Trump used Facebook ads to dampen the Black vote in Wisconsin, other states during 2016 election, report says

Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign sought to deter millions of Black Americans in battleground states, including Wisconsin, from voting, by targeting them with negative Hillary Clinton ads on Facebook, an investigation broadcast Monday by Channel 4 News in London claims.

Channel 4 News says it obtained a leaked database of voter profiles used by the Trump campaign that included a category called “deterrence,” meaning voters who were likely to cast their ballots for Clinton or to not vote at all. 

These 3.5 million voters, who were disproportionately Black, were targeted with “dark” ads to dissuade them from backing Clinton, according to the report. The report credits Cambridge Analytica, the Trump-connected data analysis firm that gained unauthorized access to tens of millions of Facebook profiles, with orchestrating the strategy.

Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh dismissed the report as “fake news” and said the president has built “a relationship of trust with African American voters” with initiatives on criminal justice reform, opportunity zones and a recent announcement to invest $500 billion in the Black community. 

Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president, struck back Monday, saying Republicans approved laws to suppress the vote and that Trump’s appointees to the federal bench have issued rulings restricting the eligibility of voters. She urged voters to oppose Trump and Senate Republicans in the upcoming election, to prevent more conservative judges from being appointed to federal courts.

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“Vote as if your right to vote depends on it — because it does,” Harris said at Shaw University, a historically Black college in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“Here’s the thing: He knows he can’t win if the people vote,” Harris said. “Donald Trump is weak so he is throwing up every roadblock he can to try and suppress the vote. We the people cannot let him get away with it.”

2016 Black turnout dropped in Milwaukee

Black turnout in 2016 was down significantly from 2012 in a number of key battleground states, including Wisconsin, though it’s hard to gauge the role of different factors in that decline, from changes in voting laws to a lack of organizing by Democrats to a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton compared to the 2012 Democratic nominee, Barack Obama. 

In Wisconsin, the African-American vote is most heavily concentrated in the city of Milwaukee, where the total votes cast for president declined by 22% in majority-Black wards from 2012 to 2016, compared to 8% in other wards.  

The turnout decline in Milwaukee was a contributing factor in Clinton’s narrow loss in Wisconsin four years ago. 

Facebook has made significant changes to how politicians and their campaigns can target users of its platforms since the 2016 election. 

In a statement Monday, the company said: “What happened with Cambridge Analytica couldn’t happen today.”

“We have 35,000 people working to ensure the integrity of our platform, created a political ads library to make political advertising more transparent than anywhere else, and have protected more than 200 elections worldwide,” Facebook said in the statement. “We also have rules prohibiting voter suppression and are running the largest voting information campaign in American history.”

Last week when asked about voter suppression efforts targeted at the Black community, Facebook told USA TODAY that bad actors have changed their tactics during the 2020 election cycle. 

During and after the 2016 election, Russian agents bought thousands of ads seeking to further inflame tensions already roiled by the Trump campaign’s racially charged rhetoric.

“The sophisticated actors that are using deception to target these communities are often smart enough not to share what anyone would consider to be voter suppression. They are very carefully choosing content that doesn’t violate our policies,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said. “We certainly do see and know that foreign actors like Russia are continuing to target these communities. But what we have seen them try to do so far, although they are still trying, has not been that effective this cycle around.”

Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Bart Jansen and Courtney Subramanian of USA TODAY contributed to this report.