Russian Facebook ads and fake accounts used to manipulate voters in the 2016 follow a distinct pattern: inflaming racial tension in purple states.
The tactics demonstrate the unique vulnerabilities within our presidential election system regarding the “winner-take-all” method.
Of the roughly 3,500 ads published this week, more than half — about 1,950 — made express references to race. Those accounted for 25 million ad impressions — a measure of how many times the spot was pulled from a server for transmission to a device.
At least 25% of the ads centered on issues involving crime and policing, often with a racial connotation. Separate ads, launched simultaneously, would stoke suspicion about how police treat black people in one ad, while another encouraged support for pro-police groups.
The goal was subtle: to turn voters against voting:
Young Mie Kim, a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher who published some of the first scientific analysis of social media influence campaigns during the election, said the ads show that the Russians are attempting to destabilize Western Democracy by targeting extreme identity groups.
"Effective polarization can happen when you’re promoting the idea that, ‘I like my group, but I don’t like the other group’ and pushing distance between the two extreme sides," Kim said. “And we know the Russians targeted extremes and then came back with different negative messages that might not be aimed at converting voters, but suppressing turnout and undermining the democratic process.”
Last October, the New York Post reported the success of this anti-democratic campaign in two key swing states:
“Russian internet trolls used Facebook ads during the 2016 presidential election to specifically target voters in Michigan and Wisconsin — two perennial swing states that helped give Donald Trump the victory, a report says.”
President Trump won Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania with a combined margin of 80,000 votes.
This February, the extent of the strategy came into greater focus.
Defendants and their co-conspirators learned from the real US person that they should focus their activities on "purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida."
As explained in Politico, “The indictment alleges that the Russians then began using the term “purple states” in subsequent planning.”
The purple states, the 10 states that are later are narrowed down to 5 or 6 in presidential elections, are a result of the winner-take-all method used primarily since 1824, but not included in the US Constitution. Whereas as recently as the early 1990's the majority of states were contested in presidential general elections, in the last several election cycles population growth and polarization has narrowed them down to a handful of states.
But what if we changed the rules so that the winner was always the person who got the most votes nationally? The election then would not turn on the outcome in a handful of closely divided states, easily identifiable by individuals seeking to manipulate voters. Instead, margins in every state would determine the victor. A national election for president would make attacks on our democracy, like those we saw in 2016, a whole lot harder.
Connecticut took us a step toward that reality this year when it became the 11th state to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. As Senate President Martin Looney explained in an interview earlier this year with Making Every Vote Count, the urgency of passing the law had a lot to do with vulnerabilities laid bare in 2016 by Russian actors:
“The new issue that arrives this year is the concern about tampering with elections and the allegations about the Russians in blogging, fake news, all the ways they sought to discredit Hillary Clinton in the last election and they focused their efforts primarily on the swing states, the small number of states that everyone new that were in play.”
Meanwhile, the rules haven't changed and the “cat and mouse” struggle to stop Russians from manipulating American politics through social media continues. Earlier this week, Facebook continued to cancel accounts that were an “echo of Russian activities on the platform during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign."
“The social media giant on Tuesday said it removed 32 pages and accounts from its main service and Instagram photo-sharing from its main service and Instagram photo-sharing app that were created between March 2017 and May of this year. The pages and accounts—which include such names as “Aztlan Warriors,” “Black Elevation” and “Resisters,” and largely targeted causes on the left—collectively created more than 9,500 posts and were followed by more than 290,00 other Facebook accounts. The accounts also promoted 30 real-world events.”
"Facebook Deletes Suspect Accounts,"Wall St. Journal, 8/1/18
But we are a long way from fixing our presidential election system’s greatest weaknesses in time for 2020.