Since the 2016 presidential election, the notion that the Russian government somehow “weaponized” social media to push voters to Donald Trump has been widely taken as a gospel in liberal circles. A groundbreaking recent New York University study, however, says there’s no evidence Russian tweets had any meaningful effect at all.
“We demonstrate, first, that exposure to Russian disinformation accounts was heavily concentrated: only 1% of users accounted for 70% of exposures,” the scholars wrote in the journal Nature Communications. “Second, exposure was concentrated among users who strongly identified as Republicans. Third, exposure to the Russian influence campaign was eclipsed by content from domestic news media and politicians. Finally, we find no evidence of a meaningful relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior.”
The research, conducted by NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics, is a rare counter to what’s become the prevailing media narrative of the post-2016 era: that social platforms like Twitter were and will continue to be wielded by malicious foreign actors to interfere with American political outcomes.
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).”
That Russian intelligence attempted to influence the 2016 election, broadly speaking, is by now well documented; the idea that the propagandizing amounted to anything other than headlines and congressional hearings, however, is little more than an article of faith. While their impact remains debated among scholars, the specter of “Russian bots” wreaking havoc across the web has become a byword of liberal anxiety and a go-to explanation for Democrats flummoxed by Trump’s unlikely victory.
The NYU study found that Russia’s Twitter campaign had no effect in part because barely anyone saw it. Moreover, to the extent anyone ever saw the Russian tweets, it was people who weren’t going to be easily influenced anyway: “[T]hose who identified as ‘Strong Republicans’ were exposed to roughly nine times as many posts from Russian foreign influence accounts than were those who identified as Democrats or Independents.”
After 2016, as platforms like Twitter rushed to scrub networks of Russian accounts based on the premise they were inherently harmful, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., characterized Russian tweets as a full-blown national security crisis. Following a September 2017 congressional hearing on Russian social media meddling, Warner described Twitter’s testimony as “deeply disappointing,” and decried an “enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions, and again begs many more questions than they offered.”
This stance became a popular stance among Russia hawks and Trump foes. A year later, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., tweeted, “Russian troll accounts were still active on Twitter as recently as this year, interfering in our politics. We will continue to expose this malign online activity so Americans can see first-hand the tools Russia uses to divide us.”
Panic over Russian tweets and the belief they might swing elections spread throughout Congress, academia, business, and the U.S. intelligence community. A cottage industry spouted up to combat what Facebook termed “Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior” — an industry that lives on today.
Crucially, the report focused only on tweets, so the possible effect of Facebook groups, Instagram posts, or, say, the spread of materials hacked from the Democratic National Committee was left unassessed. The report nonetheless serves as a gentle evidence-based corrective to societal fears of low-effort social media propagandizing as some diabolical tool of adversarial regimes.
Russian tweets, the authors note, were a small speck when compared to homegrown posters. “Despite the seemingly large number of posts from Internet Research Agency accounts in respondents’ timelines,” the report says, “they are overshadowed—by an order of magnitude—by posts from national news media and politicians.”