The online push by Russian foreign influence accounts didn’t change attitudes or voting behavior in the 2016 U.S. election, but the disinformation effort may still have had consequences.
Eady, Gregory, Tom Paskhalis, Jan Zilinsky, Richard Bonneau, Jonathan Nagler, and Joshua A. Tucker. "Exposure to the Russian Internet Research Agency foreign influence campaign on Twitter in the 2016 US election and its relationship to attitudes and voting behavior." Nature Communications 14, no. 62 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-35576-9
Jan 09, 2023
Area of Study
There is widespread concern that foreign actors are using social media to interfere in elections worldwide. Yet data have been unavailable to investigate links between exposure to foreign influence campaigns and political behavior. Using longitudinal survey data from US respondents linked to their Twitter feeds, we quantify the relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and attitudes and voting behavior in the 2016 US election. We demonstrate, first, that exposure to Russian disinformation accounts was heavily concentrated: only 1% of users accounted for 70% of exposures. Second, exposure was concentrated among users who strongly identified as Republicans. Third, exposure to the Russian influence campaign was eclipsed by content from domestic news media and politicians. Finally, we find no evidence of a meaningful relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior. The results have implications for understanding the limits of election interference campaigns on social media.
While concerns about foreign influence campaigns have substantially increased in recent years, researchers’ understanding of social media’s role in these campaigns has remained largely limited due to the absence of data. Previous research has been conducted to understand the structure and content of these campaigns, but none to our knowledge have assessed the relationship between exposure to content from foreign influence accounts and political attitudes, polarization, and voter choice. Our study investigates this using a combination of longitudinal survey data and large samples of respondents’ U.S. Twitter data to study Russia’s foreign influence campaign on Twitter during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
To investigate the relationship between Russia’s 2016 Twitter campaign and political attitudes, we paired results from a three-wave longitudinal survey of U.S. respondents (conducted by YouGov) with a collection of respondents' Twitter timelines during the eight months prior to Election Day. We then used data released by Twitter to identify which posts in the respondents' timelines had originated from Russia's Internet Research Agency campaign, which intended to reach voters in the lead-up to the 2016 election. We conducted further analyses to better understand how many users in our sample were exposed to Russian foreign influence campaigns on Twitter, the characteristics of users who were more likely to be exposed, and the relationship between exposure and political attitudes and polarization.
Based on our analysis, we found that exposure to Russian coordinated influence accounts was heavily concentrated among a small portion of the electorate — 1 percent of users accounted for 70 percent of exposures. Respondents 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. Notably, we did not detect any relationships between exposure to posts from Russian foreign influence accounts and changes in respondents' attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior.
Taken together, it appears unlikely that the Russian foreign influence campaign on Twitter had much more than a relatively minor influence on individual-level attitudes and voting behavior. But despite these results, it would be a mistake to conclude that simply because Russia's Twitter campaign wasn't meaningfully related to individual-level attitudes that it didn't have any impact on the election, or on faith in American electoral integrity. Nevertheless, our results provide an important corrective to the view of the conventional wisdom and narrative around Russia's foreign influence campaign on social media.