targeted attacks weren’t only discovered after the election. Twitter, YouTube, Google, Tumblr, Instagram were all participants in the coordination of the overall voter suppression campaign that targeted Black identity.

“What’s striking is the degree to which the importance of the Black vote is understood and was specifically targeted by outside hostile entities in their attempt to sway election outcomes,” says Avis A. Jones-DeWeever, Ph.D., Author, How Exceptional Black Women Lead. “Clearly, Black votes matter.  And the integrity of our voting power needs to be protected.”

“IRA content targeting black communities on Facebook showed a clear intent to depress the black vote by suggesting that black voters stay home,” says Renee DiResta, Director of Research, New Knowledge. Statements by tech executives in the Congressional hearings suggested that Russia focused on a wide range of targets; while that’s true, interest-based ad targeting on Facebook focused overwhelmingly on the Black community and Black American culture. This report highlights that disparity, and makes it clear how important it is for tech companies to be vigilant and proactive in engaging Black researchers going forward.”

The Stop Online Violence Against Women’s report is available here.

Stop Online Violence Against Women addresses inadequate laws and policies that lack protections for women in particular women of color. We focus on online violence against women, laws and policy changes needed at the local, federal levels. We also focus on technology and social media company accountability. SOVAW serves as a resource of services and options for women and women of color, based on their level of harassment or violence. We report on the diverse issues and impacts for women who are willing to share their stories.

For more information, contact Shireen Mitchell, founder at 202-642-1881 or [email protected]

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