A massive amount data leak shows that the Trump presidential campaign disproportionately classified Black Americans as a part of a demographic that they did not want to vote in the 2016 election, and sought to manipulate Black voter turnout. An analysis by Channel 4 News found that 3.5 million Black Americans were marked as “deterrence” by the campaign ahead of the election and that the campaign spent over $50 million on Facebook ads in 2016 to target voters with highly tailored political ads.
Donald Trump’s digital political campaign “Project Alamo,” was based in San Antonio Texas, and posted nearly six million targeted messages to voters’ Facebook feeds in 2016. The campaign was composed of a team from the British company Cambridge Analytica, representatives from the Republican National Committee, and a Facebook employee embedded in the Trump campaign.
The leak revealed that the Trump campaign had stored information on 200 million individual Americans, sorted among more than 5,000 files. At nearly 5 terabytes, it is one of the biggest leaks in history.
In 16 battleground states, American voters were assigned to one of eight different categories by an algorithm. Subsequently, the groups were targeted with tailored ads on Facebook and other sites.
One of the categories, called “Deterrence,” denotes the group Trump’s chief data scientist described as the people the campaign “hope don’t show up to vote.”
Channel 4 News reported that Black voters were disproportionately placed in the “Deterrence” group writing: “In Georgia, despite Black people constituting 32% of the population, they made up 61% of the Deterrence’ category. In North Carolina, Black people are 22% of the population but were 46% of ‘Deterrence’. In Wisconsin, Black people constitute just 5.4% of the population but made up 17% of ‘Deterrence.'”
In contrast, the campaign sought to attract white voters. Because many of the messages are “dark posts” that disappear from the target voter’s feed once it is no longer being paid for, there are no public records of the ads or target audience lists.
Brad Parscale, the campaign’s digital director at the time, denied that the campaign targeted Black voters: “I would say I’m nearly 100 percent sure we did not run any campaigns that targeted even African Americans,” he told the PBS “Frontline” documentary show.
According to Channel 4 News, the campaign targeted Black voters using messages to dampen Black support for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. A video of Clinton referring to Black youth as “super predators,” was viewed millions of times on Facebook. Confidential documents obtained by the source revealed that the campaign targeted “AA” (African-American) voters with the “Predators video,” spending more than $50,000 in the state of Georgia.
In the 2016 presidential election, Black voter turnout fell for the first time in 20 years.
A Facebook spokesperson said in response to the leak that the platform has changed since 2016, and that “what happened with Cambridge Analytica couldn’t happen today.”