Russian Interference in the 2016 Election Was Negligible
And no, the election was not "illegitimate."
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My last post did not sit well with some folks. It resulted in the most cancelled subscriptions yet. Which is fine; I cannot please everyone, and I'm not infallible.
But I also received two not very nice emails in response, both of them written by individuals beholden to the explicative ability of a toothless toddler. The takeaway was pretty clear, though: If any election was illegitimate, it was the one in 2016.1 Also: Yours truly is apparently some sort of closet authoritarian who sympathizes with populist demagogues. Just a heads up.
I am indeed a populist, if we’re going off the textbook definition of that label—someone who’s anti-establishment and open to unorthodox solutions or policies that appeal to common people. If forced to choose between the populist wave we’ve witnessed in recent years on both sides of the Atlantic and the technocratic neoliberal revolution carried out in the last half century by national managerial elites, I side with the former. I see populism in the United States as a predictable and disruptive backlash against oligarchic misrule, but since the rise of Trump it’s been maligned as a revival of Nazi-style totalitarianism. This historically illiterate take has spawned two competing narratives, both of them beyond idiotic, which the Democratic academic Michael Lind highlights in The New Class War.
One narrative holds that Vladimir Putin’s regime, by using a series of sophisticated psyops on the American people, managed to manipulate the public into electing Donald Trump. A rival narrative asserts that it wasn’t Russian interference so much as the dark sorcery of Trump-as-demagogue that triggered the dormant “authoritarian personalities” of voters, particularly white working-class folks, many of whom, it is claimed, will fill the ranks of a fascist army if properly mobilized.
As I have pointed out before in this newsletter, the reductio ad absurdum of this two-tiered imbecility began when left-wing types adopted the term “Resistance,” lifting it from the WWII era, with the implication being a supposed parallel between Democrats and the heroic anti-Nazis of the French Resistance. This anti-fascist theme gave rise to the Antifa anarchist movement, which is predominantly comprised of the spoiled white children of the elite class who like to play dress-up and vandalize property and attack people while pretending their otherwise meaningless lives are committed to a cause of great import.
It requires an immense degree of paranoid demonological thinking to convince oneself that anti-establishment populism is really a front for pro-Russian fascism. It also requires one to be so ideologically blinkered that you’re essentially blind to the fact that this paranoid demonological thinking is a much greater threat to democracy than any populist movement. The contempt it betrays is no small matter. In this paradigm, liberals believe voters who support populist causes or candidates are easily manipulated dullards who fall for foreign propaganda and carry water for domestic demagogues. Populism is thus dismissed as the irrational impulse of maladjusted voters instead of a political movement based on legitimate grievances.
Worst of all, the gross hyperbole that’s been normalized thanks to the myth that Russia gave the presidency to Trump — i.e. - the constant, over-wrought comparisons of contemporary America to the rise of the Nazis in Germany’s Weimar Republic — has been used by liberal elites, with their near-monopoly of political, economic, and media power, to justify more and more heavy-handed censorship against conservative voices. If opponents to neoliberalism are Russian stooges and abettors of Literal Fascism™, then all forms of disagreement to neoliberal policies on everything from immigration to gun control can be deemed tantamount to the rejection of democracy itself. In this way, all deviation from The Narrative™ is met with reflexive calls for censorship and repression. The slope is slippery, indeed.
Let’s talk about the 2016 election, since my two email buddies pointed to it as “illegitimate.”2 According to the establishment’s anti-populist storyline, Putin’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) successfully used social media — namely, Facebook — to basically hypnotize supporters of Donald Trump to, well, support Donald Trump. Here’s the thing, though: The Russiagate scandal began before the election when the Clinton campaign, certain elements within the Obama administration, and various members of the U.S. law enforcement and national security establishments spread rumors of alleged links between Russia and the Trump campaign to the media, including the false story that Trump was being blackmailed by the Kremlin with a videotape of him frolicking in the sheets with Russian prostitutes and enjoying some golden showers.
