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The now defunct data group Cambridge Analytica targeted more than 300,000 Black voters in Virginia. It was an alleged attempt to discourage them from voting in the 2016 election, according to a report by a British news organization.

More than one third of Black Virginians targeted lived in Hampton Roads. 

According to the report, the firm helped then-candidate Donald Trump's campaign to identify certain voters who could be discouraged from going to the polls on election day. The effort encompassed 16 battleground states, including Virginia. 

A New York Times article described how Cambridge Analytica performed services under supervision from Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital director in 2016. The services included “designing target audiences for digital ads and fund-raising appeals, modeling voter turnout, buying $5 million in television ads and determining where Mr. Trump should travel to best drum up support.”

Parscale eventually became the campaign manager in 2020, before being demoted in July. 

In 2018, Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica after news reports revealed it misused the personal data of millions of people. Trump aides denied they used Cambridge’s Facebook data.

After the news reports surfaced, Virginia’s Sen. Mark Warner issued a statement that “the online political advertising market is essentially the Wild West… prone to deception and lacking in transparency.” The report on the 2016 election by the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which Sen. Warner is the vice chair, said the company had “a degree of intersection with and proximity to Russia, and specifically Russia’s intelligence services.”

The UK’s Channel 4 News team, which broke the story, said that 3.5 million Black Americans were flagged by a database belonging to Cambridge Analytica. Channel 4 said it obtained a cache of data containing 5,000 files and 5 terabytes.

The data demonstrated that 308,582 Black residents in Virginia were classified for ‘Deterrence’ by the Trump campaign in 2016, according to Channel 4 Investigations Editor Job Rabkin. Rabkin added that 58,140 Hispanic voters, 63,831 Asians, and 76,477 people in other groups were also targeted.

Jamal Watkins, vice president of civic engagement of the National Association For The Advancement Of Colored People called it a “category of suppression” in an interview with Channel 4. However, a Trump campaign official disputed the report in an interview with the Washington Post.

“Deterrence doesn’t mean suppression and it doesn’t mean deterrence from voting. It just means deterrence from voting for Hillary Clinton,” said Matt Braynard, who served as the Trump campaign’s data director in 2016.

Christopher Newport University Political Science Professor Quentin Kidd says there is an important difference between voter suppression and voter dissuasion. Suppression would involve force or intimidation -- a candidate encouraging supporters show up armed at the polls, for example. Dissuasion is what happens when voters see a negative ad, he said. It's not illegal or even all that rare. Usually, however, it's done overtly, without a hidden algorithm.

"The idea that it might be being done in secret, on social media, I think is what strikes people as somewhat alarming," he said.

Kidd, who is the Director of the Wason Center For Public Policy, added that racial context was important.

"America has a long, deep and troubled history of trying to keep Black people from voting," he said. "It has ranged at times in our history from very violent ways to very soft and subtle ways."

Gaylene Kanoyton, the president of the Hampton chapter of the NAACP says she is not surprised by the story. And her group is ready for worse to happen in 2020.

"We expected it," she said. "We expect voter suppression in every election. We are gearing up our volunteers, our lawyers, poll monitors for this election that's coming up now. And so this is nothing new for us."