The narrative that Russian social media campaigns played a crucial role in influencing the 2016 US presidential election has been challenged by a study conducted by New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics. The report found no evidence to support the idea that Russian tweets had any significant effect on voting behavior or polarization among American voters. In fact, exposure to Russian disinformation accounts was highly concentrated, with only 1% of users accounting for 70% of exposures.
The study analyzed roughly 1,500 Americans’ Twitter timelines and found that exposure to Russian influence campaigns was eclipsed by content from domestic news media and politicians. The relationship between the number of posts from Russian foreign influence accounts and voting for Donald Trump was near zero and not statistically significant. The study’s authors noted that the impact of Russian social media campaigns on the 2016 election remains debated among scholars, and that the specter of “Russian bots” wreaking havoc across the web has become a byword of liberal anxiety.
Despite concerns over Russian social media campaigns, the NYU study found that barely anyone saw them, and to the extent anyone ever saw them, it was people who weren’t going to be easily influenced anyway. The report found that those who identified as “Strong Republicans” were exposed to roughly nine times as many posts from Russian foreign influence accounts than those who identified as Democrats or Independents. This suggests that Russian social media campaigns may have been preaching to the choir rather than swaying undecided voters.
The study also highlighted the fact that it focused only on tweets, leaving the possible effect of Facebook groups, Instagram posts, or the spread of materials hacked from the Democratic National Committee unassessed. Nonetheless, the report serves as an evidence-based corrective to fears of low-effort social media propagandizing as a diabolical tool of adversarial regimes. It is crucial to recognize that, despite concerns over Russian social media campaigns, they were a small speck when compared to homegrown posters. The report says that posts from national news media and politicians overshadowed Russian tweets by an order of magnitude.
In conclusion, the NYU study challenges the prevailing media narrative that social platforms like Twitter were and will continue to be wielded by malicious foreign actors to interfere with American political outcomes. While the impact of Russian social media campaigns on the 2016 election remains debated, the study suggests that their influence was likely overblown. It is important to focus on the bigger picture of the role of media in shaping public opinion, rather than attributing election outcomes to isolated incidents of foreign interference.
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