For nearly three years the media have pushed the narrative that Russian disinformation – particularly on social media – won President Donald Trump the election in 2016.
Of course, this was always bogus, as there was never enough ads or groups pushing disinformation (on either side of the political aisle) or money spent to have made a difference. Media outlets and anti-Trump pundits continued to push the idea that the ads were targeted in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and were enough to persuade enough people in those states to vote for Trump over Hillary Clinton.
The claim has been already debunked – by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver – but now The Washington Post’s Philip Bump is calling out the claim. For reference, the Post has also pushed the narrative that Russian social media trolls influenced the election to such a degree that Trump illegitimately won. From Bump:
That social media push, though? Well, it was more compelling as a narrative, certainly, involving murky, modern terms such as “bots” and “targeting.” But, as I’ve written before, there’s very little evidence that Russia effectively targeted American voters with messages that powered Trump’s victory. Russia paid for a lot of Facebook ads in the populous states of New York and Texas in the last five weeks of the campaign, but its ads targeting the three states that handed Trump the election — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — were seen by only 1,000 people. There’s no evidence at all that Russia used Twitter to target people in particular places or demographic groups, targeting that would have left fingerprints in the form of receipts for payment.
Bump then dismantled a new study that is making the media rounds purporting to show that Russian trolls really did impact the 2016 election. The study found that “a gain of 25,000 re-tweets per week over all [Internet Research Agency] IRA tweets (or about 10 extra re-tweets per tweet per week), predicted approximately one percent increase in Donald Trump’s poll numbers.”
As Bump noted, the study is yet another example of correlation versus causation. For example, the study found that Trump’s support jumped to 44% “when IRA tweets were at their most successful,” but Bump pointed out that Trump’s support was similarly high in late 2015 when the IRA tweets were not successful.
This data point also came from July 14. The study made the claim that Russian trolls resulted in Trump’s higher support, but what also happened around that time in July? A little thing called the Republican National Convention, during which Trump was officially declared the Republican presidential candidate. The RNC began on July 18, just after the data point.
It’s not even clear how the researchers arrived at their percentage for Trump’s support before the convention, when the source data – from FiveThirtyEight – gave him a spike in support after the convention.
Beyond all this, Bump noted, “the idea that 25,000 retweets could drive national political polls by a percentage point seems highly unlikely.” There were some 75 million tweets sent about the 2016 election; 25,000 constitutes about 0.03% of electing Twitter activity, hardly enough to make a difference.
Bump also took apart the idea that non-election related tweets from the IRA influenced the election in any meaningful way:
If the 97,498 retweets it received all came in the same week, would this have spurred a three-plus-point rise in Trump’s polls? Or would other most-retweeted tweets, several of which similarly focused on issues of painful black experiences in the United States?
We also have to note that these were not targeted tweets, in any meaningful sense. Several of the accounts with the most tweets were named after geographic locationsin an apparent attempt to appear to be legitimate news outlets in those places. The locations? Chicago, Newark, San Francisco and Kansas. None of these were really up for grabs in 2016. Chicago and Newark were probably chosen because of their large black populations, reinforcing that the goal was often as much racial division as Trump’s election.