Trump's 2016 election targeted 3.5 million Black Americans with attack ads to deter them from voting, according to report

  • A giant data leak from the 2016 Trump campaign’s database reported by UK outlet Channel 4 News contained details from almost 200 million Americans who were grouped based on demographic information to be targeted with TV and social media ads.
  • One group, labeled "deterrence," disproportionately targeted Black voters, the outlet reported — a group that the Trump campaign’s chief data scientist later said the the campaign "hope don't show up to vote."
  • The Trump campaign has previously denied that it targeted Black Americans in its advertising, but Channel 4 News reported documents show thousands in spending targeted at this group.
  • A Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider in a statement that "since 2016, elections have changed and so has Facebook," and that this "couldn't happen today."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

A data leak from President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign shows that a disproportionate number of Black American potential voters — totalling 3.5 million — were put under a label named "deterrence," according to Channel 4 News.

The massive database included the details of nearly 200 million Americans, categorized into eight groups, including ones titled "get out the vote" and "persuasion," to target potential voters in 16 battleground election states with ads both on social media and on television, the outlet reported.

The campaign's digital director told PBS Frontline in 2018 that he is "nearly 100% sure we did not run any campaigns that targeted even African Americans," but documents seen by Channel 4 News show that thousands of dollars were spent on targeted attack ads against then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a Business Insider query about what "deterrence" meant in this context, but dismissed Channel 4's report as "fake news."

Black voters disproportionately in 'deterrence' category

The leaked database included vastly detailed information, including addresses, party affiliation and voting history. It also scored individuals on election issues such as jobs, law and order and healthcare, the outlet reported.

According to the investigation, the targeted ads aimed to dissuade a select group of voters from supporting Clinton and those in the "deterrence" group were those who the campaign's chief data scientist later said the campaign "hope don't show up to vote."

In Channel 4 News' analysis, while 13% of Black Americans were categorized overall, they made up 29% of the "deterrence" group.

In the swing state of Wisconsin — which Trump won in 2016 — turnout of Black voters collapsed by 19%, the outlet reported. Although they formed 5.4% of the population, 35% of the "deterrence" group were Black.

Meanwhile, the segment of potential voters named "persuasion" — those who could possibly be persuaded to vote for Trump — was 75% white, and just 1.8% of them were Black, the outlet reported.

The pattern is repeated across several states, according to the outlet.

The Trump campaign posted six million versions of highly targeted adverts on Facebook in 2016, the outlet reported. Facebook had not yet set up its publicly viewable ad library, so it's not clear exactly what was shown to those groups. 

However, a confidential Cambridge Analytica document seen by the outlet said that $55,000 was spent in Georgia on targeting them with what it described as the "predators video," in which Clinton in 1996 described Black gang members as "super predators." She later apologized for the remark.

The disproportionate targeting of Black Americans represents a  'category of suppression'

Black voter turnout fell in 2016 for the first time in 20 years, the outlet noted, although the cause is unknown. Jamal Watkins, Vice President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) told the outlet the tactics amounted to a modern-day suppression campaign.

Data is commonly used to profile voters to tailor messaging and encourage them to turn out — but not to deter people, he said. "That just seems, fundamentally, it's a shift from the notion of democracy," Watkins told the outlet.

He also added criticism of Facebook, telling the outlet: "I don't believe Facebook has fully disclosed their role, and fully disclosed the types of ads that were run, who was involved and literally how they may have been embedded in, say, the Trump campaign to make this all come to life."

A Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider: "Since 2016, elections have changed and so has Facebook – what happened with Cambridge Analytica couldn't happen today.

"We have 35,000 people working to ensure the integrity of our platform, created a political ads library to make political advertising more transparent than anywhere else, and have protected more than 200 elections worldwide," the spokesperson said. "We also have rules prohibiting voter suppression and are running the largest voting information campaign in American history."

When contacted for comment on the investigation by Business Insider, Trump campaign Communications Director Tim Murtaugh called the Channel 4 News report "fake news."

"President Trump has built a relationship of trust with African American voters because of the First Step Act's criminal justice reform, creating Opportunity Zones and his recently announced Platinum Plan to invest $500 billion in the Black community," Murtaugh said. 

"Democrats deterred voters in 2016 by nominating Hillary Clinton, who called Black men 'Super Predators,' and they did it again this year by nominating Joe Biden, who has advocated for racist policies such as the 1994 Crime Bill and even spoke at the funeral of a Klan member," he added.

Murtaugh was likely referring to the funeral of former Klan member Robert Byrd, who later apologized and advocated for civil rights. 

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