A widely cited list of Twitter users described as “Russian bots” included “a bunch of legitimate right-wing accounts,” according to an internal 2018 email from Yoel Roth, then the social media platform’s head of “trust and safety.” Roth thought the list, compiled by the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), was “bullshit” but was never said publicly, apparently due to pushback from other Twitter employees.
The episode, uncovered by journalist Matt Taibbi last week, is an example of the hysteria surrounding Russian propagandists disguised as Americans. Contrary to the exaggerated warnings of foreign “meddling” in elections that we’ve been hearing since 2016, even truly fake social media accounts pose a threat that’s less worrisome than the panic they’ve caused.
ASD takes it for granted that the harm caused by divisive or dishonest political speech depends on the nationality of the speaker. When Americans comment on American issues or candidates, no matter how ill-informed or misguided their opinions may be, they are participating in democracy. When the Russians say the same things, they undermine democracy.
That assumption seems dubious, and there is little evidence that Russians pretending to be Americans had any noticeable effect on public opinion or election results. AND Nature Communications a study published last month casts further doubt on that claim.
Researchers used survey data to investigate the impact of “foreign influence orders” on Twitter during the 2016 election campaign. They identified 786,634 posts from such accounts between April and November 2016, the vast majority of which were linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA).
The study found that “exposure to the Russian influence campaign was overshadowed by the content of domestic media and politicians,” which was “at least an order of magnitude” more prevalent. “Exposure to Russian disinformation accounts was highly concentrated,” with 1 percent of respondents responsible for 70 percent of exposure.
Twitter users who saw the most IRA posts “were strongly identified as Republicans”. The study found “no evidence of a significant relationship between exposure to posts from Russian foreign influence accounts and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior.”
These findings are not surprising. As the researchers noted, a “large body of literature” shows that political messages, regardless of source or forum, have “minimal” influence on voting. IRA messages made up a small proportion of political content on social media platforms in 2016 and were not very sophisticated.
An IRA-affiliated Facebook ad, for example, featured a hand-to-hand fight between Satan and Jesus. “If I win, Clinton wins,” Satan says. “Not if I can help it,” replies Jesus.
In one 2018 The New Yorker in an article explaining “How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump,” Jane Mayer cited that absurd bit of agitprop to show how adept Russian operatives are at manipulating American opinion. But Politically reported that the ad—which targeted “people 18 to 65+ interested in Christianity, Jesus, God, Ron Paul, and media personalities such as Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Mike Savage, among other topics “—generated 71 impressions and 14 clicks.
The New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers, who warned last fall that Russia had “reactivated[d] his trolls and bots ahead of Tuesday’s midterms,” he also wasn’t worried about the lameness of these efforts. While the amount of Russian-sponsored messaging was “much less” in 2022 than in 2016, Myers argued, it was more skillfully targeted, showing “how much American political the system remains vulnerable to foreign manipulation”.
Myers’ prime example was Nora Berka, a pseudonymous Gab user with “more than 8,000 followers.” While most of her posts had “little engagement,” he reported, “a recent post about the FBI received 43 replies and 11 replies, and was reposted 64 times.”
Russian propaganda looks like a failure if it was meant to “reshape American politics” or “sow chaos,” as it were times he claimed. But if the goal was to convince gullible journalists that “the American political system” could not survive the likes of Nora Berka, the campaign was astonishingly successful.
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