An exclusive report broadcast by the British TV station Channel 4 on Monday night claimed that Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign used voter data to suppress turnout for Hillary Clinton, especially African-American and other minority ethnic voters.
Channel 4 obtained a huge cache of data on almost 200 million Americans used by the Trump campaign, which found that 3.5 million Black Americans were categorized as “Deterrence.”
These voters were targeted to stay at home via specifically targeted advertising based on data manipulated by algorithms.
Critics of the strategy interviewed by Channel 4 say this amounted to voter suppression, and called on increased transparency from Facebook, where many of the ads were posted.
Channel 4 described the data cache, which contained over 5,000 files and amassed almost 5 terabytes, as “one of the biggest leaks in history.”
The investigation by the British TV station found that Black Americans were disproportionately marked for deterrence, as opposed to other groupings.
Overall, 3.5 million Black Americans were targeted for deterrence.
Channel 4 reported: “In Georgia, despite Black people constituting 32% of the population, they made up 61% of the ‘Deterrence’ category. In North Carolina, Black people are 22% of the population but were 46% of ‘Deterrence’. In Wisconsin, Black people constitute just 5.4% of the population but made up 17% of ‘Deterrence’.”
Once all people of color, including Hispanic, Asian, and “Other” groups, are taken into account, they made up 54% of the Deterrence grouping. Those the Trump campaign sought to win over were overwhelmingly white.
In 2016, Black turnout fell for the first time in 20 years. Trump won key states such as Wisconsin and Michigan by small margins, allowing him to win the electoral college and become president despite losing the popular vote.
Trump’s digital campaign was called Project Alamo. It involved the British company Cambridge Analytica working with the Republican National Committee. Two senior members of Cambridge Analytica are now working on the Trump 2020 campaign.
Following a 2018 investigation by Channel 4, The Observer, and the New York Times, Cambridge Analytica was accused of using underhand tactics.
In 2016, the Trump campaign spent $44 million on Facebook ads, helped by a Facebook employee embedded in the Trump Campaign. Facebook is now facing calls to ban political advertising.
Many of the Facebook ads were so-called “dark posts,” that disappeared from people’s feeds once they stopped being paid for. This meant there was no public record of the ads, or the audience lists used to target voters. There was no “Ad Library” at the time.
The Trump campaign’s 2016 digital director Brad Parscale previously told the US program PBS Frontline: “I would say I’m nearly 100 percent sure we did not run any campaigns that targeted even African Americans.”
Channel 4 disputed this statement. They found that the Trump campaign did indeed target Black Americans with anti-Hillary ads that featured her calling young Black people as “super predators.” Channel 4 also found one confidential document where Cambridge Analytica admitted the Trump campaign did target “AA” – African Americans – with the “Predators video,” spending $55,000 in the state of Georgia alone.
Speaking to Channel 4, Jamal Watkins, vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said: “The thing that’s shocking slash troubling about this is that there’s this category of suppression. That ‘Deterrence’ part. So, we use data – similar to voter file data – but it’s to motivate, persuade and encourage folks to participate. We don’t use the data to say who can we deter and keep at home. That just seems, fundamentally, it’s a shift from the notion of democracy.
“It’s not ‘may the best candidate win’ at that point it’s ‘may the best well-funded machine suppress voters and keep them at home thereby rigging the election so that someone can win’.”
“I don’t believe Facebook has fully disclosed their role, and fully disclosed the types of ads that were run, who was involved and literally how they may have been embedded in, say, the Trump campaign to make this all come to life,” he added.
“Facebook is a very profitable platform. It reaches billions of folks every day. It doesn’t need this kind of money. If it were to monitor and check these suppressive ads and say this is not the platform for this type of misinformation disinformation suppression tactics, Mark Zuckerberg would still live well, and eat well.”
Channel 4 quoted a Facebook spokesperson as saying: “Since 2016, elections have changed and so has Facebook – what happened with Cambridge Analytica couldn’t happen today. We have 35,000 people working to ensure the integrity of our platform, created a political ads library… and have protected more than 200 elections worldwide. We also have rules prohibiting voter suppression and are running the largest voter information campaign in American history.”
Neither the Trump campaign, nor the Republican National Committee, nor the White House provided Channel 4 with any comment before they broadcast their investigation.
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