New Study Confirms Russian Twitter Bots Did Nothing to Influence the 2016 Election
Euphoric Recall is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
According to a new “groundbreaking” in-depth study, Russian influence operations on Twitter in the 2016 presidential election reached relatively few users, most of whom were highly partisan Republicans, and the Russian accounts had no measurable impact in changing minds or influencing voter behavior.
“We find no evidence of a meaningful relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior,” concluded the study, which the New York University Center for Social Media and Politics published Monday morning.
Most importantly, according to the study, based on a longitudinal survey of roughly 1,500 Americans and an analysis of their Twitter timelines, “the relationship between the number of posts from Russian foreign influence accounts that users are exposed to and voting for Donald Trump is near zero (and not statistically significant).”
“My personal sense coming out of this is that this got way overhyped,” Josh Tucker, one of the report’s authors who is also the co-director of the New York University center, told the Washington Post about the meaningfulness of the Russian tweets.
“Now we’re looking back at data and we can see how concentrated this was in one small portion of the population, and how the fact that people who were being exposed to these were really, really likely to vote for Trump,” Tucker said. “And then we have this data to show we can’t find any relationship between being exposed to these tweets and people’s change in attitudes.”
But in classic denialist fashion, team Hillary and the Left more broadly have laughed these findings off in order to salvage the thesis that Clinton would’ve become president but for Putin’s interference. Their argument is that this new study doesn’t examine other social media, like the much-larger Facebook. They also reference the Mueller report, which ultimately concluded in April 2019 that the Russian government, by way of its Internet Research Agency and other Russian troll farm operatives, “interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”
Thus, they cling to the claim that those dastardly Russian ne’er-do-wells and swindlers swung the election in Trump’s favor, and that were it not for those sons of bitches, Hillary Rodham Clinton, rightful heir to the throne, would’ve been properly coronated. Instead, we got the Bad Orange Man w/Mean Tweets, an “illegitimate” president. This notion that Russia somehow weaponized social media to rob Clinton of the election is still widely taken as gospel in liberal circles.
Let us stipulate that the following is true: Russian intelligence operatives tried to instigate conflict in the U.S. by targeting specific audiences with memes and ads online.
This falls far short of the McCarthyism 2.0 that influential members of today’s American establishment, not only marginal conspiracy theorists, fueled in order to absolve Hillary Clinton of blame for losing the 2016 election. The central claim was straight out of a Hollywood political thriller: That the forty-fifth U.S. president was installed by one of America’s greatest foreign adversaries to do its bidding.
This was not just some lunatic fringe theory propagated in certain liberal circles; this was obsessively promulgated for years by the Left. A Gallup poll in August 2018 showed that 78% of Democrats believed not only that Russia interfered in the election but also that it changed the outcome, denying Hillary Clinton the presidency.
So, in terms of burden of proof, you would need to demonstrate that the decisive factor in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was Russian psyops, as opposed to Clinton’s impressive lack of appeal as a candidate and Trump’s success in harnessing a burgeoning populist movement.
As I have argued before, far from being a sophisticated propaganda campaign, Russia’s “election interference” was marginal, amateurish, and mostly unrelated to the 2016 election. If this is news to you, you’re not to be blamed. The mainstream media has grossly misled the American public on this, sensationalizing the hell out of nothing and ignoring all evidence to the contrary.
Headlines warned that Russian trolls tried to suppress the African-American vote, recruit assets, and “sow discord” or “hack the 2016 election” via sex-toy ads and Pokémon Go. “The studies,” wrote the habitually overwrought David Ignatius of the Washington Post, “describe a sophisticated, multilevel Russian effort to use every available tool of our open society to create resentment, mistrust and social disorder,” demonstrating that the Russians, “thanks to the Internet…seem to be perfecting these dark arts.” According to Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times, “it looks increasingly as though” Russian disinformation “changed the direction of American history” in the narrowly decided 2016 election, when “Russian trolling easily could have made the difference.”
None of this is true. Except for maybe the “sow discord part,” though you’d be hard-pressed to demonstrate such efforts were successful. We know this thanks to two significant reports from the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Research Project and the firm New Knowledge that provide the most thorough look at Russian social-media activity. These reports came out in 2018, but the mainstream media propagandists have studiously ignored them, lest they be forced to acknowledge that the 2016 election was not in fact illegitimate, which would cause some serious cognitive dissonance indeed.
The most striking fact is how minimally this “malicious” social media activity impacted the 2016 campaign. The New Knowledge report found that evaluating IRA content “purely based on whether it definitively swung the election is too narrow a focus,” as the “explicitly political content was a small percentage.” To be exact, just “11% of the total content” attributed to the IRA and 33% of user engagement with it “was related to the election.” The IRA’s posts “were minimally about the candidates,” with “roughly 6% of tweets, 18% of Instagram posts, and 7% of Facebook posts” having “mentioned Trump or Clinton by name.”
