Lately there’s been a lot of talk about this New Yorker article about a new book called Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know by Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Unfortunately due to time constraints I wasn’t able to get around to reading it for a while and only now have I got the time to actually give my take on it. While I haven’t been able to examine the book’s arguments in detail, I have to say that this seems to be the first time I’ve seen anyone actually try to attempt to measure the influence of Russian propaganda on the 2016 election with some semblance of scientific rigor. Those of you who follow this blog know that I have often complained about how many of those pundits and politicians who express such confidence that Russia swung the election to Trump seem to avoid expending even minimal effort to try to substantiate their claims. Specifically, nobody seemed to be interested in going out to those key battleground states to survey voters who changed their votes to Trump, a third party, or who decided not to vote at all, and then try to determine the extent to which these people had been exposed to Russian propaganda, e.g. via Facebook.
To be fair, it doesn’t seem like Jamieson’s book does that specific thing, but it does present an interesting case. For one thing, it points out that in those key Midwestern states where Hillary lost unexpectedly, the deck was stacked against Hillary when it came to getting votes. Anyone trying to influence the election against her had an advantage because they didn’t need to push people to vote for her opponent or a third party but rather they could just as easily convince people not to vote at all. This is reminiscent of an old axiom about guerrilla warfare- the insurgent doesn’t need to win; they just need to not lose.
If you look at a lot of Russian propaganda surrounding the election, you’ll notice that a good deal of it is aimed at people who are either left wing or at least left enough to reject Trump. But the Russian propaganda on Facebook, for example, seems to be aimed at keeping those people from voting for Hillary. Some stuff could be construed as anti-GOP or even anti-Trump, but I’ve yet to see anything from that period which is pro-Hillary, or more accurately, anything that would support the idea that as bad a candidate as she is, she’s at least better than Trump.
Now before anyone suggests that this is setting up an excuse for the Hillary campaign, take note that if Russian influence played a decisive role, it could only do so because the election was so close, far closer than it should have been. Judging from the article, one of the main factors in swinging the election was the hacking of the DNC emails, which contained a lot of material relating to Hillary’s political baggage. In other words, a candidate without such baggage would have been harder to bring down. So there’s no letting the Democratic party off the hook even if this book is 100% correct in its hypothesis. If Russian influence swung the campaign it was almost certainly because the weakness of the party and its candidate made it vulnerable to such influence in the first place.
Like I’ve said about Kremlin propaganda dozens of times before- it is effective only where vulnerabilities exist. Corruption, lack of accountability, inequality, and a refusal by politicians to address any of those problems inevitably spreads the rot in which the bullshit of RT, Sputnik, and the Internet Research Agency take root and sprout. Address those aforementioned problems, and people will see the propaganda for what it is- nonsensical fringe crap from a corrupt, authoritarian, desperate regime that has nothing of value to offer the outside world.
And am I sold on the idea that Russia swung the 2016 election, after all this? Well I haven’t read the book so I can’t say for sure. In fact, I’m not sure we’ll ever know exactly what happened. Too much time has already passed and we have much bigger issues to deal with. What I will say is that the idea that it had an impact can no longer be discounted.