Interference in Russia’s 2016 Elections: What’s Real, What’s Exaggerated?


Russian trolls have been greatly exaggerated.

This is the implication of New study in Nature Communications, written by a team of six academics who attempted to assess whether the Russian government’s propaganda efforts on Twitter during the 2016 crackdown actually changed users’ opinions. “We found no evidence of a meaningful relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior,” the authors write.

This is not a surprise to me – i long thought Russian troll farms had little effect. But as the Trump-Russia scandal remains a fiercely contested subject – with many on the right And some “non-orthodox” leftists continue to wonder Whether Russia did anything at all matters – It is worth looking back and evaluating what the Russian government did that year. Because it was nothing.

Basically, the Russian government tried to interfere in the 2016 elections, and it did so in two main ways.

First, there was a social media propaganda effort: Russian trolls. On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the Russians pretended to be Americans and posted content intended to inflame US political tensions, often attacking Hillary Clinton and supporting Donald Trump. It did happen, and it was somewhat unusual, but as this new study confirms, there’s no compelling reason to think it made any difference to Americans’ voting behavior. Russian propaganda was just another drop in the ocean of media and social media messages that Americans were swimming in.

Second, and more importantly, there were the stolen emails: the hack and the leak. Russian intelligence officers hacked and got it Emails and documents are from several senior Democrats and have been made public – giving some to WikiLeaks, providing others to reporters, and posting more on websites they control.

These hacks and releases made an impact—especially since it was a negative story for Clinton that ran throughout the last month of the campaign. But did they swing the election? That is, in a real world with no Russian meddling, would Clinton have won? My review is “probably not”, but it’s hard to say definitively for sure.

However, these interventions were unusual in the context of US elections. It was appropriate to treat them like a big deal and it is understandable that Americans might resent Russia trying to change their votes. There have been real victims here, from people who’ve seen their private correspondence dumped online, and it’s certainly important to deter such intrusions from happening in the future.

Russian trolls didn’t swing in the 2016 election

The Russian social media propaganda effort was carried out by the Internet Research Agency, an organization based in Saint Petersburg and funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin — a Russian oligarch close to Putin who also heads the Wagner Group (a paramilitary group active in the Russia and Ukraine war). The IRA is not officially a government agency, but a Bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee It concluded that “the Russian government commissioned and supported” efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.

IRA personnel set up online accounts, purporting to be American, and posted inflammatory or frivolous material about American politics. a lot of this material Was rude or silly, but the general trend was clear: He tended to praise Trump and attack Hillary Clinton. The IRA also paid for online ads displaying the following pro-Trump and anti-Clinton messages, as shown in this table from the indictment Robert brought it Mueller teamcommissioned to investigate Russian interference in the elections:

Online advertisements allegedly paid for by the Internet Research Agency
An indictment from the Internet Research AgencyUS Department of Justice

All this was the source of much fascination and media attention when News of him appeared after the election. Facebook estimated IRA messages have reached as many as 126 million people on their platform, which sure seems like a lot. “All of us who use social media to keep up with friends, share photos, and catch up on the news leave us wondering: How did the Russians get to me?” Jeffrey Fowler wrote for The Washington Post in November 2017.

But there were always strong reasons to suspect that IRA fliers had much influence, despite those frightening numbers. If I scroll through Twitter for just 15 minutes, I can be “reached” by messages from hundreds of sources, if not more. I’ll again use the metaphor that these were drops in the ocean: Americans have been swimming in messages about the 2016 election from all kinds of traditional media and social media sources for months (in addition to campaigns and their ads), and there has been no reason to believe that the posts or ads are Russian. It has extra special persuasive powers that all those other messages lack.

Now, the authors Nature Communications Study – Gregory Eddy, Tom Pascalis, Jan Zielinski, Richard Bono, Jonathan Nagler, and Joshua A. Tucker – conducted Their own analysis drives this home. Back in 2016, they polled nearly 1,500 American Twitter users at various points in the campaign, going back to the same respondents to track how their opinions had changed. They also analyzed all of the Twitter accounts these respondents followed to see how many had been exposed to Internet Research Agency content.

Overall, they found that 70 percent of exposures to IRA posts were concentrated among the 1 percent of respondents, and these participants were mostly partisan Republicans who actually liked Trump. This makes sense, given what we know about social media — if you search for anti-Clinton, pro-Trump content, that’s what you’ll find, either because of algorithmic recommendations or accounts you follow simply retweeting messages they approved of without knowing much about who was saying it. This is the kind of content the IRA was providing. But the result He points out that the IRA’s messaging has not been precisely calibrated to target swing voters.

