Donald Trump
Donald TrumpReuters

Britain’s Channel 4 News claims to have obtained a vast cache of data used by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign on almost 200 million American voters.

The cache reveals that 3.5 million Black Americans were categorized by Donald Trump’s campaign as “Deterrence” – voters they wanted to stay home on election day.

Civil rights campaigners said the evidence amounted to a new form of voter “suppression” and called on Facebook to disclose ads and targeting information that has never been made public.

The “Deterrence” project was reported after Channel 4 News claimed to have obtained the database used by Trump’s digital campaign team – and credited it with helping deliver his victory to become president four years ago.

Reportedly vast in scale, it contains details on almost 200 million Americans, among more than 5,000 files, which together amass almost 5 terabytes of data – making it one of the biggest leaks in history.

It alleges not only the huge amounts of data held on every individual voter, but how that data was used and manipulated by models and algorithms.

In 16 key battleground states, millions of Americans were separated by an algorithm into one of eight categories, also described as “audiences”, so they could then be targeted with tailored ads on Facebook and other platforms, according to Channel 4 News.

One of the categories, it claims, was named “Deterrence”, which was later described publicly by Trump’s chief data scientist as containing people that the campaign “hope don’t show up to vote”.

Analysis by Channel 4 News shows Black Americans – were disproportionately marked “Deterrence” by the 2016 campaign.

In total, 3.5 million Black Americans were marked “Deterrence”.

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”.

Trump’s digital campaign, called “Project Alamo” and based in San Antonio, Texas, involved a team from the now defunct British company Cambridge Analytica, working with a team from the Republican National Committee. Two senior members of the Cambridge Analytica team are working on the Trump 2020 campaign.

Cambridge Analytica collapsed after investigations by Channel 4 News, The Observer and the New York Times in 2018.

The Trump campaign spent £44 million on Facebook ads alone during 2016, posting almost six million different versions of highly targeted messages that were pumped directly into the feeds of target voters across America, helped by a Facebook employee embedded within the Trump campaign, according to the report.

Many of the ads were so called “dark posts”, which could vanish from recipients’ feeds once a campaign stopped paying for them.

It means no complete public record exists of the ads posted on Facebook during the 2016 campaign or the audience lists used to target voters. The platform offered no “Ad Library” at the time.

Without Facebook or the campaign itself revealing the information, it means it’s not possible to ascertain exactly how potential voters in the “Deterrence” group may have been targeted on Facebook.

The Trump campaign itself has categorically stated that it did not target African Americans, but Channel 4 News has uncovered evidence that the campaign did target Black voters with negative ads designed to crush Hillary Clinton’s turnout.

In one confidential document seen by Channel 4 News, Cambridge Analytica admitted the Trump campaign did target “AA” (African Americans) with what it called the “Predators video” – spending $55,000 USD in the state of Georgia alone.

Reacting to the Channel 4 News revelations, Jamal Watkins, vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) branded it a modern-day suppression campaign, using data and digital technology to keep Black voters at home.

“The thing that’s shocking slash troubling about this is that there’s this category of suppression. That ‘Deterrence’ part. So, we use data – similar to voter file 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,” he said.

“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’.”

A Facebook spokesperson said, “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… and have protected more than 200 elections worldwide. We also have rules prohibiting voter suppression and are running the largest voter information campaign in American history.”

The Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and the White House did not provide any comment to Channel 4 News prior to broadcast.