Russian Twitter campaigns didn’t influence voting behavior

Study on the 2016 US presidential election

A new study found no polarization of the US electorate by Russian tweets.
A new study found no polarization of the US electorate by Russian tweets.

Russian Twitter campaigns during the 2016 US presidential race primarily reached a small subset of users, most of whom were highly partisan Republicans, shows a new study. In addition, the international research team found that despite Russia’s influence operations on the platform, there were no measurable changes in attitudes or voting behavior among those exposed to this foreign influence campaign.

Previous research and government investigations have concluded that Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election was designed to influence the voting behavior of Americans in favor of the Republican nominee Donald Trump.

A research team from New York University (NYU), Technical University of Munich (TUM), the University of Copenhagen, and Trinity College Dublin examined the Twitter account information of nearly 1,500 US citizens, who consented to provide such information from the period of March to November 2016 for research purposes. They also answered questions concerning their political attitudes and beliefs in April and October 2016 as well as shortly after the election to indicate whether they voted and, if so, for whom. The composition of the respondents was approximately representative of the demographic profile of the US voting-age public.

The researchers analysed how often the respondents’ accounts were reached by posts of Twitter accounts, which were controlled by the Internet Research Agency according to information released by Twitter. The Internet Research Agency is an organization identified as being closely linked to the Russian government in previous investigations.

Republicans received nine times as many posts than Democrats

The exposure to Russian coordinated influence accounts was heavily concentrated: only 1% of users in the study accounted for 70% of exposures. In addition, those who identified as "Strong Republicans" were exposed to roughly nine times as many posts from Russian foreign influence accounts than were those who identified as Democrats or Independents.

The researchers also concluded that there was no relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, voting behavior and polarization, that is, whether respondents had taken more extreme views with regard to certain policy areas, such as migration policy.

"Wide circulation does not imply effective changings"

"Almost all existing research has focused on whether state-sponsored tweets are widely circulated, but even wide circulation does not imply that such tweets are effective at changing citizens’ attitudes or voting behavior," says Jan Zilinsky, PhD , researcher at the Chair of Digital Governance at the Technical University of Munich and one of the authors of the paper, which appeared in the journal Nature Communications.

"Despite the massive effort to influence the presidential race on social media and a widespread belief that this interference had an impact on the 2016 U.S. elections, potential exposure to tweets from Russian trolls that cycle was, in fact, heavily concentrated among a small portion of the American electorates," adds Prof. Joshua Tucker, co-director of NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics.

Citizens received more tweets from national news media

The study also found that exposure to the Russian influence campaign on Twitter was significantly eclipsed by content from domestic news media and politicians. On average, the study’s respondents were exposed to roughly four posts from Russian foreign influence accounts per day in October of 2016. But, over the same period, they were exposed to an average of 106 posts on average per day from national news media and 35 posts per day from US politicians.

"In other words, online users saw 25 times more posts from national news media and nine times as many posts from politicians than those from Russian foreign influence accounts," says TUM researcher Jan Zilinsky, "to say nothing of what they might have learned about the election from other media, such as television or online news."

"Questions about the legitimacy of the Trump presidency"

Despite these results, the researchers caution that Russia attempts to alter the outcome of the election may have had other effects. "It would be a mistake to conclude that simply because the Russian foreign influence campaign on Twitter was not meaningfully related to individual-level attitudes that other aspects of the campaign did not have any impact on the election, or on faith in American electoral integrity," says the University of Copenhagen’s Prof. Gregory Eady, one of the study’s co-lead authors. Prof. Tom Paskhalis from Trinity College Dublin, the other co-lead author, adds: "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."