Social Media

Forget Russia's Twitter Trolls—America's Censorious Officials Are a Bigger Threat

Researchers: Moscow’s social media meddling had little impact on the 2016 election.


After years of hyperventilating over the alleged perils to American democracy posed by foreign shitposts, it looks like Moscow's social media campaign to influence U.S. elections accomplished little, say researchers.

That is, Russian tweets had little effect, unless you count the boost it gave to the careers of pundits bloviating about the supposed vulnerability of our political system. In fact, with this study dropping in the midst of competing revelations about political shenanigans, it appears the government that meddled the most in American politics is the one based in Washington, D.C.

As reported by Reason's Robby Soave, New York University's Center for Social Media and Politics looked into the impact of Russia's social media campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election. The results, published in Nature Communications, suggest Vladimir Putin didn't get much bang for his rubles.

"Taking our analyses together, it would appear unlikely that the Russian foreign influence campaign on Twitter could have had much more than a relatively minor influence on individual-level attitudes and voting behavior," wrote authors Gregory Eady (University of Copenhagen), Tom Paskhalis (Trinity College, Dublin), Jan Zilinsky (Technical University of Munich), Richard Bonneau, Jonathan Nagler, and Joshua A. Tucker (all of New York University). "We did not detect any meaningful relationships between exposure to posts from Russian foreign influence accounts and changes in respondents' attitudes on the issues, political polarization, or voting behavior."

Or maybe Putin was happy with the results. There's always been a hint that the social media campaign was mostly an inexpensive means for Russia's strongman to demonstrate his country could still tweak America's tail decades after the collapse of the Soviet empire. The frenzy of high-profile finger-pointing into which it sent U.S. politicians and talking heads certainly met that standard.

"Foreign influence campaigns may also succeed through second-order effects: those effects that are achieved by provoking a domestic reaction to the intervention itself," the authors note of this point. "Russia's foreign influence campaign on social media may have had its largest effects by convincing Americans that its campaign was successful."

Interestingly, this study appears amidst revelations that the U.S. government itself has been doing a lot of meddling in domestic politics. The Twitter Files published by journalists given access to internal documents by new owner Elon Musk, and a lawsuit against the federal government by Louisiana and Missouri, show officials pressuring private firms to suppress disfavored stories, ideas, and voices.

"We present evidence pointing to an organized effort by representatives of the intelligence community (IC), aimed at senior executives at news and social media companies, to discredit leaked information about Hunter Biden before and after it was published," Michael Shellenberger reported last month of the story suppressed in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

"The federal government colluded with Big tech social media companies to violate Americans' right to free speech under the First Amendment," Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey charged January 9. "Today's documents display White House Digital Director Robert Flaherty and his team's efforts to censor opposing viewpoints on major social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram."

That's not to say that Russia's government doesn't want to interfere in American elections. It's eager to see friendly faces installed by voters here and elsewhere around the world. So is the United States government, for that matter. Meddling in other people's elections is an old and nasty game.

"Great powers frequently deploy partisan electoral interventions as a major foreign policy tool," Dov Levin, then of UCLA and now at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in 2016 for the International Studies Quarterly. "For example, the U.S. and the USSR/Russia have intervened in one of every nine competitive national level executive elections between 1946 and 2000." Levin expanded on the topic in 2020's Meddling in the Ballot Box.

"I was alarmed in 2016 by how policymakers and commentators frequently described Russian interference in our election as unprecedented," agreed the Wilson Center's David Shimer, who wrote Rigged, published in 2020. "Many former CIA officers told me in interviews that they viewed the '48 operation in Italy as the agency at its best. And in the aftermath of that operation, as the CIA's chief internal historian put it to me, the agency and the KGB went toe to toe in elections all over the world."

"Methods ranged from providing funding for their preferred side's campaign (a tactic employed by the Soviet Union in the 1958 Venezuelan elections) to public threats to cut off foreign aid in the event of victory by the disfavored side (as the United States did during the 2009 Lebanese elections)," noted Levin in his 2016 study.

So now the list of foreign election meddling tactics can be amended with the addition of bogus social media accounts and shitposts. It's not nice, but it's nothing new. And, frankly, it would take an especially fragile political system to fall to an onslaught of trolls. Especially when posts supposedly intended to shift opinion are executed with the not-so-deft hand Moscow brings to so many of its dealings.

"The Russian efforts were sometimes crude or off-key, with a trial-and-error feel, and many of the suspect posts were not widely shared," Scott Shane observed in 2017 for The New York Times.

It's not so surprising, then, that researchers find Russian tweets had little impact on the 2016 election.

On the other hand, U.S. government officials pressuring private companies to act as end-runs around First Amendment protections for free speech is a bigger deal than such clumsy intervention. They abuse the threat inherent in their official positions to bypass restraints on state power, muzzling challenges to their policies and discussions of news stories that might influence election outcomes in ways they don't like. Vladimir Putin and his cronies can only dream of so effectively subverting the principles of individual freedom and an open society.

There are certainly malicious actors on the world stage who intend harm to Americans and their institutions. But it's impressive how often the domestic government officials pointing to alleged perils overseas turn out to be the real threats to our liberty.