Las Vegas Review-Journal

Russian election meddling vastly overrated

- JACOB SULLUM COMMENTARY Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

Awidely cited list of Twitter users who were described as “Russian bots” included “a bunch of legitimate right-leaning accounts,” according to an internal 2018 email from Yoel Roth, then the social media platform’s “trust & safety” chief. Roth thought the list, compiled by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, was “bulls--t” but never said so publicly, apparently because of pushback from other Twitter employees.

That episode, which journalist Matt Taibbi revealed last week, exemplifie­s the hysteria about Russian propagandi­sts disguised as Americans. Contrary to the overheated warnings about foreign election “interferen­ce” we have been hearing since 2016, even genuinely phony social media accounts pose a threat less worrisome than the panic they have provoked.

The ASD takes it for granted that the damage done by divisive or dishonest political speech depends on the speaker’s nationalit­y. When Americans comment on

U.S. issues or candidates, no matter how ill-informed or misguided their opinions, they are participat­ing in democracy. When Russians say the same things, they are underminin­g democracy.

That assumption seems dubious, and there is little evidence that Russians pretending to be Americans have had any discernibl­e effect on public opinion or election outcomes. A Nature Communicat­ions study published last month casts further doubt on that claim.

The researcher­s used survey data to investigat­e the impact of “foreign influence accounts” on Twitter during the 2016 election campaign. The study found “no evidence of a meaningful relationsh­ip between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarizati­on, or voting behavior.”

As the researcher­s noted, “A large body of literature” indicates that political messages, regardless of the source or forum, have a “minimal” impact on voting. IRA messages accounted for a tiny share of political content on social media platforms in 2016, and they were not exactly sophistica­ted.

A Facebook ad traced to the IRA, for example, depicted an arm-wrestling match between Satan and Jesus. “If I win, Clinton wins,” Satan says. “Not if I can help it,” Jesus replies.

In a 2018 New Yorker article explaining “How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump,” Jane Mayer cited that absurd piece of agitprop to show how adept Russian operatives were at manipulati­ng American opinion. But Politico reported that the ad — which targeted “people age 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” — generated 71 impression­s and 14 clicks.

New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers, who last fall warned that Russia had reactivate­d “its trolls and bots ahead of Tuesday’s midterms,” was likewise unfazed by the lameness of these efforts. Although the volume of Russian-sponsored messages was “much smaller” in 2022 than it was in 2016, Myers averred, it was more skillfully targeted, showing “how vulnerable the American political system remains to foreign manipulati­on.”

Myers’ chief example was Nora Berka, a pseudonymo­us Gab user with “more than 8,000 followers.”

Russian propaganda looks like a failure if it was supposed to “reshape U.S. politics” or “sow chaos,” as the Times claimed. But if the goal was persuading credulous journalist­s that “the American political system” cannot survive the likes of Nora Berka, the campaign has been a success.

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