As the country prepares for the first national election since evidence emerged of the Russian government’s interference in the presidential race two years ago, it is worth recalling that the 2016 election was not the first time that Russia intervened in U.S. politics. Recent Russian operations used American racism to stoke divisions in our society. More than half of the Facebook advertisements created by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA) to influence Americans around the 2016 presidential election referenced race. While the use of social media is new, Russia has a long history of highlighting the conflict between American ideals of equality and the reality of racial injustice in this country. This history provides important context as the U.S. grapples with how to respond to the continued threat of Russian government interference in our democracy.
At first, Soviet concern with U.S. racial inequality was rooted in the belief that capitalism could only be defeated by the united efforts of the working classes of all nations. African Americans, the Soviet leadership decided in 1928, had the greatest revolutionary potential and were therefore essential for achieving worldwide Communism. Interpreting racism and capitalism as closely-related obstacles to liberation, the Soviet leadership adopted an official policy of “anti-racism.” From Moscow, the increased persecution that African Americans suffered during the Depression was deemed an attack on the Soviet international project, a threat to Soviet national security.
When an all-white jury falsely convicted nine black teenagers of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931, the USSR’s International Red Aid (IRA) organized an international campaign to liberate the “Scottsboro Boys.” Like the Internet Research Agency, the earlier IRA planned protests, distributed news and political materials, and adopted the rhetoric of American activists, masking the true foreign source of their campaign. Many American observers credited the post-trial wave of protests – some orchestrated by the IRA, others more spontaneous – with pressuring the Alabama Supreme Court to agree to hear the defendants’ appeal. Though Southern conservatives typically denounced civil rights activism as Communist, the general public understood the Scottsboro campaign in the context of ongoing anti-Jim Crow advocacy, not Soviet interference.
Soviet race-related propaganda changed after World War II. As the U.S. and the USSR competed for influence over newly independent nations in Asia and Africa, Soviet influence campaigns aimed to dissuade these countries from aligning with the U.S. by publicizing American racism, asserting the failure of American democracy and the superiority of the USSR. As Mohandas Gandhi observed in a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt,
“mak[ing] the world safe for freedom of the individual and for democracy sounds hollow, so long as […] America has the Negro problem in her own home.”
During the Cold War, American leaders made refuting the Soviet narrative about American racism a national security issue, critical for maintaining U.S. international leadership and promoting relationships with what was then called the Third World. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations consistently advanced national security arguments for ending legal discrimination. For example, the government’s 1952 amicus brief in Brown v. Board of Education argued that
“racial discrimination … has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination [has] furnished grist for the Communist propaganda mills, and it raises doubts even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith.”
The Truman and Eisenhower administrations hoped that by striking down segregation, the Court would demonstrate that racial equality had always been part of U.S. constitutional values. The public relations value of Brown was clear; immediately after the Supreme Court held that school segregation violated the Constitution, the Voice of America announced the decision in 34 languages worldwide.
Efforts to counter the USSR’s narrative about American racism were undercut by the fact that Soviet propaganda typically involved the reprinting and distribution of unaltered U.S. news sources about racial issues. For instance, the Soviets showcased American news outlets’ photographs of black protesters being hit with fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham in 1963. In 2016, many Internet Research Agency social media accounts used the same strategy, amplifying reputable U.S. news sources through retweets and shares. In fact, the top seven news sources shared by IRA-accounts included The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Hill.
The USSR also engaged in disinformation campaigns during the Cold War and – as in 2016 – that sometimes seemed to promote multiple sides of an issue, as well as conspiracy theories. In the 1960s, just as the propaganda arm of the Soviet Union was highlighting racism in the U.S., the KGB, the Russian intelligence agency, attempted to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr. by portraying him as an “Uncle Tom” who was secretly receiving government subsidies. Similarly, in 2016, some IRA Twitter accounts mimicked the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement, while others broadcasted right-wing nativist messages. Russian trolls even organized a protest and simultaneous counter-protest of the opening of an Islamic Center in Houston, taking advantage of American Islamophobia. In the 1980s, the Soviet government promoted the false news story that the AIDS virus was manufactured by American biological warfare specialists in Maryland. In 2016, Russian social media accounts promoted the Pizzagate and Uranium One conspiracy theories.
In 2016, the Russians used well-tried tactics to directly interfere in our democracy and may even have engineered a specific electoral outcome: a Trump victory. These activities require a firm response from the United States. At the same time, we cannot avoid the reality that in many respects the Internet Research Agency, like the International Red Aid of the 1930s, drew upon pre-existing, pressing issues of racial inequality that are deeply embedded in the fabric of U.S. society. With or without Russian interference, these issues will continue to shape the outcomes of our elections.