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Racist ‘Russians’ targeted African-Americans in 2016 election ploy, reports claim

Racist ‘Russians’ targeted African-Americans in 2016 election ploy, reports claim
Low voter turnout among African-Americans is usually blamed on purged voter rolls or decades of socioeconomic stasis – but in 2016, ‘evil’ Russia was the main culprit, according to two controversial reports for the US Senate.

Though described as “Senate reports” by mainstream US media outlets, the two documents were actually compiled by third parties. The first was produced by a consultancy called New Knowledge, with the help of two other researchers, while the second was done by a group at Oxford University and the UK research firm Graphika.

By the social media giants’ own admission, the criteria for labeling posts as “Russian” is so broad as to be practically meaningless. That hasn’t stopped the authors of the two reports, though, who saw President Vladimir Putin’s fingerprints on every keyboard and under every bed. In particular, they argued, the “Russians” sought to depress the 2016 turnout by targeting Black Americans.

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Both groups relied on posts provided to the US government by Twitter, Facebook and Google and identified as coming from the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), also known as the “troll factory.”

“These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African-American community was to boycott the election and focus on other issues instead,” said the Oxford report.

“The most prolific IRA efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted black American communities and appear to have been focused on developing black audiences and recruiting black Americans as assets,” says the New Knowledge report.

While some African-American activists saw the reports as recognition of their community’s influence in US politics, others pointed out that blaming the “Russians” downplayed very real and long-standing racism in American society.

The New Knowledge report says that 30 of the 81 Facebook pages created by the IRA targeted African-American audiences, attracting 1.2 million followers - slightly less than the 1.4 million followers of 25 pages appealing to Republicans.

Only seven pages focused on Democrats in general, amounting to less than 700,000 followers; those pages promoted Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein, while criticizing the party’s anointed candidate Hillary Clinton.

Both mainstream media journalists and “Russiagate” conspiracy pushers cited the two reports as vindication of their work since 2016.

There has been some skepticism, however, about the reports’ methodology and the researchers’ own bias and sources of funding and direction. For example, New Knowledge describes itself as an outfit specializing in “disinformation defense.” Its co-founder and chief operations officer Ryan Fox - whose name is on the report - “spent 15 years at the NSA” and before that was a computer network operations (CNO) analyst for the US Army’s Joint Special Operation Command (JSOC).

Jonathon Morgan, the company’s CEO and co-founder, is a former State Department adviser on “digital counter-terrorism” who has written for the New York Times, NBC, NPR, Wired, CNN, The Guardian, and VICE.

An advance copy of the New Knowledge report was provided to the Times ahead of its publication on Monday. The Washington Post was given similar access to the Oxford report. Both publications had predicted an easy Clinton victory in 2016 and were caught by surprise by Trump’s triumph.

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