Then, when he won, Trump’s political enemies, led by one Hillary Rodham Clinton, claimed that those dastardly Russian ne’er-do-wells and swindlers had swung the election in his favor, and that were it not for those sons of bitches, Clinton, rightful heir to the throne, would’ve been properly coronated. Instead, the Bad Orange Man w/Mean Tweets was installed in the White House by Putin as a Russian puppet, it was widely asserted, by way of two courses of action. COA #1 was via Russian assistance to the website WikiLeaks, which leaked material damaging to Clinton and her allies. COA #2 was via propaganda on Facebook and other social media platforms to suppress black voters and encourage some white folks who’d voted for Obama in 2012 to vote for Trump in 2016.
I’ve read the Mueller report. I have it on Kindle. I regret spending money on it, but it had to be done. Spoiler alert: No evidence was found that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election. It was Spring 2019 when that was announced. To say that it left Trump’s detractors disappointed would be a woeful understatement. Luckily for these people, Mueller and his team, in addition to indicting some Trump campaign officials on unrelated charges, did charge a number of Russians with criminal interference in the 2016 election. This allowed Trump’s opponents to salvage the thesis that Clinton would’ve become president but for Putin’s interference.
Let us stipulate that the following is true: Russian intelligence operatives tried to instigate conflict in the U.S. by helping whistle-blowers like WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden leak hacked classified information and 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 progressive circles; this was obsessively promulgated for years by the Left.3 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 psyops conducted by Russian trolls was the decisive factor in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, as opposed to Clinton’s impressive lack of appeal as a candidate.
Russia’s “Election Meddling”
Far from being a sophisticated propaganda campaign, Russia’s “election interference” was tiny, amateurish, and mostly unrelated to the 2016 election.
If this is news to you, you’re not to be blamed. The mainstream media grossly misled the American public on this, sensationalizing the hell out of nothing. 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 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.”
As Aaron Mate of The Nation pointed out back in 2018, none of this is true. Except for maybe the “sow discord part.” 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.
The most striking fact is how minimally this 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.4
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 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.”
If you’re asking yourself whether it’s really possible that all of the hullabaloo about “Russian meddling” in the 2016 election, which supposedly gave Trump the White House, has always been about nothing more than a juvenile social-media operation of which “the focus on elections was merely a small subset,” the answer is yes. Not only was the content mostly unrelated to the presidential election, but it was microscopic in reach and engagement and spending. And I’d like to point out that the mainstream media’s claim that these amateurish Russian social media posts suppressed the black vote reeks of paternalism and condescension. It’s one thing to note that the black audience was a targeted demographic; it’s another thing entirely to imply that puerile content from Russian trolls somehow duped black folks into not voting. These same media bobbleheads would bristle at the suggestion that they’d be susceptible to such ridiculous content, so what does it say about their attitude toward the people that they presume could be so vulnerable?5
It’s clear that entertaining the possibility Russian trolls influenced the outcome of the 2016 election requires one’s capacity for common sense to be roughly equivalent to that of a Taiwanese kindergartener. You’d have to be wholly lacking in acquaintance with elementary standards of logic and probability and arithmetic.
Even the New York Times corroborated this judgement. Just days after the New Knowledge report was released, the Times acknowledged that the company had carried out “a secret experiment” in the 2017 Alabama Senate race using “many of the [Russian] tactics now understood to have influenced the 2016 elections,” going so far as to stage an “elaborate ‘false flag’ operation” based on the idea that the Republican candidate, Roy Moore, was backed by Russian bots. The Times stated that the project had a budget of $100,000, which it says “was likely too small to have a significant effect on the race.” A Democratic operative concurred, telling the Times that “it was impossible that a $100,000 operation had an impact.”
