You just received a follow request: a grad of your local HBCU. This person isn’t familiar, but a quick search shows them out and about in your city or on campus. The user also follows some of the same profiles you do: black politicians, pundits, athletes and celebrities, and even some of the same college classmates and professional acquaintances.
You accept their request. You just befriended a Russian bot.
This phenomenon, part of a propaganda campaign by Russia to specifically target African Americans, is credited with reducing black voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election. And new report from Stop Online Violence Against Women (SOVAW) warns that failure to recognize the power of this tactic could make black voters more vulnerable as these fake accounts now evolve in 2019 to a new influence strategy.
“While the race-based focus of the Russian-purchased ads has been acknowledged in some reporting and previous studies, it has not been pointed out that the themes of black identity and culture were the focus of the majority of the ads with the intent to engage in voter suppression of black voters,” Shireen Mitchell, the organization’s founder and report co-author stated in a press release.
She adds that the goal is still the same: perpetuate voter apathy among black millennials by infiltrating popular social media platforms with criticism of the U.S. government and 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Only this time, their targets aren’t on Facebook or Twitter. Bots are also now slowly and methodically engaging with black users directly in comment and discussion threads of popular black blog sites like The Shade Room and their social pages.
“There are real black people criticizing these candidates rightfully, but there are also fake accounts out there just looking to take advantage of any tension they can find in the community,” Mitchell told BuzzFeed News.
According to New Knowledge, a Texas-based cybersecurity company, along with researchers at Columbia University and Canfield Research, the 2016 disinformation campaign by the Russian Internet Research Agency achieved surprising levels of success. Russian accounts pretending to be pro-black activists and news sources capitalized on existing distrust of Democrats and the Clinton family among young black Americans, impacting voter turnout in key swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania — where President Donald Trump won by narrow margins over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The report insists “active and ongoing interference operations remain on several platforms.”
Now, Russians appear laser focused on another strategy: enlisting bots to pit African Americans (those descended from slaves brought to specifically to the U.S.) against other black Americans including Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino and African communities through controversial policy issues like reparations and immigration.
On platforms like Instagram and Twitter, nativist movements like the American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) claim that African American voters should back politicians that exclusively support African American communities. SOVAW’s findings and reports from Buzzfeed indicate many of these activist accounts originate in Russia. ADOS’s founder Antonio Moore rejects this notion.
“To claim that this movement comes back from Russians is a disgrace. What this is is a smear campaign to suppress our voices to ask what these candidates’ ADOS agenda is going to look like,” Moore told BuzzFeed.
Bots, at times, can be easily detected: usernames are often randomized with long threads of numbers. A reverse image search can also show profile pictures stolen from stock images and online libraries. Overtime, bot accounts even became known for their laughable inability to mimic the African-American lexicon.
“It’s the indication that they are someone who is born as a descendant in the United States who’s representing black America and has the vernacular and the language that people would believe is someone who is a part of our community,” Mitchell told MSNBC in a segment about ADOS.
Whitney Phillip, a professor at Mercer University offered tips to NPR on how to pinpoint possibly fake black profiles, warning that in addition to using stereotypical black language, the profiles often experience, sometimes, years-long gaps in activity. Fake accounts most times have few followers or only recently signed up for the social platform. She says the goal is simple.
"Discord and confusion and essentially make people of color look bad," she said. "That's what a lot of the behaviors are designed to do."