New Report Raises Concerns that Facebook and the 2016 Trump Campaign Colluded on Political Ads to Suppress the Black Vote


Timothy Karr - FRee Press Action

Release Date

Tuesday, September 29, 2020


WASHINGTON — On Monday, British outlet Channel 4 News reported that it had gained access to a massive database of voter information that was used by the 2016 Trump Campaign to discourage Black people from going to the polls.

According to the report, the campaign had categorized more than 3.5 million Black American voters for "deterrence.” They reportedly received Facebook political ads that discouraged them from turning out to vote on Election Day 2016, and indeed Black turnout was the lowest it had been for a general election in 20 years.

Facebook actively helped the Trump Campaign place these ads in 2016, but is now refusing to tell Channel 4 News reporters much more, including what ads were used, where they were placed, and how voters of color were targeted.

In 2016, Facebook still provided advertisers with tools that allowed them to target audiences by their “religious and ethnic affinities." These tools were known to realtors, for instance, some of whom used the technology to exclude people of color from seeing certain property ads. And while Facebook banned such discriminatory targeting in 2018, it still refuses to reveal whether it helped the Trump campaign target voters by race in 2016, or whether Facebook helped the Trump campaign show Black people ads that discouraged them from voting.

Free Press Action Vice President of Cultural Strategy Collette Watson made the following statement:

“We now have the receipts on the ways Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign used Facebook to target Black voters and suppress their vote. Facebook needs to come clean about the role it played in discouraging Black voters in 2016, and may continue to be playing in 2020.

“Facebook is the newest frontier in a long history of suppression of the Black vote, dating back to the poll taxes of the Jim Crow South and still evident in the recent decision revoking the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people in Florida. We know there are forces in this country who want to take away Black folks’ right to vote. The question is whether Facebook’s leaders are content providing the tools that make digital racist disenfranchisement possible.

“The Trump campaign spent tens of millions of dollars on Facebook political ads in the 2016 campaign. Facebook was willing to pocket this money but has chosen not to be transparent about the ads.

“As we approach another contentious election it’s time for Facebook to make good on its commitment to fight racism and disinformation. It must submit for an independent race-equity audit all 2016, 2018 and 2020 political ads placed by local, state and federal candidates, including their related targeting data.”

Free Press Action Senior Policy Counsel Gaurav Laroia made the following statement:

“These kinds of data abuses imperil democracy and undermine the legitimacy of our elections. As the 2020 election season is underway we must be dead certain that discriminatory targeting and voter disenfranchisement isn't still happening. We must also ensure that Congress pass privacy legislation that prevents anyone that collects, uses and secures our personal information from using it in a discriminatory manner.

“These companies have used our data to enable and sometimes even participate in discrimination against people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community, religious minorities, people with disabilities, immigrants and other marginalized communities.

“Free Press Action and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law have created a legislative draft that calls on Congress to protect civil rights and privacy online. We believe that privacy rights are civil rights. A new bargain must be struck between ordinary people and the powerful companies that act as gatekeepers to participation in 21st-century life.

“Congress must pass privacy legislation that ensures that powerful interests like Facebook and its advertisers don’t use our data in ways that violate our rights and silence our voices. We must have control over how our personal information is used, and prohibit its use to build systems that oppress, discriminate, disenfranchise and exacerbate segregation.

“Freely and fairly participating in our elections is a hard-won and still embattled right. The continued fallout from the 2016 election shows how abusive and exploitative data practices can imperil those rights. Privacy and civil rights go hand in hand. We must protect both.”

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