We can know if Russia gave the election to Trump
By now, it’s a well-established fact that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 vote. Yet we still don’t know whether those efforts made the difference. Given just how narrow Trump’s margin of victory was — fewer than 80,000 votes in three key swing states — it stands to reason that any help he received from Moscow could have helped him to win. But we can’t be sure — because we don’t know how many U.S. voters were persuaded by Russian information operations to change their votes (or to stay away from the polls altogether). Isn’t it time we tried to find out? Many commentators seem to assume that we’ll never be able to know. But Sinan Aral, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that’s misguided. “It is possible to know,” he told me, “with a certain degree of statistical confidence, the likelihood that Russian interference changed the results.”
It’s extremely hard to do, he warns. But if we can marshal the will, we can get much closer to the truth.
Take, for example, those three crucial swing states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Aral says he and his colleagues want to study the Russian influence campaign in precisely this geographical context. The MIT scholars have developed a robust methodology for assessing how social media campaigns influence the behavior of their targets — and now they want to bring it to bear on the Russian meddling in 2016.
Aral and his MIT research partner Dean Eckles sent me what they call a blueprint for such a study. They propose zeroing in on the issue of causality by analyzing how different levels of disinformation changed behavior and opinions. “For example, Facebook and Twitter constantly test new variations on their feed ranking algorithms, which cause people to be exposed to varying levels of different types of content,” they write. Given access to adequate data, the researchers claim they can estimate the impact of the Russian influence campaign in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida “with 95% to 99% confidence.”
To conduct such a study properly, we’d probably need far more information from the social media platforms than they’ve been willing to release so far. (We still don’t know everything that Facebook and Twitter know, for example.) And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to know more about how the Russians did their targeting and any of the help they received on that front from outsiders.
To be clear, we don’t need to do this to determine whether Trump colluded; the Mueller investigation has already revealed plenty on that score, and there’s sure to be more to come. The point is to get a more precise understanding of how online campaigns affect our real-world behavior — something we’re only just beginning to confront. We need to know for the sake of the future of U.S. democracy.