According to a huge new data leak acquired by the U.K.'s Channel 4 News, Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign categorized 3.5 million Black Americans as “Deterrence,” a category of voters who the campaign felt they could convince to not vote at all.
The Trump campaign divided millions of potential voters in 16 battleground states into eight different categories before the 2016 election. Each different category, called “audiences,” was targeted with different tailored ads on Facebook and other sites. Those in the “Deterrence” audience were sent misleading ads discouraging them from voting at all.
Black voters, as well as other voters of color, were disproportionately placed in the “Deterrence” audience. In Georgia, Black people make up only 32 percent of the population, but 61 percent of the state’s “Deterrence” category. North Carolina has a 22 percent Black population but 46 percent Black “Deterrence” audience, and Wisconsin has only a 5.4 percent Black population but 17 percent of the state’s “Deterrence” audience was Black. Overall, people of color made up 54 percent of the Trump campaign’s “Deterrence” category.
The 2016 election saw the largest drop in Black voter turnout on record, dropping to 59.6 percent from 66.6 percent in 2012. So even though Trump got just 8 percent of the Black vote, more white people and fewer Black people voting in swing states enabled Trump to secure an Electoral College victory. According to the Williams Institute, 13 percent of registered LGBTQ+ voters are Black.
Many of the ads that were aimed at these voters were “dark posts,” ads that disappear from a user’s feed once the campaign stops paying for them, meaning that there’s no way to go back and look at which specific ads were sent to which potential voters. Facebook does not have a public record of ads posted on the site in 2016.
Controversial British company Cambridge Analytica, which has since ceased operations, was heavily involved in Trump’s digital campaign. Channel 4 uncovered a confidential document from the company admitting the campaign targeted “AA” (African-American voters) with an ad featuring Hillary Clinton calling gang members “super predators,” verbiage seen by many as racially-charged. The ad received millions of views on Facebook in October 2016.
Jamal Watkins, vice president of the NAACP called the moves by the Trump campaign modern-day suppression. “It’s not ‘may the best candidate win’ at that point,” he said, “it’s ‘may the best well-funded machine suppress voters and keep them at home thereby rigging the election so that someone can win.”
He also called out Facebook for their role in voter suppression. He says Facebook had no motivation to run the ads from a business point of view. “(Facebook) doesn’t need this kind of money.” he told Channel 4, “If it were to monitor and check these suppressive ads and say this is not the platform for this type of misinformation, disinformation, suppression tactictics, Mark Zuckerberg would still live well and eat well.”
Through a spokesperson, Facebook said they have changed how they accept and give platform to political ads and that “what happened with Cambridge Analytica couldn’t happen today.” The site now has a political ads library to ensure a record of ads placed on the site, new rules prohibiting voter suppression, and 35,000 people working on campaign ad integrity.
Very predictably, Trump’s Communications Director Tim Murtaugh called Channel 4’s report “fake news.”