The Alabama Senate race cost $51 million. Here’s where the need for simple arithmetic and logic comes into play: If it was impossible for a $100,000 New Knowledge operation to affect a 2017 state election, then how could a slightly more expensive Russian operation make an impact on a $2.4 billion presidential election in 2016?
As it happens, the 2016 election need not be explained using claims of Russian interference. This has always been the case, for anyone willing to see the truth for what it is. In July 2016, after correctly predicting that Trump would be the Republican candidate for president, progressive documentary filmmaker Michael Moore wrote an essay on his website, “5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win.” According to Moore, who had achieved fame by documenting the industrial decline of the Midwest, the most important reason why Trump would defeat Clinton was the regional economy:
“I believe Trump is going to focus much of his attention on the four blue states in the rustbelt of the upper Great Lakes—Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Four traditionally Democratic states—but each of them have elected a Republican governor since 2010 (only Pennsylvania has now finally elected a Democrat). . . . Trump is going to hammer Clinton on this and her support of TPP and other trade policies that have royally screwed the people of these four states. . . . From Green Bay to Pittsburgh, this, my friends, is the middle of England—broken, depressed, struggling, the smokestacks strewn across the countryside with the carcass of what we use to call the Middle Class. . . . What happened in the UK with Brexit is going to happen here. . . . And this is where the math comes in. In 2012, Mitt Romney lost by 64 electoral votes. Add up the electoral votes cast by Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It’s 64. All Trump needs to do to win is to carry, as he’s expected to do, the swath of traditional red states from Idaho to Georgia (states that’ll never vote for Hillary Clinton), and then he just needs these four rust belt states. He doesn’t need Florida. He doesn’t need Colorado or Virginia. Just Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And that will put him over the top. This is how it will happen in November.”
According to political scientist Alan I. Abramowitz, Trump actually performed more poorly than he should have in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, based on shifts already under way from the Democrats to the Republicans in those states: “There is no evidence here that Russian interference, to the extent that it occurred, did anything to help Trump in these three states.”
Nevertheless, in 2018, Hillary Clinton told Britain’s Channel Four News: “The real question is how did the Russians know how to target their messages so precisely to undecided voters in Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania—that is really the nub of the question.”
No, Hillary, you silly goose. The real question is why people like the two rather less than polite individuals who graced my inbox can’t seem to understand that arguably Trump’s greatest strength as a candidate was the simple fact that he was the perfect foil to his opponent. Between 1981 and 2013, a Clinton or a Bush was president, vice president, or secretary of state in every year. As previously written about in this here letter of news, this was a period in which the white working class was absolutely gutted by stagnating income, the outsourcing of manufacturing, and the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. It was also an era that saw the U.S. trap itself in multiple disastrous military conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia. As a reminder, the Bad Orange Man w/Mean Tweets ran against a Bush in the Republican primaries, and a Clinton in the general election. You needn’t have been fatidic to surmise that many American voters would be eager to put a stop to another round of more of the same technocratic neoliberal BS.
Note that I never said any election was illegitimate. So.
Always funny how it’s considered beyond the pale for those on the Right to question election integrity, but it’s totally okay for those on the Left to do so. Rules for thee, but not for me.
In contrast, the McCarthyism of the 1950s took the form of conservatives accusing establishment liberals of being pawns of Soviet Russia. Only the lunatic fringe of the anticommunist right during the Cold War drew the conclusion that the president was a Soviet agent or that mainstream politicians were secret communists. Russiagate, on the other hand, was a hoax spread as fact by everyone from the DNC to the mainstream media. The idea was that it was only a matter of time before the particulars were revealed.
Another anti-Clinton ad on Facebook attributed to Russian trolls showed a photo of Bernie Sanders with the words: “Bernie Sanders: The Clinton Foundation is a ‘Problem.’” A pro-Trump meme, presumably targeting religious conservatives, showed Satan wrestling with Jesus. Satan: “If I win Clinton wins!” Jesus: “Not if I can help it!”