Excerpted from: William J. Aceves, Virtual Hatred: How Russia Tried to Start a Race War in the United States, 24 Michigan Journal of Race and Law 177 (Spring, 2019) (329 Footnotes) (Full Document)
During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Russian government engaged in a sophisticated strategy designed to influence the U.S. political system and manipulate American democracy. While most news reports have focused on the cyber-attacks aimed at Democratic Party leaders and possible contacts between Russian officials and the Trump presidential campaign, a more pernicious intervention took place. Throughout the campaign, Russian operatives created hundreds of fake personas on social media platforms and then posted thousands of advertisements and messages on important social and political issues, including the impending presidential election. These efforts used inaccurate and misleading information in a coordinated campaign to manipulate public opinion and disrupt the political process. Eventually, these posts were viewed by millions of Americans.
Many of these posts addressed race and social justice issues. To maximize the divisiveness of these posts, Russian operatives often shared competing positions on these issues. Some Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter posts promoted solidarity among communities of color, including African American, Mexican American, and Native American groups. These posts also called for racial equality. Many highlighted police brutality toward minority groups. Some, however, called for disengagement from the political process. At the same time, Russian operatives released a different set of posts offering a profoundly different perspective on these issues. Some of these posts supported law enforcement and criticized those who questioned the integrity of police officers. Other posts denounced the Black Lives Matter movement and belittled social justice causes. Some were even more extreme and supported White nationalist groups with calls for violence. In addition to posts on race and social justice issues, Russian operatives also addressed other important and divisive issues, including immigration, LGBT rights, gun control, and religion. In sum, this was a social media campaign designed to promote racial tensions and undermine the social fabric of the United States.
Russia's social media campaign can be described as propaganda because it sought to covertly influence opinions and behavior in the United States. Propaganda involves "the communication of facts, fiction, argument, and suggestion, often with the purposeful suppression of inconsistent material, with the hope and intention of implanting in the minds of the 'target' audience certain prejudices, beliefs, or convictions ...." Russia's actions can also be described as a sophisticated information operation. Such operations involve "[a]ctions taken by governments or organized non-state actors to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment, most frequently to achieve a strategic and/or geopolitical outcome." These operations use "false news, disinformation, or networks of fake accounts (false amplifiers)" to manipulate public opinion. Commentators have referred to this behavior as information warfare. In the intelligence community, Russia's social media campaign is identified as active measures, part of covert influence operations overseen by Russian intelligence agencies.
As the scope of the Russian social media campaign became clear, the federal government responded by imposing sanctions on several Russian entities. In addition, the Justice Department filed criminal indictments against several organizations and individuals implicated in the social media campaign. Congress held hearings and proposed legislation to protect the electoral process. Social media companies purged the Russian accounts and pledged to prevent future intervention by foreign governments. This dynamic of Russian influence operations and corresponding U.S. response continued through the 2018 elections and into 2019.
While Russia's propaganda campaign implicates U.S. law, it also raises important questions under international law. Foreign intervention in domestic affairs affects state sovereignty. It may affect the right of self-determination. Several human rights norms may also be implicated, including freedom of thought, the right to hold opinions without interference, to take part in the conduct of public affairs, and to participate freely in the electoral process. In addition, human rights law prohibits racial discrimination as well as any advocacy that incites hostility or violence based on race. To date, however, the United States has not framed Russia's social media campaign as a violation of international law and has taken no action in the international arena. Even the human rights community has yet to address this issue in any meaningful way.
This Article examines Russia's social media campaign and considers whether it violated the international prohibitions against racial discrimination and hate speech.
Part I offers a brief review of Russian intervention in American politics and focuses on Russia's social media campaign surrounding the 2016 presidential election. Because these efforts sought to promote racial divisions in the United States, they implicate international human rights law.
Accordingly, Part II examines the prohibition against racial discrimination, which is codified in several human rights treaties. It also addresses the corollary prohibition against hate speech under human rights law.
Part III then considers whether Russia's actions violate the prohibitions against racial discrimination and hate speech.
Racism has existed for centuries in the United States, and it remains an endemic feature in this country. Accordingly, foreign assistance is not necessary to perpetuate its presence. The United States must take direct responsibility for its long history of racism and the continuing marginalization of minority groups. At the same time, foreign intervention can exacerbate these conditions--every hateful word strengthens racism's grasp, and every wrongful act extends its reach. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has noted that social media offers a form of communication "where resonant messages get amplified many times." This offers both risk and reward. "At its best, this focuses messages and exposes people to different ideas. At its worst, it oversimplifies important topics and pushes us towards extremes." Michael Hayden, the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, acknowledged that Russia used these features of social media to take advantage of existing tensions in the United States, noting that "[c]overt influence campaigns don't create divisions on the ground, they amplify divisions on the ground."
In an era where social media offers a simple and speedy method for reaching billions of people around the world, the implications of Russia's actions are evident. Democracy is a powerful yet fragile form of governance. Its legitimacy stems from popular will but its egalitarian principles can be readily coopted by a populist agenda. When foreign states use sophisticated propaganda campaigns to manipulate political opinion, democracies face even greater risks. Technological advances heighten this threat. International human rights law offers a valuable approach for assessing Russia's social media campaign. These norms can help close the echo chamber that has allowed racism to resonate with even greater frequency in the United States.
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This Article has focused on Russia, the United States, and race. But this story has a far broader reach. The Russian government believed race was an issue that could divide the American public. And, to a great extent, it was correct. America's longstanding struggle with racial inequality and social injustice offered Russia a receptive audience. But Russia's propaganda campaign was not limited to race--it addressed ethnicity, religion, and national origin. Russian messages targeted immigration, border policies, law enforcement, crime, and LGBT rights. Russia sought to inject divisions within every major inflection point in American culture and politics.
Russia violated the prohibition against racial discrimination and its attendant proscription against hate speech. Other rights were also affected. By seeking to influence voter preferences and undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process, Russia violated the right to vote, which is recognized as a fundamental human right. By creating false stories and disseminating them, Russia infringed on freedom of thought as well as the right to hold opinions without interference. By targeting religious minorities, it violated freedom of religion.
Although Russia directed its propaganda campaign against the United States, it also targeted other countries. According to a detailed study by the Rand Corporation, "Russia is engaged in an active, worldwide propaganda campaign." And Russia is not the only country that uses social media to influence foreign public opinion. A 2017 Freedom House report found that: "[g]overnments around the world have dramatically increased their efforts to manipulate information on social media ...." In fact, "[m]anipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 17 other countries over the past year, damaging citizens' ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate."
In Fall 2018, social media companies disclosed that Russia had renewed its efforts to intervene in American political life prior to the 2018 mid-term elections. Research conducted on several Facebook accounts revealed these accounts "included language patterns that indicate nonnative English and consistent mistranslation, as well as an overwhelming focus on polarizing issues ...." It was clear these accounts "sought to promote divisions and set Americans against one another." Facebook also announced it had removed eighty-two pages, groups, and accounts which exhibited inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran and which targeted the U.S. electorate.
Both the U.S. government and social media companies have announced they are ready to combat any new foreign intervention. Even members of the international community have announced their intention to address foreign interference in national elections. It is unclear, how ever, whether the American public is equally prepared to challenge the efforts of countries intending to incite a race war in the United States. Eventually, history will reveal whether these foreign interventions fail or whether race remains a permanent inflection point in American life.
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