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When Russian trolls wanted to divide America, they knew what to use: race

Social science explains the strategy behind their 2016 Facebook ads.

In September 2016, days after a police officer shot and killed a black man in Charlotte, North Carolina, a Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency created the following Facebook ad, targeted to people living within 25 miles of Charlotte.

What we’ve learned since then is that such ads were part of a larger plan — that the Internet Research Agency sought to produce ads that specifically prodded the racial and cultural fractures of America.

According to a new USA Today analysis, more than half of the 3,500 ads bought by the IRA had to do with race, and a quarter of them had to do with crime and policing, often in the context of race. Other divisive issues like abortion, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights were also stressed in the ads, such as in the one above.

This analysis gives us a fascinating insight into how Russian troll farms think about the America electorate — and specifically how to undermine it. But it also puts up a mirror to American tribalism. There’s a reason the Russian trolls believed this kind of political messaging would be effective.

Social science backs up the assumptions underlying the Russian Facebook ad campaign. Over the past half-century, America has become hyper-sorted. Our racial, religious, and ideological identities have merged with our political identity, creating hyperpartisan tribes. And recent research tells us that when we poke and prod at these tribal identities, we can make one another angry and more insular.

In other words, if you’re a Russian troll, the way to get the American partisans to fight among themselves isn’t to talk about politics; it’s to activate other parts of their identity.

We’ve gotten more sorted, and our political and social identities are merging

Over the past 50 years, it’s become significantly easier to look at someone’s social identity — like their race, religion, and ideology — and predict which political party they would identify with.

In other words, white Protestant conservatives identify more with Republicans; nonwhite secular liberals identify more with Democrats.

This data is from recent research by University of Maryland political scientist Lilliana Mason and co-author Julie Wronski. What they found is that since all these separate identities are trending in the same partisan direction, they overlap to form mega-identities. In short, it means that if you meet someone who is Protestant, it’s much easier to assume she is also a Republican.

And it means that if you meet someone who attacks Protestants, he is probably a Democrat — and probably has beliefs that threaten other parts of that Protestant’s identity.

So what does this sorting have to do with getting a rise out of Americans?

As it turns out, the more sorted we are, the angrier get when we see partisan content because we see it as attacking other parts of our identity.

The more “sorted” we are, the angrier we get

In another recent study, Mason had a bunch of people read a passage from a political blog, like this one:

2012 is going to be a great election for Republicans. We’re going to defeat the hardcore socialist Obama, we are raising more money than Democrats, our Congressional candidates are in safer seats, and Democrats have obviously lost Americans’ trust.

Mason wanted to see how people reacted to messages that threatened or supported their political party or their party’s policies. After the subjects read one of these passages, Mason asked them how much anger or enthusiasm they felt.

As expected, people who identified strongly with their political parties had more intense emotions about all these passages:

But the better way to predict who would feel angry or enthusiastic about these politically charged passages was how “sorted” people were — how much they were entrenched in their tribe.

So if you strongly identify as white, evangelical, and Republican, that means you are very well sorted — and you’re more likely to be angry or enthusiastic after reading these passages. If you’re not well sorted, then it’s harder to make you angry or enthusiastic.

In other words, people who associate more deeply with a given tribe tend to get a lot angrier when you attack the politics of their tribe. And they get a lot more enthusiastic when you support the politics of their tribe.

So if you want to get a rise out of an already tribal American electorate, it seems the solution is simple: You prod at the stratified characteristics of these tribes.

What can we learn from the Russian troll ads?

If you browse through the ads, you can see many of them are clearly designed to make you feel closer to your tribe — or to make you feel disgust for the other. For example, here’s an Instagram ad targeting Republicans in June 2016:

And here’s an ad from January 2017, targeted to people who have “Jesus” as an interest on their profile page:

And here’s an ad from March 2017 targeted to Hispanics and Latinos:

Many of the messages in the Russian Facebook ads align with our most strongly held beliefs or resonate with important parts of our identities. If anything, they encourage us to settle deeper into those beliefs — to argue with more passion and conviction.

That can often lead to a harsher, less refined political discourse that can devolve into arguments that extend beyond politics.

That said, it’s unclear how much of an effect these Russian trolls actually had on the 2016 election. These ads were viewed a total of 25 million times, which is a minuscule fraction of the trillions of ads Facebook serves every year. And we don’t need Russian trolls to have damaging political arguments on Twitter; we do that fine on our own.

What these ads do reveal, though, is how outside actors can leverage the tribal nature of American politics and prey on our worst tendencies.


Correction: A previous version of this story said police shot and killed a man during a Charlotte Black Lives Matter protest. There was a shooting at the protest, but it was committed by a man who was not a police officer. The protest happened after Keith Lamont Scott was shot and killed by police earlier in the month.