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Although you may have already heard plenty about the Russian effort to turn African Americans off from voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016, there are some aspects I’d like to explore in some greater depth. To recap, through a company called the Internet Research Agency, Putin’s Russia promoted Donald Trump’s candidacy through various social media efforts, but of all of their tactics, one stood out:

The most prolific I.R.A. efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted black American communities and appear to have been focused on developing black audiences and recruiting black Americans as assets,” the report says. Using Gmail accounts with American-sounding names, the Russians recruited and sometimes paid unwitting American activists of all races to stage rallies and spread content, but there was a disproportionate pursuit of African-Americans, it concludes.

The [Senate] report says that while “other distinct ethnic and religious groups were the focus of one or two Facebook Pages or Instagram accounts, the black community was targeted extensively with dozens.” In some cases, Facebook ads were targeted at users who had shown interest in particular topics, including black history, the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X. The most popular of the Russian Instagram accounts was @blackstagram, with 303,663 followers.

The Internet Research Agency also created a dozen websites disguised as African-American in origin, with names like blackmattersus.com, blacktivist.info, blacktolive.org and blacksoul.us. On YouTube, the largest share of Russian material covered the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality, with channels called “Don’t Shoot” and “BlackToLive.”

Without question, this campaign could not have struck a chord if the issues being raised by #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) and other activist groups were not vitally important ones. The Russians twisted real issues into propaganda that painted Hillary Clinton as, at best, no better than Donald Trump—and at worst, well, even worse. Was this absurd? Of course.

After seeing what turned out to be Russian-created content, BLM leader Alicia Garza could tell that its creators were not people who, shall we say, had African Americans’ best interests at heart. Nevertheless, she didn’t suspect that a foreign government was behind it: “My suspicion was spamming, and not ‘Holy shit, another government is trying to influence the results of the elections in the United States.’”

Given Trump’s long, long history of racist rhetoric and racist actions—going back to the 1970s—a campaign designed to present him as less racist than Hillary was not going to be taken seriously if presented through traditional media with things people outside the Trump-Putin axis of untruth referred to as facts. However, that’s not what this campaign was. The Russians obviously believed that, through a more underground strategy that relied on social media, a “pox on both your houses” argument—one that said neither was substantively better than the other on race, offered some potential. In the waning days of the election, the Russian efforts to influence the black vote focused specifically on getting its target audience to reject voting for the candidate they may have seen as the lesser of two evils, and instead to vote for a supposedly superior alternative. Moscow pushed for African Americans to vote for Jill Stein:

Two days before the 2016 presidential election, an Instagram account called @woke_blacks posted a message in support of long-shot Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

“The excuse that a lost Black vote for Hillary is a Trump win is bs,” it read. “It could be late, but y’all might want to support Jill Stein instead.”

The Russians presented voting for Stein as the principled choice, as seen in another popular phrase that appeared in a great number of messages: “Grow a spine and vote Jill Stein.” These messages only make sense if people are able to be convinced that the party that nominated Barack Obama, the party that has, for all its flaws on race, pushed hard—in particular in contrast to their Republican opponents—for civil rights, voting rights, and equal rights more broadly for decades is somehow indistinguishable from the party of Donald Trump. The fact that anyone could believe such a message does suggest that Democrats have not done enough on civil rights both in terms of substance and getting their message out.

Let’s get something very clear. Criticizing Democrats on race is not only acceptable, it’s necessary to continue moving our country forward. Any politician, including a progressive, who fails to live up to the core values of fighting racism, discrimination, and systemic white supremacy, needs to be called out. If progressives don’t work hard in that fight, no one else will, so it is imperative that they do so.

Constructive criticism also assumes that progress is possible. It recognizes that some politicians can be moved by such criticism, or even if they are not moved on principle, they can be convinced that their prospects for victory in the next election depend on their moving. But there’s a huge difference between that rhetoric and the kind that pretends progress is impossible because Democrats don’t really care any more than Republicans. That kind of language is counter-productive, whether coming from Jill Stein, or Russians pretending to be real civil rights activists, or from well-meaning folks who really do want to achieve positive change.

If there’s never been progress, or if the progress is just an illusion, and both sides are equally to blame for and invested in white supremacy, then it really would be better to blow up the system than to work within it for change. And if we should just blow up the system, then voting for Hillary as opposed to Trump really doesn’t matter, so why not “grow a spine and vote for Jill Stein,” right?

Of course not only is such rhetoric politically harmful to the cause of anti-racism, but it’s also simply incorrect. That’s why Barack Obama always spoke about race in America as an issue where we’ve seen great progress, but one where we still have far to go. As the 44th president has said many times: “we shouldn’t forget that better is not good enough.” Electoral politics is only one part of the fight for civil rights and racial justice, but it is a vital one. The American people need to know which party and which candidates will do more to make things better, and choose accordingly.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity (Potomac Books).

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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