It’s easy to look back on the Trump years as a bit of a blur, especially with how quickly the press shifted its narratives following the 2020 election. While Joe Biden’s ascension to the White House led to widespread proclamations of US elections being the safest and most secure in history, that wasn’t always the talking point. In fact, for the five years prior, hysterical proclamations of elections being stolen via foreign interference, including changing vote totals, were the norm on the left and among their press allies.
Hillary Clinton herself spent years lamenting the supposed “Russian interference” that cost her the 2016 election against Donald Trump. Members of the press were happy to echo that claim, often suggesting that a few hundred thousand dollars spent to promote memes was decisive.
To a normal person, that never made any sense. I’d go out on a limb and say that no one changed their vote because they saw a meme of Jesus arm-wrestling Hillary Clinton. Yet, that was the predominant theme, with the moral panic bleeding into other areas and eventually culminating in the Robert Mueller investigation.
Now, The Washington Post is finally admitting it was all nonsense. Citing a new study, the Post reports that there was no appreciable impact made by Russian “trolls” operating on Twitter during the 2016 election.
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, according to a study out this morning.
The study, which the New York University Center for Social Media and Politics helmed, explores the limits of what Russian disinformation and misinformation was able to achieve on one major social media platform in the 2016 elections.
“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 me 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.”
This was common sense at the time, but apparently, our betters in the national press possess none of that. People tend to follow and interact with like-minded people on social media platforms. The exception is in dealing with large accounts with a public profile. So a person on Twitter almost certainly won’t follow or give the time of day to a random, low-follower troll account (i.e. one run by Russia), but they will follow Joe Biden, not to accept influence from him, but to counter his opinions.
Besides, even if you assume widespread distribution of Russian propaganda (the study finds that wasn’t the case), essentially no users, and surely not enough people to swing an election, are influenced by social media to the point that they’d change their vote from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. That was always a ridiculous assertion. As the study shows, any Russian trolling was preaching to the choir.
Of course, we don’t get these admissions from outlets like the Post until six years later because, by that time, the damage is already done. Trump’s presidency was severely hampered by continuous claims that he was “illegitimate” because of “Russian influence” in the 2016 election. That was the goal, and it was accomplished.
Laughably, the Post still doubles down in its article, saying that the study “doesn’t suggest that foreign influence operations aren’t a threat at all.” Well sure, I guess so, given that the term “threat” is so ambiguous in this context as to be utterly meaningless. Anything can be a “threat.” The question is whether that threat is realized. But I digress, these partisans will never let go of their talking points because claiming “foreign interference” is a chief way they themselves influence elections.