Personal laptop with the Russian flag painted on a brick wall on the screen isoalted on the white … [+]
Since revelations about Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2016, we have learned a lot about the nature and scope of cyber-enabled information operations carried out not just by Russia, but also a seemingly growing number of state and non-state actors around the globe. We have learned a lot about the tools and techniques, as well as the dominant themes and narratives, used in this form of propaganda rebooted for the social media age. What remains unclear, however, is what effects, if any, these operations are having. Two recent reports cast doubt on the effectiveness of Russian influence operations against the United States, cautioning us against the all-too-common tendency to see Russian hackers and trolls around every corner and under every bed, lest we end up amplifying the very disinformation we seek to counter.
The first study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) at the end of November, sought to address the question of what effects, if any, Internet Research Agency (IRA) Twitter accounts had on Americans. Surprisingly, the study found “no evidence that interacting with these accounts substantially impacted 6 political attitudes and behaviors.” The report concludes, therefore, that “Russian trolls might have failed to sow discord.”
The second essay reports on the findings of an investigation into the origins of the conspiracy theory that advances the claim that it was Ukraine, and not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This conspiracy has been popular on the American right, including with the President of the United States and his GOP defenders in Congress. It has been widely reported in the United States by the news media, witnesses in the impeachment hearings, and the U.S. intelligence community, that the Russian security services are the originators of that conspiracy theory. But an investigation by cybersecurity expert and Johns Hopkins University professor, Thomas Rid, finds that “the narrative about Ukraine was propagated first and foremost by Americans, not Russian disinformation puppeteers.”
Surveys, Twitter Data, And Online Sleuthing
Researchers came to these conclusions using a combination of surveys, data on IRA accounts released by Twitter, and good old fashioned online sleuthing. The authors of the PNAS study, for example, made use of data from a survey of 1,239 Republicans and Democrats on Twitter, combined with data from Twitter about IRA accounts. Combining these data, the researchers were able to see which of the survey respondents interacted with the IRA accounts between the two waves of the survey in late 2017. This gave the researchers “political attitudes measured preinteraction and postinteraction,” which then allowed them “to estimate individual-level changes in political attitudes and behaviors over time.”
In his report, Prof. Rid combined a forensic investigation using open sources with data released by Twitter on IRA accounts. Doing so allowed him to identify three variants of the conspiracy, track the earliest known appearances of those variants, how they were spread and by whom, and with a particular interest in the role of IRA Twitter accounts in the process.
How We Misunderstand Russian Disinformation And Its Effects
The authors of the PNAS study “found no substantial effects of interacting with Russian IRA accounts on the affective attitudes of Democrats and Republicans who use Twitter frequently toward each other, their opinions about substantive political issues, or their engagement with politics on Twitter in late 2017.”
Given the common assumption that Russian social media manipulation is uniquely effective and, thus, dangerous, these findings might come as a surprise. But the authors explain their findings by noting that “the people most at risk of interacting with trolls—those with strong partisan beliefs—are also the least likely to change their attitudes. In other words, Russian trolls may not have significantly polarized the American public because they mostly interacted with those who were already polarized.”
Likewise, for all the talk in U.S. news media about the Ukraine conspiracy theory, Prof. Rid’s investigation found that there is not just one Ukraine conspiracy theory but three that mix together in various combinations. These include theories that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Hilary Clinton, that Ukraine was the one who actually hacked the DNC in 2016, and that Ukraine owned or controlled the cybersecurity company CrowdStrike that originally attributed the hack of the DNC to Russia.
Prof. Rid reports that these theories began to emerge as early as May 2016 with a piece in Ukrayinska Pravda on “the so-called black ledger” tying Paul Manafort to corruption under Victor Yanukovych. That report was amplified by the New York Times in August 2016, leading to Manafort’s resignation from the Trump campaign. Other reports about Urkraine from late 2016 and early 2017 in Financial Times, The Observer, and Politico were picked up and amplified by American right wing media.
So if open sources do not indicate that these theories originated in Russia, certainly Russia must have led the way in amplifying them? Once again, Prof. Rid finds that not to be the case. In general, while Russian propagandists did amplify the Ukraine conspiracy theories, this was largely after they had already taken off on the American right. In addition to appearing to be domestic in origin, Russian propaganda accounts on Twitter were not particularly effective in amplifying the claim about CrowdStrike being Ukrainian owned or controlled.
More Research And Transparency Are Needed
In each case, these researchers argue that we need to know much more about Russian disinformation campaigns and their effects. That can come from more empirical research by scholars, as well as greater transparency on the part of government officials.
The PNAS study authors note the critical need for more “systematic empirical assessment of the impact on the public.” Accomplishing this will require further methodological innovation—like the combination of traditional survey techniques with analysis of big data from social media platforms—“in order to address complex phenomena such as the impact of social-media influence campaigns on political attitudes and behavior.”
Likewise, Prof. Rid calls for more transparency on the part of government officials. He readily acknowledges that his open source investigation might not tell the whole story. United States intelligence agencies might have classified information indicating that the Russian government was indeed behind the Ukraine conspiracies. “If so,” he writes, “they need to deliver the goods, and show at least some of this evidence to Americans in an official public statement.”
Don’t Do The Russians’ Work For Them
One should not mistake these findings for a claim that malign foreign influence campaigns are of no concern. The PNAS study authors make this point explicitly, writing, “Even though we find no evidence that Russian trolls polarized the political attitudes and behaviors of partisan Twitter users in late 2017, these null effects should not diminish concern about foreign influence campaigns on social media.”
Instead, what Prof. Rid and the PNAS study authors are saying is that we need more careful analysis of what the real effects of those operations have been and might yet be. In all cases, we need to make sure that we are not doing the Russians’ (or any other actor’s) work for them by inadvertently ascribing more impact to their operations than they actually have.
Prof. Rid explains that American conservatives have had no trouble concocting and spreading conspiracy theories on their own. They “are not passive, remote-controlled dummies” working only at the behest of Moscow. Thus, he ends his report with a stark warning:
Blaming domestic ills on foreign interference is a temptation that befits weakening democracies. […] Countering disinformation with, in effect, more disinformation is counterproductive, even dangerous; indeed, it is not too dramatic to say that this tendency plays right into the Kremlin’s hands. […] Russian active-measures operators know, and we should learn, that exaggerating the effects of disinformation means amplifying the effects of disinformation.
In short, Russians were able to exploit and perhaps exacerbate longstanding divisions and flaws in the American political system. They did not create those divisions or flaws. Without coming to grips with the root causes of our current predicament, which are domestic in origin, we will continue to be subject to the kinds of malign foreign influence campaigns (whatever their effects) increasingly undertaken by numerous actors, not just Russia.