LONDON—Over three million Black voters in key states were identified by President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign as people they had to persuade to stay at home on Election Day to help him reach the White House.
The revelation comes from an enormous data leak obtained by the British news network Channel 4. It shows that, four years ago, the Trump campaign prepared files on almost 200 million American voters and separated some out into eight different categories. One such category, assigned to 3.5 million Black voters, was titled: “Deterrence.”
The leaked database was reportedly used by Trump’s digital campaign team, which was critical to Trump’s narrow victory. Channel 4 News has a track record of exposing the unethical practices of Cambridge Analytica—the now-defunct British digital black-ops firm that harvested the Facebook data of tens of millions of voters for the use of Team Trump.
The leaked files show that Black Americans were disproportionately marked "Deterrence" by the 2016 campaign, making up far more of the category when compared to general population stats. For example, in Georgia, Black people make up around a third of the population, but 61 percent of the Trump campaign’s "Deterrence" category there. The same pattern can be seen in data for North Carolina and Wisconsin.
Overall, people of color—labeled by the campaign as Black, Hispanic, Asian and "Other" groups—made up 54 percent of the people in the "Deterrence" category, according to Channel 4 News. In contrast, the lists of voters that the campaign wanted to encourage to head out to vote were mostly white. It’s impossible to say how effective the tactics were, but research shows that, in 2016, Black turnout fell by eight points.
The data does not offer a complete picture of exactly how the "Deterrence" list was exploited, though it’s likely that it was used to help the campaign micro-target people on Facebook in the months leading up to Election Day in 2016. The Daily Beast revealed two years ago that Team Trump used audience lists created by Cambridge Analytica to target “dark ads” on Facebook in the final months of the 2016 campaign.
There’s no public record of those “dark ads,” which disappeared when the campaign stopped paying for them, and there’s no public information on the lists that were used to target voters. However, Channel 4 does report that it found some evidence that Team Trump pushed ads at Black voters designed to damage opinions of Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton.
One video ad showed Clinton talking about “super-predators” in 1996—a comment she apologized for in 2016 after the clip spread online. Channel 4 reports that Cambridge Analytica privately admitted that the campaign did target “AA,” or African Americans, with what it called the “Predators video,” though it’s not known if the "Deterrence" list was used.
Presented with Channel 4’s findings, Jamal Watkins, vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said, “We use data... but it’s to motivate, persuade, and encourage folks to participate. We don't use the data to say who can we deter and keep at home. That just seems, fundamentally, it’s a shift from the notion of democracy.”
Watkins added, “It's not ‘may the best candidate win’ at that point, it’s ‘may the best well-funded machine suppress voters and keep them at home thereby rigging the election so that someone can win.’”
An unnamed Facebook spokesperson said, “Since 2016, elections have changed and so has Facebook—what happened with Cambridge Analytica couldn’t happen today.” The company cited its new rules prohibiting voter suppression, and its searchable political ads library which means that ads don’t just disappear from the network as they did in 2016.
The Trump campaign didn’t provide any comment.