According to Facebook’s Colin Stretch, who testified in front of Congress in October 2017, posts generated by suspected Russian accounts showing up in Facebook’s News Feed amounted to “approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content.” Per Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Research Project, the Russians spent an infinitesimal amount of money on these social media memes and ads: $73,711 between 2015 and 2017, with about $46,000 spent on Facebook ads before the 2016 election. For context, that amounts to about 0.05% of the $81 million spent on Facebook ads by the Clinton and Trump campaigns combined.
Are we to assume that though the amount Russia spent equated to mere drops in the ocean of advertising by the Clinton and Trump campaigns, these ads and memes were disproportionately effective in influencing American voters because of their unique sophistication? Well, sophisticated this stuff was not. There’s a reason that those who cry wolf the loudest about Russian social-media posts supposedly affecting the 2016 election never actually cite the posts they think achieved that end.
Of the Russian operation’s offerings, the most shared pre-election Facebook post was a cartoon of a gun-wielding Yosemite Sam:
Over on Instagram, the best-received image — a whopping 87,750 likes — urged users to give it a like if they believed in Jesus. That’s it. “Like if you believe; keep scrolling if you don’t.” Absolutely nefarious. The top IRA post on Twitter before the election to mention Hillary Clinton was a conspiratorial screed about voter fraud.
No, this stuff wasn’t sophisticated. In fact, much of the content spread by the Russian IRA suggests that they were engaging in “clickbait capitalism,” according to Aaron Mate, whereby they targeted unique demographics like African Americans or evangelicals “in a bid to attract large audiences for commercial purposes.” This is commonly referred to as a “social media marketing campaign” in industry parlance. Mueller’s indictment of the IRA disclosed that Russia sold “promotions and advertisements” on its pages that generally fetched between $25-$50. “This strategy,” the Oxford report observes, “is not an invention for politics and foreign intrigue, it is consistent with techniques used in digital marketing.” The New Knowledge report notes that the IRA even sold merchandise that “perhaps provided the IRA with a source of revenue,” hawking goods such as T-shirts, “LGBT-positive sex toys and many variants of triptych and 5-panel artwork featuring traditionally conservative, patriotic themes.”
And as far as the recruitment of “assets” that CNN was particularly concerned about: The New Knowledge report claims that exploiting “sexual behavior” was a key component of the IRA’s “human asset recruitment strategy” in the United States. “Recruiting an asset by exploiting a personal vulnerability,” the report explains, “is a timeless espionage practice.” The first example of said timeless espionage practice is of an ad featuring Jesus consoling a dejected young man by telling him: “Struggling with the addiction to masturbation? Reach out to me and we will beat it together.”
Lest you should underestimate the “dark arts” perpetrated by Russia on the American people in the lead-up to the 2016 election, New Knowledge states that there was “some success with several of these human-activation attempts.” Indeed. Among these successes were a series of protests in Florida where “it’s unclear if anyone attended”; “no people showed up to at least one”; and “ragtag groups” showed up at others, including one where video footage captured a crowd of eight people. The most successful effort occurred in Houston where “Russian trolls allegedly organized dueling rallies pitting a dozen white supremacists against several dozen counter-protesters outside an Islamic center.”
Contrast all this with the prevailing narrative of the post-2016 era: that social media platforms like Twitter are routinely co-opted by insidious foreign actors intent on interfering with American political outcomes. As panic over third-rate Russian propaganda spread throughout Congress, academia, business, and the U.S. intelligence community, it became an article of faith on the Left that “Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior” had swung the election in Trump’s favor. An entire cottage industry sprouted up to combat what Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., characterized as a full-blown national security crisis—an industry that remains to this day. And as the Twitter Files have revealed, a sprawling censorship regime was constructed specifically to “mitigate” the kind of “harm” that’d been done to Hillary Clinton.
The specter of “Russian bots” undermining Our Democracy™ is still a byword of liberal anxiety and a go-to explanation for Democrats who’ve been unable to come to grips with Trump’s unlikely victory. And while this new study from the New York University Center for Social Media, combined with the reports from the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Research Project and the firm New Knowledge, should put to bed any question that the 2016 election was illegitimate, especially after Russiagate has been so thoroughly debunked, it won’t. Contemporary Left-wing political ideology is driven by sectarian logic. So long as the subject in question is placed on the “correct” side of a sectarian dispute — the “right side of history” — the actual truth matters not.