Russian attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential election on Twitter did not sway voters or change attitudes, according to new research by Irish, European and US academics.
A team of international researchers, jointly led by Tom Paskhalis, an assistant professor of political science and data science at Trinity College Dublin, quantified the relationship between exposure to Russia’s campaign to influence voting in the election in favour of Donald Trump between April and October 2016 and the attitudes and voting behaviour in the election.
The academics found “no evidence of a meaningful relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarisation or voting behaviour”.
US government investigators have accused Russian state actors, including the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm linked to the Kremlin, for meddling in the election by posting disinformation on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms in an attempt to sow discord among voters and undermine Mr Trump’s opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The new research, published on Monday in the journal Nature Communications, shows that despite Russian efforts, there were no measurable changes in attitudes, polarisation or voting behaviour among people exposed to the foreign influence campaign on Twitter.
It found that the Russian Twitter campaign was highly concentrated and reached only a small subset of users, most of whom were highly partisan Republican voters.
Just 1 per cent of users accounted for 70 per cent of exposures to the Russian accounts operated by the Russian government-linked Internet Research Agency, the research concluded.
Those who identified as “strong Republicans” were exposed to roughly nine times as many posts from Russian influence accounts than those identifying as Democrats or Independents.
The study, involving researchers from Trinity College, New York University, University of Copenhagen and Technical University, found that exposure to tweets in the Russian campaign was eclipsed by content on the social network from US news media and politicians.
According to the study, there were an estimated 51 million US Twitter users in 2016 and that 32 million Americans might have been potentially exposed to Russian influence accounts.
While, on average, Twitter users were exposed to roughly four posts from Russian foreign accounts every day in the last month of the election campaign, they were exposed to an average of 106 posts a day from the US national news media and 35 posts a day from US politicians.
“Debate about the 2016 US election continues to raise questions about the legitimacy of the Trump presidency and to engender mistrust in the electoral system, which in turn may be related to Americans’ willingness to accept claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election and future elections,” said Mr Paskhalis, a co-lead author of the study.
The study says that, despite its findings, it “would be a mistake” to conclude that simply because the Russian campaign on Twitter did not meaningfully influence individual attitudes that other aspects of the campaign “did not have any impact on the election or on faith in American electoral integrity”.
The research is limited to social media and does not examine the sharing of other media such as images and videos or to other attempts to interfere through hacking or phishing schemes designed to source damaging information against political opponents “at opportune moments.”
The Russian disinformation campaign may have been most successful in creating the belief that it influenced the outcome of the election, the research found.
“Russia’s foreign influence campaign on social media may have had its largest effects by convincing Americans that is campaign was successful,” the study concludes.
The researchers said their findings should be taken with caution when assessing future foreign influence campaigns on social media as “foreign actors” may adapt their behaviour “to have meaningful effects and political contexts may become more conducive to foreign influence campaigns.”