Russian efforts to spread disinformation on Twitter during the 2016 presidential election didn’t produce any measurable impact on the results of the election, a new study suggests.
For the study, published on Monday in Nature Communications, a team of researchers from Ireland, Denmark, Germany, and the United States examined Twitter users’ behavior and attitudes during the eight months leading up to Election Day on Nov. 8, 2016.
Almost three years after the election, the Senate Intelligence Committee released an 1,000-page report, saying that the Russian government meddled in the election through a covert social media campaign in favor of Republican nominee Donald Trump. The committee didn’t find any collusion on Trump’s part.
Those Russian efforts, according to the study, didn’t actually translate into “measurable” effects on the election’s outcome, because it focused on a rather small niche of highly partisan users who would have voted for Trump anyway.
To put that in scale, just 1 percent of users in the study accounted for 70 percent of exposure to contents generated by Russian foreign influence accounts. Furthermore, those who identified as “Strong Republicans” were exposed to roughly 9 times as many Russian posts than were those who identified as Democrats or Independents.
“Despite this massive effort to influence the presidential race on social media and a widespread belief that this interference had an impact on the 2016 US elections, potential exposure to tweets from Russian trolls that cycle was, in fact, heavily concentrated among a small portion of the American electorate—and this portion was more likely to be highly partisan Republicans,” said Joshua Tucker, a co-author of the paper and professor at New York University Center for Social Media and Politics.
Speaking with The Washington Post, Tucker said data supports his observation that the actual impact of Russian influence has been exaggerated.
“My personal sense coming out of this is that this got way overhyped,” the professor told the Post. “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.”
With that said, the researchers acknowledge that the Russian campaign to influence 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 Gregory Eady, one of the study’s co-authors and professor at the University of Copenhagen Center for Social Data Science.
The study comes as Twitter’s new leadership continues work with certain journalists to publish internal records and documents known as the “Twitter Files,” many of which detail how the previous Twitter regime shut down various personalities and narratives at the behest of various elements of the federal government.
In one such Twitter File thread, independent journalist Matt Taibbi detailed how Twitter caved to censorship pressure from the FBI during the 2020 election cycle, amid fears that Russian disinformation was circulating on the platform.