The authors also put exposure to these messages in perspective by finding that users had far more posts from traditional media and politicians on their timelines than Russian trolls — “an order of magnitude,” they wrote. In the end, their survey results “did not reveal any meaningful relationships between exposure to posts from accounts of Russian foreign influence and changes in respondents’ attitudes on issues, political polarization, or voting behavior.”

Now, it is true that this is just a study of Twitter posts and not other social media platforms like Facebook where the IRA has also been active. But the general reasoning is sound. Americans can certainly resent Russian efforts to promote their views, and Mueller’s team has argued that much of what they have done violates US laws. But the Russians did not have some poignant magic message that warped the minds of Americans and forced them to support Donald Trump.

Hack and Leak Was a Bigger Deal (But Maybe the Election Didn’t Swing)

In 2016, Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, went on a hacking spree on Americans involved in politics or government.

Utilization Simple phishing emails (links to a fake Google page asking people to enter their password), they gained access to the email accounts of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, as well as several Clinton staffers, volunteers, and advisors. according to Mueller reportThey defrauded an employee of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which obtained their credentials to access the DCCC computer network and eventually the DNC’s connected network. The hackers then used the malware to collect emails and documents.

(Some critics of the Russia investigation, such as journalist Matt Tibi You should still be skeptical That the hack was being done by the Russian government, however Mueller report so is it An indictment against 12 Russian intelligence officers providing a wealth of detailed, specific claims about exactly how these breaches occurred and which specific GRU officers and units were responsible. This is inconvenient for Russiagate skeptics, so they tend to ignore it.)

Foreign hacking is far from unusual; The Chinese government, for example, It was said Hack the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, and it’s possible the United States did too. An upsetting departure was what happened next: stolen information began to appear publicly, in massive accounts. (Another unusual aspect is that one of the leading candidates publicly welcomed this interference with Trump publicly urged Russia to “find” more Clinton emails).

The GRU used the persona “Guccifer 2.0” (“Guccifer” was a name used by an imprisoned Romanian hacker) and registered a website, DC Leaksand publish the hacked material there and give some of it to reporters. But two specific batches were saved to WikiLeaks, a nonprofit organization that has published leaked US government material in the past.

First, in late July 2016, before the Democratic National Convention, WikiLeaks Thousands of DNC emails published He revealed that several members of the DNC have spoken privately of Bernie Sanders with disdain. revelation DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz led and other senior staff to resign. Overall it was an ugly start to the Democratic convention.

Second, in early October 2016, WikiLeaks began publishing Podesta’s emails – and will continue to release them in batches during the election. Podesta’s emails weren’t explosive, but in anyone’s private email there would be embarrassing material they’d rather keep private, and if that embarrassing material was released about just one candidate, there could be an impact. So every new release led to some media coverage, and they were described constantly By Trump on the campaign trail, who often claimed without foundation They disclosed some irregularities or others.

trump sank into the polls In the first half of October, where controversy aroused Get to Hollywood The tape hit the news. In the second half of the month, the news cycle continued and poll numbers rebounded. He didn’t overtake Clinton in the polls, but he came close — close enough to claim wins by less than one percentage point in three key swing states.

However, I would be hesitant to claim that drip drip in Podesta’s email coverage was responsible for Trump’s recovery. Part of it could simply have been about Republican supporters briefly stranded by his scandals “coming home” before the election — a process that might have unfolded even if there had been no Russian involvement. (Trump has improved in the polls In the latter half of October 2020also.)

This can be proven, simply by keeping the words “Clinton” and “Email messagesIn the news for a month, Podesta’s releases hurt her campaign (since any coverage of the leaks would remind voters of a separate issue, FBI investigation of Clinton emails). However, it is much easier to prove that FBI Director James Comey’s late-October letter saying that new Clinton emails had been discovered changed the outcome, since argued Nate Silver, from Russian hacks and leaks. Comey’s letter was a separate event that dominated the headlines and preceded a sharp turnaround in opinion polls, while Podesta’s leaks were one of many stories simmering in the background throughout October.

So I was never convinced that Russia fully elected Trump. That’s the limit, notwithstanding the exaggerated Russian trolls, it seems to me that the hack and leak was a resultant interference that hurt Clinton and the Democrats to some extent. It was indeed an attempt to sway American votes and hurt a presidential candidate Russia didn’t like — an effort that violated US laws against hacking and campaign disclosure. The intervention was real and the investigation was justified, and the anger at the Russian government for what it tried to do was also justified.





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