Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

Russian Efforts to Exploit Racial Divisions in 2016 Found Firm Ground in U.S., Report Says

By Mihir Zaveri and Jacey Fortin

Russian disinformation operations to exploit racial tensions during the 2016 presidential election in the United States found firm ground in a country where legislators have long sought to suppress the black vote, according to a report released Monday.

The report, “State of Black America,” was released by the National Urban League, a civil rights organization based in New York. It underlined the Russian interference in particular but said that black voting rights were under attack from a wide range of actors, including domestic politicians.

In about two dozen states, voting restrictions have gotten worse since 2010 because of changes including new voter identification laws and decisions to limit locations where voters can cast ballots, the report said.

The report’s findings on the Russian interference drew from academic research and federal investigations to highlight the huge campaign run by a St. Petersburg company called the Internet Research Agency, which deployed thousands of accounts on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

One such account on Twitter, called @WokeLuisa, garnered more than 50,000 followers, and its posts were highlighted by dozens of prominent news outlets, the report said.

The account sought to explicitly and implicitly discourage black voters from going to the polls in an effort to secure Republican victory, even as other Russian-backed efforts bolstered white extremism online, said Marc H. Morial, the president of the National Urban League.

“It was targeted, it was focused,” Mr. Morial said. “It’s intentionally pouring gasoline on racial division.”

The F.B.I. has warned that the threat of Russian interference in American elections persists. Intelligence officials have said that Russia interfered throughout the midterm elections last year, and that those efforts are likely to intensify during the next presidential campaign.

Bret Schafer, the social media analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an initiative to combat efforts to undermine democratic institutions that is housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, wrote about the Russian interference in the report and described @WokeLuisa as one of many fake accounts that impersonated African-American people to exploit pre-existing animosity and discourage voting.

“It’s moving the dial just a couple of degrees in the direction they want it to go,” Mr. Schafer said in an interview. “The anonymity of the internet allows you to be whoever you want to be, and of course you’re going to be far more persuasive if that target audience thinks you’re one of them.”

The report also outlined domestic efforts to both empower and disenfranchise minority voters.

Citing data compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice, the report said that as of March, more than 40 states had passed or were considering bills expanding access to voting, for instance by easing the voter registration process, expanding early voting and giving voting rights to convicted felons.

But domestic restrictions on voting, the vast majority of which are imposed by Republicans, proliferated in many states, the report found. Such moves reflect rising partisanship, societal shifts toward greater diversity, and the weakening of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013.

Mr. Morial said it was not possible to disentangle the Russian interference campaign from other factors that determined black voter turnout in the 2016 election, since both involved racial targeting.

Joel Ford, a former Democratic state senator in North Carolina who was a sponsor of a voter identification bill there, disagreed. “I think that those are two separate issues,” he said. “One is something that we as Americans can control through the legislative process, and the other is foreign interference in our elections.”

Mr. Ford said that as an African-American man, he was sensitive to discriminatory voter suppression tactics. But he called blanket opposition to voter identification laws “an unnecessary political wedge,” in part because it is a state-by-state issue, and laws can be crafted to minimize discrimination.

He added that photo identification was already necessary for activities like banking or flying, and that the bill he supported in North Carolina allowed voters to obtain photo identification cards at no cost. (That bill passed in December after the Legislature overrode the Democratic governor’s veto. Monday’s report named North Carolina as one of the states where voting restrictions have gotten worse.)

The report, which is now in its 43rd annual edition, featured more than 30 other essays written by various authors including scholars, politicians and corporate executives.

It also recommended a number of policy changes, including automatic voter registration, the creation of a national commission to “identify and eliminate foreign interference in the American democratic process,” and postelection auditing to compare paper ballots to computerized tabulations.

And Mr. Morial said he hoped Congress would hold hearings on Russian efforts to target black voters.

“I tell people: Russia today, China tomorrow, Saudi Arabia next week,” he said. “Every country that wants to influence and impact us is going to be playing in our elections.”