Jonathan Albright (Columbia Journalism digital research director & faculty associate at Harvard’s Internet & Society Center) “has been studying fake news and Russian propaganda for months”, trying to measure the potential impact of Russia’s surreptitious online influence campaign during the last election.
For six of the sites that have been made public — Blacktivists, United Muslims of America, Being Patriotic, Heart of Texas, Secured Borders and LGBT United — Albright found that the content had been “shared” 340 million times. That’s from a tiny sliver of the 470 accounts that have been made public. Even if those sites were unusually effective compared to the 464 others, Albright’s findings still suggest a total reach well into the billions of “shares” on Facebook.
Through sharing and other interactions, the impact was far greater than what the Russian troll farms could do directly.
The fake pages and accounts were set up to “build trust” with very specific “audiences — politically activated African Americans, gay women, Muslims and people concerned about illegal immigration, Texan heritage or the treatment of veterans”. The Russians went to great lengths to appear to be legitimate, so that their posts would spread virally.
I lack the political expertise to assess how targeting wedge issues works across the electorate, but I certainly felt that was Trump’s strategy. Moderates are interested in mundane issues of good government, diplomacy, improving people’s lives, and investing in our future, which I felt was Hillary’s strategy. Raising the profile of controversially divisive issues, including racism, homophobia, religious bigotry, xenophobia and extreme patriotism and seems to me designed to help Trump, but the article repeats the common conclusion that the primary goal was apparently to suppress the vote.
“A lot of these posts had the intent to get people not to vote,” Albright said. “This is a concerted effort of manipulation. Based on the engagement and reach and the outcome of the election .. I’d say it’s been fairly successful, sadly.”
Based on the fact that we elected the most openly racist President in decades, I’d say that the Russians were very successful at ruining our election. Exploiting our divisions by posing as Facebook friends has injected many poisonous false voices into our national dialogue on critical issues and no doubt contributed to the broad decline in civil society, public discourse and mental health.
Suppressing the votes of groups that were generally pro Hillary while contributing to the extreme anti-Hillary hysteria (one of the sites frequently called her “Killary”) was obviously successful in helping get Trump elected. My view is that we’re still underestimating the effectiveness of Russian interference in our country.