Using digital technology to systematically violate the right to vote: How the Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign used AI to suppress the votes of Black Americans

by Danica Damplo, Universal Rights Group NYC New and emerging technologies, Thematic human rights issues

29th September 2020

On 28 September, the UK’s Channel 4 News revealed that it had obtained a data cache used by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, which contained evidence that the campaign had sought to digital technology to deter 3.5 million Black Americans by targeting them with tailored, negative ads.

While digital tools and social media platforms can in principle strengthen the enjoyment of civil and political rights; too often, as URG Director Marc Limon recently argued in this blog, it has been those who wish to use technology to tighten control, promote narrow self-interest, and undermine human rights who have moved quickest to seize the opportunities presented by digital age. The 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK and the 2016 Presidential poll in the US both highlighted the inadequacy of current electoral laws and institutions in the face of such digital threats to democracy. Most worryingly, the absence of any kind of response from the UK and US Governments in the years since, and the lack of any kind of accountability for those responsible, suggests that the political elites in these and other democratic societies are either shockingly complacent or, more likely, are actively protecting this new status quo – because, quite simply, they are its main beneficiaries.

‘Modern-day voter suppression campaign’

According to Channel 4 News, the data cache shows that ‘the 2016 Trump campaign separated Americans in key States into one of eight categories so that they could then be targeted with tailored ads on Facebook and other digital platforms.’ The ‘Deterrence’ category has been described publicly by Trump’s chief data scientist as housing the personal information of those who the campaign hoped wouldn’t show up to the polls on election day. As Channel 4 reports:

Black Americans were disproportionately marked ‘Deterrence’ by the 2016 campaign. Overall, people of colour labelled as Black, Hispanic, Asian and ‘Other’ groups made up 54% of the ‘Deterrence’ category. In contrast, other categories of voters the campaign wished to attract were overwhelmingly white.

Donald Trump won the election in 2016 by very narrow margins , losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. The election saw a reduced turnout among black Americans – the first time this had happened in 20 years.

While the Trump campaign has claimed that it did not target Black Americans, Channel 4 News says that the data cache they discovered demonstrates that the campaign did indeed ‘target Black voters with negative ads designed to reduce turnout for Hilary Clinton.’ They note that: ‘The Trump campaign spent £44 million on Facebook ads alone during 2016, posting almost six million different versions of highly targeted messages that were pumped directly into the feeds of target voters across America, helped by a Facebook employee embedded within the Trump campaign.’

Black Americans have historically been targeted by voter suppression campaigns, and according to Channel 4, Jamal Watkins, Vice President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) responded to the report by calling it a ‘modern-day voter suppression campaign, using data and digital technology to keep Black voters at home.’

In response to Channel 4’s findings, a Facebook spokesperson insisted that Facebook has changed since 2016, that they have over 35,000 staff working to ensure ‘the integrity’ of the platform, and have rules prohibiting voter suppression.

Read more of the Channel 4 report here.

Looking ahead (35 days to the US election)

These findings by Channel 4 News indicate how modern-day elections may be affected by new technology, and that the use of data and digital technology does not itself guarantee that processes will be free from the prejudices and preferences of human beings. On the contrary, these digital tools can and have served as sophisticated channels for manipulation, discrimination and, in the case of the 2016 US elections, replicating racist voter suppression strategies on digital platforms, where, absent data like that uncovered by Channel 4 news, they may be harder to detect or prohibit. It also amplifies the need for a stronger understanding of the role of race and racism, including in the social media news ecosystem, in ensuring election credibility and fulfilling the civil and political rights of American minority communities.

In August of this year, the US Senate released a final report on its investigation into Russian interference in American elections using social media. The report criticised major US technology companies, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google, for helping spread misinformation during the 2016 Presidential polls, and pushed them to better coordinate to prevent a repeat during the 2020 elections. The Republican Party, and in particular Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has kept the US Senate, however, paralysed in terms of actively seeking to prevent election interference.

Also in August, Facebook launched a Voting Information Center on Facebook and Instagram, to provide Americans with neutral and accurate election information, and also began adding labels to election-related posts with links to official information. URG has reported on other steps taken (and not taken) by social media companies to contend with disinformation and hate speech on their platforms, but actions taken, while welcome, have often been marred by revelations of failure or insufficiency. In response to the Channel 4 News revelations, Mr. Watkins of the NAACP said: ‘I don’t believe Facebook has fully disclosed their role, and fully disclosed the types of ads that were run, who was involved and literally how they may have been embedded in, say, the Trump campaign to make this all come to life.’

Civil rights leaders have called for Facebook’s cooperation in light of the Channel 4 reports to make public any relevant information. Hopefully that cooperation happens and can provide useful insight into the new frontier of digital voter suppression, though likely not in time to affect the US election this November, with early voting already open in some US States.

For more the US election and human rights, check out the following:

For 18% of Americans social media is their main source of news – what does this mean for the presidential elections?

Is digital technology rotting British and American democracy from the inside out

US presidential candidates set out markedly different positions on human rights, the Human Rights Council and the UN

What the ‘US Commission on Unalienable Rights’ gets wrong about the UN

‘The stakes couldn’t be higher’: social media, disinformation, and the survival of democracy

Feautred photo: by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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