On Tuesday, the Washington Post confirmed what had previously been assumed about Russia’s campaign of buying Facebook ads to tilt the presidential election, and to stir racial tensions in the U.S. As the Post summed, the Russian ads took aim at U.S. racial divides, paralleling efforts from the Trump campaign.
The efforts mirror prior attempts from foreign actors to inflame racial divisions in the U.S. – the most notable of which have come, perhaps unsurprisingly, from Moscow.
Where many African-Americans, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, saw the Soviet Union as a beacon of racial equality – a role Kremlin higher-ups willingly played up, despite Soviet collectivization leading to the deaths of millions, especially among minority populations – the post-World War II period saw a rise in covert operations directed at American racial divisions.
“Russia often looked to use anti-black racism in the US as a way of exposing what they believed was the moral bankruptcy of Western capitalism and the hypocrisy of American ‘democracy,’” said Jennifer Wilson, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literature. “Russia has always seen the problem of anti-black racism in the U.S. as a political tool.”
For instance, as described in Christopher Andrew’s The Sword and the Shield, a detailed composition of KGB operations compiled by a former KGB archivist, Soviet operations to stoke racial tensions spiked in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1967, Moscow aimed at removing Martin Luther King, Jr., from his leadership role within the broader civil rights movement. Per Andrew, KGB higher-ups approved a plan to “place articles in the African press, which could then be reprinted in American newspapers, portraying King as an ‘Uncle Tom’ who was secretly receiving government subsidies to tame the civil rights movement and prevent it threatening the Johnson administration.” (Writes Andrew, MLK “was probably the only prominent American to be the target of active measures by both the FBI and the KGB.”)
As War is Boring’s Darien Cavanaugh added, the campaign sought to replace King with Stokely Carmichael, hoping a less pacifist leader would help spark a race war within the U.S. The drive also included, in a harbinger of the Facebook ads to come, distributing fabricated pamphlets that showed far-right groups bent on “developing a plan for the physical elimination of leading figures in the Negro movement in the U.S.”
Growing bolder by the early 1970s, the KGB moved beyond innuendo into a far more violent strain of its campaign. Moscow higher-ups – including then-KGB chief Yuri Andropov, who would eventually lead the Soviet Union in the early 1980s – signed off on pamphlets, to be sent to African-American militants, which said that Jewish vigilante groups viewed them as “black mongrels.” Writes Cavanaugh, the pamphlets “were distributed to 30 black militant groups in the New York area.”
Meanwhile, the KGB approved a plan to release explosives in “the Negro section of New York,” with one KGB official suggesting bombing “one of the Negro colleges” as a back-up option. Following the planned bombing, KGB agents would then issue anonymous phone calls “to two or three black organizations, claiming that the explosion was the work of the Jewish Defense League.”
The planned bombing, thankfully, never went off, and the KGB’s operations to stoke a broader race war in the U.S. ultimately failed. (A series of forged letters claiming to be from the KKK, which said the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics would be “FOR THE WHITES ONLY!” and which were sent to a number of Asian and African delegations, also predictably fell flat.) However, the campaigns, and the broader notion that the U.S. could collapse in on itself along racial lines, set a precedent we’ve seen play out over the past few years.
To wit, during the 2014 Ferguson protests, Russian state media hyped the racial fracture on display. Wrote BuzzFeed’s Max Seddon, “America is gripped in the throes of a violent race war as retribution for the bloody revolution it had plotted against Moscow’s allies in Ukraine, according to the pro-Kremlin press.” One RT article even predicted a possible American implosion in the aftermath of Ferguson, with another headline from Russian outlet MK asking if Ferguson could “become a second Donetsk.” Other Russian media dubbed the protests “AfroMaidan,” in a nod to Ukraine’s 2014 “EuroMaidan” revolution, while Maria Katasonova, who has rapidly become one of the faces of Russian nationalism (and Trump support within Russia), even tried to get a hashtag that translates to “Black Russia” to trend.
— Мария Катасонова (@KatasonovaMaria) November 25, 2014
Much like their Soviet-era precedent, Russian actors have continued targeting both sides of the racial divide in the U.S., with black and white nationalists alike recently constructing their own links with those in Moscow.
However, with the continuing revelations regarding the Facebook ads, fake pages, and attempts at organizing on-the-ground rallies throughout 2016, it’s clear that Moscow’s social media campaign has far exceeded any prior attempt – in reach and success alike – at inflaming U.S. race relations. Much like the Trump campaign, and Trump presidency, these Facebook ads and pages, paralleling KGB attempts decades ago, aimed directly at America’s racial fault lines – all attempting to stoke the types of racial fracture the U.S. hasn’t seen in decades.