The surprise Mueller indictment tells us how we’ve been wrong about Russian trolls

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
February 16, 2018

The Mueller investigation has just indicted 13 Russian nationals, and three Russian organizations, including the notorious St. Petersburg troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, for their roles in the 2016 U.S. election. This indictment has come as a complete surprise. It provides a wealth of new information about how Russian trolling operations work and what they tried to accomplish. This information contradicts many popular beliefs about Russian social media operations.

Russian operations probably did not change voters’ minds

One of the persistent myths of the election cycle is that Russian influence operations helped change voters’ minds, and hence helped Donald Trump get elected. This argument seems to be plausible, and even compelling. We know Russian sources circulated lots of bogus stories on social media, and many people read them. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that this fake news gave Trump the majority he needed in a few swing states.

The problem, as Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan discusses, is that this account does not really hold together. First, it is hard to be sure how many people (rather than bots) actually read these fake stories. Second, even if people did read them, they were buried among many, many other posts, some of them equally alarmist. Finally, there is a lot of political science research showing it is really hard to change people’s minds. Even massive TV advertising campaigns appear to have only tiny effects on people’s decisions over who to vote for. Social media posts, buried among a multitude of other such posts, are likely to have even less.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post