The conventional story is that Russian trolls infiltrated the 2016 election with fake social media ads. But according to details from a February 2018 indictment of those trolls, it's unclear how much of an effect they actually had.
Federal prosecutors have filed charges against 13 Russians who allegedly sought to "sow discord in the U.S. political system" through social media posts, ads, and videos falsely presented as the work of Americans. After the indictment was unveiled in February, The New York Times reported that Donald Trump's "admirers and detractors" both agree with him that "the Russians intended to sow chaos" and "have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams." But Reason Senior Editor Jacob Sullum says a close look at the indictment tells a different story.
Here are "5 Reasons Not to Feed the Russian Troll Hysteria:"
1) Russian trolling was a drop in the bucket. According to the indictment, Russian trolls associated with the so-called Internet Research Agency (IRA) in Saint Petersburg spent "thousands of U.S. dollars every month" on social media ads, which is a minuscule fraction of online ad revenue. Facebook alone reported advertising revenue of $9.16 billion in the second quarter of 2017. The Russians are said to be responsible for producing 43 hours of YouTube videos, but that doesn't seem like very much when you consider that 400 hours of content are uploaded to the site every minute.
2) Russian trolls were not very sophisticated. Russian trolls supposedly had the Machiavellian know-how to infiltrate the American political system, but their social media posts don't look very sophisticated. The posts often featured broken English and puzzling topic choices. A post promoting a "buff" Bernie Sanders coloring book, for instance, noted that "the coloring is something that suits for all people." Another post showed Jesus and Satan in an arm wrestling match under this caption: "SATAN: IF I WIN CLINTON WINS! JESUS: NOT IF I CAN HELP IT!" The post generated very few clicks and shares.
3) Russian troll rallies apparently did not attract many participants. The indictment makes much of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton rallies instigated by Russian trolls, but it does not say how many people participated. The New York Times reported that a Russian-organized rally in Texas opposing Shariah law attracted a dozen people. An anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rally in Idaho drew four people. Attendance at other rallies was similarly sparse.
4) Russian trolling probably didn't change anyone's mind. Broken English aside, the social media posts were not qualitatively different from content created by American activists, and they seemed to be aimed mainly at reinforcing pre-existing beliefs and divisions. The Russians might have gotten a few Trump supporters to show up at anti-Clinton rallies, but that does not mean they had an impact on the election.
5) Russian troll hysteria depicts free speech as a kind of violence. The Justice Department describes the messages posted by Russians pretending to be Americans as "information warfare." But while the posts may have been sophomoric, inaccurate, and illogical, that does not distinguish them from most of what passes for online political discussion among actual Americans. The integrity of civic discourse does not depend on verifying the citizenship of people who participate in it. It depends on the ability to weigh what they say, checking it against our own values and information from other sources. If voters cannot do that, maybe democracy is doomed. But if so, it's not the Russians' fault.
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