A brief history of Russia exploiting American racism to manipulate US politics

Russia has tried to manipulate the African American vote for decades.
Russia has tried to manipulate the African American vote for decades.
Image: AP Photo
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A new report (pdf) released today by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Research Project is the most detailed analysis yet of the scope and effect of Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) social media campaign and its impact on America’s elections.

The analysis found that the main goal of the interference was to polarize the American public, in three main ways: by feeding political extremism (particularly for the far right), by spreading incendiary fake news, and by exploiting and exacerbating existing divisions—in particular those of a racial nature.

The IRA’s social media activities campaigned “for African American voters to boycott elections or follow the wrong voting procedures in 2016, and more recently for Mexican American and Hispanic voters to distrust US institutions,” the report found.

African Americans were the majority of users targeted by the IRA (other minorities were engaged significantly only after the election). Of a total of 2,855 ads purchased by the IRA, nearly 1,000—which reached over 13 million users—were about African-American politics or culture. Those messages were much cheaper than ones on other topics, averaging 905 rubles, or $14, per ad, compared with nearly 6,200 rubles, or $93, for ads about conservative politics.

Accounts opened in connection with the website Black Matters (they are now deactivated) helped spread the messages, which misled readers about the voter registration process, encouraged them to boycott the election, and attempted to sow mistrust in established democratic procedures.

While the means may be new, this is actually a tested strategy: Russian agents have been involved in racial relations in the US for decades, both offering legitimate support and exploiting racial tensions to create internal turmoil in the US.

In 1931, for instance, the American Communist Party, with Russian support, was instrumental in the campaign to free the Scottsboro boys, a group of young black men and black children, age 13 to 20, unjustly accused of rape in Alabama and found guilty by an all-white jury despite the victims’ own admission that they had fabricated the crime.

After the the Комитет государственной безопасности (КГБ, or KGB) was formed in the 1950s, the use of media manipulation against the US became a structured practiced, known as aктивные mероприятия (Aktivnyye Meropriyatiya, or active measures), which former KGB general Oleg Kalugin described as the “heart and soul of Soviet intelligence.”

Active measures included the spreading of conspiracy theories and дезинформа́ция (dezinformatsiya, or the active spreading of disinformation).

A 1963 memo for Dean Rusk, the US secretary of state under president John F. Kennedy, breaks down the extent of Russia’s media campaign against the US, which was specifically focused then on racial tension:

Recurrent themes in the Soviet treatment have been: that racism is inevitable in the capitalist system and can only be eradicated along with capitalism itself; that the federal government is actually supporting the racists by its general inertia and because of unwillingness to antagonize Southern Democrats; that the hypocrisy of the US claims to leadership of the free world is laid bare; that US racism is clearly indicative of its policies towards black people around the world.

The tactics, the memo observes, were meant not just to foster antagonism in the US, but to also distract from the Soviet Union’s own poor record of treatment of minorities.

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In the book The Sword and the Shield, intelligence historian Christopher Andrew and former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin note that in 1967, Russian agents worked on conspiracy plots about US president Lyndon Johnson and the civil rights campaign of Martin Luther King Jr., whose work wasn’t good for Russian interests as it specifically sought to not foster violence. After King was assassinated, the KGB fabricated the conspiracy that King’s murder—and Kennedy’s—had been a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) job.

In the US, Russia’s “active measures” continued on through the 1980s. They included fake Jewish Defense League pamphlets containing racial insults directed to black Americans, as well as fake Ku Klux Klan messages aimed at dissuading black participation in the Olympics. Through the years, Russian fabrications convinced at least some of the US citizenry that the American government was conducting mind-control experiments on them through fluoride, or that AIDS was a man-made virus—created, according to the conspiracy theory, as a tool to commit genocide against black people.