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How To Respond When Election Interference Targets African American Voters


The Internet Research Agency, the active arm of Russia's interference in the 2016 election, heavily targeted African Americans. That's one of the key takeaways from the Senate Intelligence Committee report released earlier this month. Social media posts, videos and ads were geared towards black voters, built around hot-button issues, such as police brutality and the kneeling protests in the NFL. They pushed content telling black voters not to vote for Hillary Clinton, don't vote at all and that their votes didn't matter.

We wanted to get a sense of how that might play out on the local level and how it can be addressed as we approach 2020. So joining us is Charlane Oliver. She's the founder of Equity Alliance, a nonprofit in Tennessee that promotes civic engagement in communities of color.


CHARLANE OLIVER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So first of all, what has African American voter turnout been like in Tennessee?

OLIVER: Tennessee is a very suppressed state. We have ranked 50th in voter turnout for the past four to five years in national elections. So the black voter turnout was about 43% in the last presidential election in Tennessee. So we have a lot of work to do to engage voters across the state.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And has that been consistent over the last several elections, or did we see something different in 2016?

OLIVER: So 2016 was the first presidential election that we saw when - after Tennessee passed a voter ID law. And voter turnout dropped across the board, particularly in black communities and poor minority communities. So...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that law says what, exactly?

OLIVER: That you must have a government-issued state ID to vote in Tennessee. No longer can you bring a library card. As a college student, you cannot use your campus ID. You must have a driver's license or a passport or - a gun license is even eligible here. So yeah, you must bring a photo ID to the polls to verify your identity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Were you surprised to hear that the African American community was one of the main targets of the Russian disinformation campaign?

OLIVER: I was, actually, you know? But when I think about it some more, I'm not surprised at all because the black vote is the key to elections. Like, our voting base and our voting power is very much a part of mainstream elections. It's so powerful that the Russians want to actually come after us, right? So we need to do our due diligence to make sure that black voters are energized, they're inspired but also informed and equipped with the right information.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that what you think is necessary to combat this? - because, you know, what we saw and actually have seen recently - because, of course, these disinformation campaigns haven't stopped - is that, you know, a lot of these Russian influence peddlers are impersonating African American voters sometimes. You know, so I'm just wondering, how do you actually, at a grassroots level, counteract that?

OLIVER: Yes, so at the Equity Alliance, one of our core parts of our missions to mobilize voters is voter education and political education. Prior to the 2018 midterms, we launched the Tennessee Black Voter Project, and part of this project was doing some focus groups around black men. And one of the issues was that they didn't feel comfortable or confident in participating because they just didn't know the information. They felt intimidated by the process.

And so we're equipping them, going all the way back to Reconstruction and saying, how can you exercise your full citizenship that you are owed by the Constitution? What does the 14th and 15th amendment say about your right to vote? So that is one of the ways we're trying to combat - is giving them that baseline information. For 2020, we do voter guides to make sure people have the best information possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And do you think you'll include the information that, you know, according to the Senate, the African American community is being deliberately targeted by foreign governments to disincentivize them to vote and to get them upset with the process?

OLIVER: Absolutely. We have to say, hey, as a buyer beware kind of thing, like, make sure you're not getting scammed. Make sure you're knowing how to recognize, quote, "fake news."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think that you're getting enough support or any assistance at all in actually protecting your community from this kind of disinformation?

OLIVER: Absolutely not. We need the investment, especially in the South. No one's talking about the Russian interference right now - not in Tennessee. People are talking about redistricting. We're talking about the census, but no one's talking about how the Russian interference campaign has actually impacted the black community. So that's something that we're going to have to do better about sounding the alarm on that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you worried about 2020?

OLIVER: I am. The IRA - the level of precision that they have been able to deploy to exploit voters and their angst were already on high alert because of what's happening in the country. And to tap into that anxiety, that fear and that anger that people already have that they think that their vote and their government isn't working for the people - it could go either way. We don't know. So the misinformation campaign that they're rolling out is going to be key to turnout.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Charlane Oliver, founder of Equity Alliance.

Thank you so much for talking to us today.

OLIVER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.