New research finds that exposure to Russian ‘foreign influence’ campaigns on Twitter did not significantly affect voting behaviour in the 2016 US presidential election.
Russian Twitter campaigns during the 2016 presidential race in the US reached a small number of users, most of whom were highly partisan Republicans who were already likely supporters of Donald Trump and arguably least likely to need influencing, a report published this week says.
In addition, the study found that despite Russia’s influence operations on the platform, there were no measurable changes in attitudes, polarisation, or voting behaviour among voters.
For years, the Kremlin has denied interfering in the 2016 election won by Donald Trump, with President Vladimir Putin once categorically saying that “we didn’t meddle, we aren’t meddling and we will not meddle in any elections".
The latest research, conducted by the New York University Center for Social Media and Politics and published in the journal Nature, investigates the relationship between Russia’s foreign influence campaign on Twitter during the 2016 US presidential election and the political attitudes and voting behaviour of ordinary US social media users. It finds there is no significant relationship between the two.
“My personal sense coming out of this is that this got way overhyped,” Josh Tucker, one of the report’s authors and co-director of the Centre for Social Media told The Washington Post.
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“Now we’re looking back at data and we can see how concentrated this was in one small portion of the population, and how the fact that people who were being exposed to these were really, really likely to vote for Trump,” Tucker said. “And then we have this data to show we can’t find any relationship between being exposed to these tweets and people’s change in attitudes.”
The study, carried out by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, Trinity College Dublin, and the Technical University of Munich, examined survey data containing responses from 1,496 US respondents who consented to provide their Twitter account information, as well as answer questions concerning their political attitudes and beliefs at multiple points during the 2016 US election campaign.
The study examines the characteristics of users who were more likely to be exposed to Twitter posts from the Russian foreign influence campaign, focusing on their political views. It then estimates aggregate exposure across the United States and turns to the question of voters’ choice.
The study finds that exposure to posts from Russian foreign influence accounts was limited to a small group of users, with only 1 percent of users accounting for 70 percent of all exposures.
It also found that exposure to Russian foreign influence tweets was overshadowed by the amount of exposure to traditional news media and US political candidates.
Respondents with the highest levels of exposure to posts from Russian foreign influence accounts were those arguably least likely to need influencing - namely, those who identified themselves as highly partisan Republicans, who were already likely favorable to Donald Trump.
The authors of the report acknowledged a number of limitations of their study: the available data are from a year after the 2016 US election occurred, cover a short one-month time window, and were collected after Twitter removed many Russian foreign influences accounts from its platform. It also doesn’t examine other social media platforms, like the much-larger Facebook.
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