In 2018, it was revealed that the campaign to elect Donald Trump worked with Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm notorious for collecting the personal information of tens of millions of Facebook users without their permission. Now, we have a much better understanding of how the company used that information to boost Trump's election efforts. According to a new report from Channel 4 News, Cambridge Analytica worked with the Trump campaign to dissuade millions of Black Americans from voting by targeting them with advertisements critical of Hillary Clinton.
According to the report, the Trump campaign created psychological profiles for millions of Americans in 16 swing states. Using an algorithm, those voters were sorted into eight different categories ranging from core supporters most likely to turn out for their preferred candidate to "deadbeats" who were unlikely to cast a vote. One of the categories created by the algorithm was called "deterrence." This label was applied to segments of the database that the Trump campaign wanted to deter from casting a vote. As many as 3.5 million Black Americans were reportedly sorted into this group.
Voters placed in the "deterrence" category were subject to targeted advertising campaigns, primarily on Facebook but also on other social platforms, that aimed to introduce some of Hillary Clinton's most upsetting and controversial comments. The effort included sharing Clinton's "superpredators" speech, in which she claimed that so-called "superpredators" with "no conscience, no empathy" were committing crimes across the country, a statement that has often been attributed to being a description of Black youth.
Trump has publicly bragged that the Black vote played a significant role in his election victory, even going so far as to thank Black people for not turning out for Clinton. But officials working for the Trump campaign have long denied that they underwent any efforts to limit turnout among Black voters, who overwhelmingly voted for Clinton in 2016. Brad Parscale, the digital director of the 2016 Trump presidential campaign, told PBS Frontline, “I would say I’m nearly 100 percent sure we did not run any campaigns that targeted even African Americans.”
The latest findings published by Channel 4, however, suggest that there was a clear effort to suppress the Black vote. According to the news organization, Black voters made up a disproportionate percent of the "Deterrence" category. In Georgia, 61 percent of those targeted for deterrence campaigns were Black, despite only making up 32 percent of the state's population.
It's no secret that the Trump campaign spent a ton of money advertising on social media, particularly on Facebook, where it spent $44 million during the 2016 election cycle and posted millions of advertisements. It's also known that Facebook allowed advertisers to target users on the basis of race, a practice that the company repeatedly came under fire for and finally put an end to earlier this year. But finding the Trump campaign's ads aimed at Black voters in 2016 is complicated. The ads were removed after the campaign stopped paying to run them and Facebook didn't launch its Ad Library, which contains an archived history of advertisements, until last year, so there is no public record of the deterrence campaigns.
Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told Digital Trends the report "is fake news." Facebook did not respond to Mic’s request for comment but, through a spokesperson, the company told Channel 4 News that it has "rules prohibiting voter suppression." Additionally, the spokesperson claimed, "what happened with Cambridge Analytica couldn’t happen today" because of changes the company has made since 2016. That statement would almost be reassuring if it weren't for the entirety of the last four years.