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Report: Trump Facebook campaign tried to deter Black voters in 2016 suppression effort

Trump’s data science team profiled mainly Black and minority voters and used the detailed data to target them with ads to convince them not to vote.

Report: Trump Facebook campaign tried to deter Black voters in 2016 suppression effort
[Image: joshborup/Pixabay; OpenClipart-Vectors/Pixabay]

The election victory of political novice Donald Trump in 2016 resulted from a confluence of factors, including Russian disinformation, nationalist political winds, anger at “establishment” politicians, low voter turnout, and the rise of social media as a primary source of news and political messaging. One of the main ingredients in the Trump campaign’s (and the Russian GRU’s) recipe for winning was using social media—primarily Facebook—to convince people not to vote at all.

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While the Russian suppression effort is well documented, less has been proved about the suppression effort conducted on Facebook and Instagram by the Trump campaign and its data firm, Cambridge Analytica. Until now. The British outlet Channel 4 News reports today that it found evidence of a well-organized suppression campaign in a large cache of voter data used by the Trump campaign in 2016.

Within the trove of leaked records detailing almost 200 million voters, Channel 4 found that the campaign labeled 3.5 million mainly Black and other minority voters as “Deterrence,” meaning voters it hoped would stay home on Election Day. Polling data showed that Black voters favored Trump’s 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton by wide margins. Rather than trying to win these voters over, the Trump camp believed it was more possible to convince them that their votes didn’t matter.

Channel 4 says the leaked records contain “huge amounts” of data on each voter and show how the information was used by data scientists to carefully target individual voters with special messaging via ads on Facebook and other social media platforms.

Channel 4 reports that civil rights campaigners are now calling on Facebook to disclose the ads targeting the “Deterrence” audience, along with the data used to target the ads. Facebook told the network in a response to the report that it has since taken steps to address such targeting, and that what happened on Facebook in 2016 “couldn’t happen today.”

We reached out to the Trump campaign for comment and will update if we hear back.

Black and other minority voters were not the only ones included in the “Deterrence” group, but they were widely overrepresented in that group considering their proportion of the overall population.

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In the 2016 election, 4 out of every 10 eligible voters did not cast a vote. Meanwhile, according to Pew Research, 88% of Trump voters in 2016 were white, compared with only 60% for Clinton. “Compared with validated voters, nonvoters were more likely to be younger, less educated, less affluent and nonwhite. And nonvoters were much more Democratic,” Pew notes.

Read more: How Facebook Blew It

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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