Missouri’s 5th District Congressman is expressing concern over Russian ads on social media intended to gin up racial division before last year’s election.
After first denying it had been manipulated, Facebook admitted in a video late last month from Chief Executive Mark Zuckerburg that ads linked to the Russian government had been placed on the social media site.
Facebook Vice President Joel Kaplan told the New York Times that ads purchased through Russian sources attempted to stir up reaction over numerous divisive political issues, including immigration, gay rights and race.
Democrat Emanuel Cleaver II of Kansas City joined fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in grilling Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg earlier this month on what the media giant is doing to address the issue.
Cleaver said in an interview with Missourinet that he told Sandberg the country doesn’t need any help drumming up racial tension. “The country does a pretty job itself”, said Cleaver. “And Russia, we know, and Facebook admits, has played on the fact that the U.S. has had trouble with race relations for the past 300 years.”
Facebook announced last month it was sending 3,000 ads it had linked to the Russian government to a special counsel investigating that country’s involvement in the U.S. elections, as well as to Congress. The company has not made the ads public.
Cleaver thinks the role Russia is now known to have played in attempting to strain race relations poses a threat to the U.S. “If we are giving people an opportunity to disseminate information that they know is dangerous in terms of race relations in this country, then we are setting ourselves up for an awful future.”
During Sandberg’s visit with the CBC, Cleaver told the Facebook executive about a 2014 incident in which a man attempted to bomb his Kansas City office. He said the man, who had also targeted government outposts and financial institutions for vandalism, represents an element of society that acts on conspiracy theories.
The western Missouri Congressman told Missourinet the misinformation being manipulated through Facebook reminded him of false claims made by a radio talk show caller about one of his cousins, early Black Panthers leader Eldridge Cleaver.
“In an attempt to hurt me, he says ‘Well he’s has a cousin that’s killed police officers.’ That kind of information is dangerous. And that’s what’s going on on Facebook.”
Cleaver says the CBC wants Facebook to do a better job in preventing itself from being used to spread inflammatory language, especially on race.
“We want them to be a bit more care careful in dealing with their platform, and how to reduce the negative impact it’s going to have, especially on race. We have a great deal of mistrust already. We don’t need any help (with that). We need to figure how to fix it.”
Members of the CBC are also concerned that American law enforcement could be influenced by Russian efforts to exploit racial division. The Caucus has sent a letter to the FBI asking for a meeting over the agency’s new crime classification under “Black Identity Extremists”.
Cleaver said he hadn’t examined those developments. He did indicate the level of extreme activity in the country has led to instability. “If you look at newspapers and read all of the things that are going in our country, it could easily give people the idea that we need some medication because we’re having a nervous breakdown.”
Cleaver’s 5th Congressional District includes Kansas City as well as Clay, Jackson, Lafayette, Ray and Saline counties.