How Russia uses racial divides to undermine American democracy

How Russia uses racial divides to undermine American democracy
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The Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of the Russian Internet Research Agency showcased how African Americans were the target of influence operations ahead of the 2016 election. The most prolific efforts had “specifically targeted” African American communities by spreading divisive messages and disinformation with the goal of separating black voters from political engagement. This should have come as no surprise.

The Soviet Union playbook of in the past was like the one Russia used in 2016 and will likely use again in 2020. Racial fault lines across the United States are a vulnerability that Russia exploits to undermine our democracy and weaken our moral authority to conduct sound foreign policy. African Americans must understand that Russian propaganda is not intended to improve racial inequalities. Meanwhile, the United States must work to reconcile its past and address ongoing racial injustice. If left unattended, Russia will continue to use legitimate grievances as a weapon against us.

Before the Cold War, destabilizing Soviet Union activities ranged from advocating for a “separate communist nation for negros in the Black Belt” of the United States, to making posters in support of releasing the group known as the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in the 1930s. These efforts are like the Internet Research Agency sponsoring memes taking the Black Lives Matters slogan “hands up don’t shoot” and calling for black unity against a repressive regime. The propaganda is meant to delegitimize the image of the United States both at home and abroad. The Soviet Union wanted to position itself as a superior alternative, while the Kremlin today wants to show the world that the United States is as unjust and corrupt as Russia.

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While motives may have shifted over the decades, the exploitability of racial grievances remains a constant. To underscore the nefariousness of these campaigns, look at how the Soviet Union attempted to subvert the civil rights movement and recruit blacks to the Communist Party with the intention of fomenting a communist revolution during the Cold War. The KGB assumed it could use icons like Martin Luther King Jr. to promote leftist policies. However, when it realized he was a champion of our democracy, the KGB ran a smear campaign against him, placing ads in black newspapers describing him as an “Uncle Tom” and a “sell out.”

In 2016, Russia employed similar tactics when it tried to recruit black activists online through websites such as “BlackMattersUS.com” or the “Blacktivist” Facebook group. As was done with King, the social media bots linked to the Internet Research Agency would occasionally posed as African Americans deriding President Obama for his supposed lack of commitment to the black community. These Russian actions were never meant to empower African Americans. Instead, they are an attempt to get 13 percent of the population to harbor damaging views. Worse yet, such Russian efforts potentially had the outcome of suppressing black votes by sponsoring messaging attacking Hillary Clinton on social media. This is no different than the outcomes of restrictive voter legislation here at home.

The good news is that the way to mitigate the effectiveness of online campaigns targeting minorities is to address racial injustice. In the 1960s, State Department officials were frustrated that the situation at home was making it impossible to do foreign policy in a world where the majority were people of color. The passage of the Civil Rights Act tackled racial injustice and greatly hurt the ability of the Soviet Union to promote propaganda spotlighting the blatant hypocrisies of the United States. Once people of color received these rights in the 1960s, American diplomats were in a better position and had the moral authority to promote Western values through their work in the developing world.

To counter the believability of disinformation, we need to address racial grievances and the established precedence from which disinformation is derived. For many, the logic goes that if the federal government can knowingly test the syphilis virus against African American men under the guise of free health care, it is not that hard for many to believe the federal government is capable of creating the AIDS virus in a military laboratory or was creating an ethnic bioweapon that could only kill black people. Both were Soviet disinformation and made it difficult for the United States to promote democracy, human rights, and free markets across Africa.

Addressing basic racial disparities will help discredit disinformation. Holding police officers who shoot unarmed people of color accountable will strip Russia of using that to undermine our national security. The United States would have stronger moral standing to advocate for the release of a million Chinese Uyghur Muslims in “reeducation camps” if discriminatory policing methods did not unfairly place millions of people of color in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. If the United States wants to strengthen national security, it must address injustices at home first.

Kevin Fashola is a visiting fellow with the Defending Democratic Institutions project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is also a policy fellow with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.