Study Says Russian Trolls Didn't Have Much Influence On Election; But It's More Complicated Than That
from the nothing-is-black-and-white dept
Since the election, I’ve been pretty firmly in the camp that believes that those who rushed to blame social media and things like (well documented) Russian attempts to interfere in the election via social media, have been vastly blown out of proportion. It’s resulted in silly things like famous comedians suggesting that if Mark Zuckerberg allows Russians trolls to try to influence another election Zuck should go to jail. That’s just silly. Much of it, to me, seems to be people who expected one outcome in the 2020 election casting blame towards something they could latch onto. Did Russian trolls try to use social media to influence the election? Absolutely. Did the results of the 2016 Presidential election surprise the politically savvy? Absolutely. Does that single correlation mean anything? There’s been little evidence to suggest there is, even as many people assume their must be.
Given those priors, you might think that I’d be quick to jump on board a new study that suggests that my intuition is accurate. The study, entitled Russian Influence on US Twitter Users, by some Duke University researchers suggests little impact from Russian trolling operations.
There is widespread concern that Russia and other countries have launched social-media campaigns designed to increase political divisions in the United States. Though a growing number of studies analyze the strategy of such campaigns, it is not yet known how these efforts shaped the political attitudes and behaviors of Americans. We study this question using longitudinal data that describe the attitudes and online behaviors of 1,239 Republican and Democratic Twitter users from late 2017 merged with nonpublic data about the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) from Twitter. Using Bayesian regression tree models, we find no evidence that interaction with IRA accounts substantially impacted 6 distinctive measures of political attitudes and behaviors over a 1-mo period. We also find that interaction with IRA accounts were most common among respondents with strong ideological homophily within their Twitter network, high interest in politics, and high frequency of Twitter usage. Together, these findings suggest that Russian trolls might have failed to sow discord because they mostly interacted with those who were already highly polarized. We conclude by discussing several important limitations of our study?especially our inability to determine whether IRA accounts influenced the 2016 presidential election?as well as its implications for future research on social media influence campaigns, political polarization, and computational social science.
As Will Oremus summarizes at OneZero, the evidence mostly suggests that “the people most likely to interact with Russian trolls are the ones who were already the most entrenched in their partisan views.” And thus, the people least likely to change their views in the first place.
In short, ?the type of people who are most likely to interact with political influence campaigns are the least likely to be influenced by them,? said Christopher Bail, the paper?s lead author, who is a professor of sociology at Duke and the director of its Polarization Lab. That doesn?t mean the tweets had zero effect, but they failed to move the needle on any of six survey questions designed to measure different ways that one?s politics could change.
In a phone interview, Bail also highlighted two other reasons Russian influence campaigns might struggle to make a measurable impact. One is that their content makes up only a tiny fraction of most users? feeds, if any. Another is that previous research has shown that political persuasion in general tends to be challenging, and the effects of political advertising hard to detect. ?We know that most attempts to influence people?s politics fail,? Bail said. ?Put in that light, why should we expect Russians to have influence if the most sophisticated American campaigns can?t move voters??
The results of this study also support other research that found little direct impact from Russian online propaganda campaigns, which only seemed to generate real momentum once the propaganda/conspiracy theories appeared on Fox News. So, in those cases, there was influence, but only once the gullible suckers at Fox bit on them.
Still, I’m not sure that this study really actually shows that much. It’s a useful addition to the literature, to be sure, but there are some pretty significant limitations to the study and its findings — which, to their credit as good academic researchers, the authors of this study readily admit and highlight. Still, Renee DiResta, who also studies these things (currently at Stanford) had a good Twitter thread about this study, highlighting some of the challenges in determining the actual impact. In that thread, she notes that the trolling campaign wasn’t always about trying to drive voters from one candidate to another, but often to do what it appears to have actually done, which was to entrench certain views (perhaps destructive views) and to divide people. And, even if everything in the study above is accurate and true, those two goals might have been accomplished anyway.
And, of course, it’s difficult to measure “persuasion” anyway, and it’s even more difficult to measure “impact” on any particular voter or set of voters of a single channel of messages, given just how many bits of information everyone processes every damn day. Josh Farkas, who also studies this stuff, highlighted another critique of this style of study, amusingly quoting from a book from the 1960s, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes that similarly notes that most studies on propaganda show little direct result from any individual piece of propaganda. But that doesn’t mean the propaganda wasn’t useful:
?propaganda's effectiveness cannot be measured on the basis of results obtained in one? domain? To do so would be to be hasty and to misunderstand basic differences.?
— Johan Farkas (@farkasjohan) November 26, 2019
Farkas quotes further, including: “You cannot measure with any precision the effects of a film because you cannot dissociate it from current newspaper articles and radio broadcasts on the same subject.” Again, this is useful in thinking about this study and the framing of it — along with all discussions regarding using the internet and internet trolls to try to “influence” elections.
The end result is that thinking this is an “internet” problem, or that it’s an issue that is unique (or even brand new) to the internet would be wrong and not particularly helpful. And that’s why, even if this study isn’t particularly useful in showing what impact there was (or was not) from Russian trolls on the internet, at the very least, it serves as a useful reminder that if we want to tackle the challenges of disinformation, simplistic solutions that amount to little more than telling social media companies “you solve it!” will not do a damn thing.