Racism Is a National Security Problem
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Russia hasn't stopped its cyber interference campaign.
Ebony Carroll has worked in international finance and is a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Who cannot cringe each time you see the video of George Floyd pinned to the ground by the knee of a callous, white police officer? His neck twisting, screaming for reprieve, his life slipping away. This powerful imagery surely ignites an emotional response in anyone who values life and is capable of empathy.
Outrage over Floyd’s killing exists because systemic racism persists. Unfortunately, this is well understood by foreign adversaries looking for opportunities to exploit us for their own gain.
As an African American, I see racism through a personal and emotional prism, but as a foreign affairs specialist I also see it as a national security vulnerability for the United States. While racism in the U.S. largely affects a minority of the population, the national security dimension of the problem impacts all citizens because it leaves us open to manipulation by other countries.
No single group of Americans was targeted [by Russia] … more than African Americans.
U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
This was most vividly shown in the case of the Russian government-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA), which sought to exploit these tensions to further divide the United States. In a recent interview, Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council adviser and an expert on Russia, said that Russia is still a threat to American elections because it has come to understand racism and our racial divisions and how to exploit them.
Let’s look at three key ways in which outside actors have used and could again use race relations to influence American public affairs.
First, the IRA’s “Active Measures” social media campaign largely targeted race-related issues to create political divisions that would influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Special counsel Robert Mueller in March 2019 documented that “the IRA [beginning in 2014] conducted social media operations targeted at large U.S. audiences with the goal of sowing discord in the U.S. political system.” Importantly, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence added in October 2019 that, while IRA operatives targeted various groups, “no single group of Americans was targeted … more than African Americans.” The IRA created social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues and were falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists.
Second, the IRA showed considerable sophistication in carrying this out with deceptive social media accounts that reached millions of Americans. They were able to expose 126 million Facebook users and 1.4 million Twitter users to IRA propaganda. IRA Facebook groups mimicked genuine social organizations and included, among others, purported Black social justice groups such as “Black Matters US,” “Blacktivist” and “Don’t Shoot Us,” with the latter having more than 250,000 followers. Its largest Instagram account, @blackstagram_, had more than 300,000 followers and 28 million interactions. Even media outlets and high-profile Americans re-tweeted postings made from IRA Twitter accounts and sometimes attributed them to the reactions of real people, further demonstrating the reach of the Russian campaign.
Third, the IRA’s online activities were not limited to media postings but also led to real-life engagements focused on racial issues that were coordinated by unknowing Americans. Its operatives posed as U.S. grassroots activists to organize dozens of in-person events like protests and rallies. Attendance at these events ranged from a few to hundreds of participants. The IRA account operator would contact the media to promote the event and would target unknowing people to serve as event coordinators or in-person contacts. The IRA targeted a number of Black social justice activists through its group “Black Matters US”; in 2017, the IRA persona “Black Fist” hired a self-defense instructor in New York to teach African Americans how to protect themselves if contacted by law enforcement. To avoid exposure, IRA account operators would often provide excuses as to why they could not physically attend events.
Awareness of all this has stimulated efforts to end disinformation on social media. This is not enough. In looking at its African American targets, the IRA exploited the painful presence of systemic racism in America for Russia’s benefit. The bottom line: To defend ourselves against election interference, we need to care about resolving racism as much as we care about making the internet and social media safe places to participate. Until we do, foreign adversaries will mount similar campaigns — with a good prospect of success — and covert actors like the IRA will be able to damage our social fabric and, ultimately, our national security.