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Propaganda (Almost) Never Works
Notes on Russian interference attempts.
After Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election there was widespread suspicion that the results had been influenced by a Russian operation. The Internet Research Agency, a “troll factory” operating out of St Petersburg, was creating accounts posing as U.S. citizens or news agencies, posting thousands upon thousands of messages, the majority in support of Trump, and many fake. Could the Russians have pulled off something as big as swaying a U.S. election?
The answer has recently been confirmed: No. In January this year, a study by Gregory Eady, Tom Paskhalis, and their colleagues found that the majority (70%) of this Russian propaganda was consumed by only 1% of Twitter users, people who were already staunch Republicans and thus already overwhelmingly likely to vote for Trump. As a result, the fake news shared by the trolls merely preached to the choir. It doesn’t seem to have changed anyone’s mind. This converges with the result of a 2019 study led by Chris Bail, which found that interacting with accounts from the Internet Research Agency had no impact on the political opinions and behaviors of Twitter users.
You might find this apparent lack of impact surprising, given the extent to which fears about Russian influence have been discussed in the media. But when it comes to mass persuasion attempts, failure is the rule rather than the exception. I have reviewed recent evidence from history, psychology, and the social sciences, which shows that persuasion attempts such as advertising, authoritarian speeches, and political campaigns all fail to convince the overwhelming majority of their audience. If you find that implausible, just remember the 2020 Democratic primaries. Michael Bloomberg spent $500 million on his campaign. Tom Steyer shelled out close to $350 million. Together, they accounted for over half of all the expenses in that primary. Yet their advertising blitzes led them nowhere: they failed to get any traction with voters, and dropped out.
This trend also holds for Russian propaganda. In occupied areas of Ukraine, research shows that pro-Russian messaging primarily influences those who are already inclined to that view. This reflects the general pattern for authoritarian propaganda. It serves some purposes well, such as displaying the power of the regime, or occupying the airwaves and making it more difficult for the population to hear alternative views. But research confirms historians’ analysis that, as a rule, authoritarian propaganda fails to convince those who do not already agree with the regime’s views.
We should not be totally unconcerned by Russian interference attempts. Authoritarian regimes are often aware of the limits of old-school propaganda that simply wants the public to accept a pre-ordained message. They have developed alternative tactics designed, not to convince people, but to distract and polarize them. Thankfully, however, there is very limited evidence that Russia has succeeded in these aims either.
It’s not for want of trying. The Chinese and the Russian governments both deploy distraction tactics on their own populations. The regime asks dedicated workers—such as the infamous 50 Cent Army in China—to deliberately derail online discussions about whatever crisis is making the regime look bad. Similarly, the Russian government has organized concerts to keep young people off the streets and away from protests.
They have also attempted to sow distrust and polarization abroad. This has been the Russian playbook in the United States and elsewhere for some time. Throughout the Cold War, Russian operatives tried to fan the flames of racial conflicts that were (and, to some extent, still are) tearing the United States apart—for instance by helping spread among African-Americans the rumor that AIDS had been created by the Pentagon. Today, although Russian trolls have a conservative bent, they spread their materials widely to “professed gun lovers, fans of Martin Luther King Jr., supporters of Trump [and] supporters of Clinton,” as reported by The Washington Post. In May 2016, pro and anti-Islam protesters faced off against each other in Houston; Russian influence attempts could be tracked to both sides of the dispute.
This strategy involves spreading an overwhelming amount of fake news. Authoritarian regimes evidently believe that fake news is useful: sharing fake news can rally support among hardcore supporters and antagonize opponents, thereby increasing polarization. To put it crudely, Russian operatives behave as if they want to watch the world burn.
So, it is fairly clear what the Russians are really after. And it’s certainly true that the United States and other countries have witnessed dramatic increases in affective polarization (when followers of different political parties start hating each other).
But, troubling as it is, Russian influence could have played only a very minor role in this epochal change. Consider this: these meddling attempts constitute only a tiny portion of what people consume on social media. And we know that social media as a whole isn’t solely responsible for our current woes. People use social media all across the world while hyper-polarization is far from being universal. Meanwhile, most people are far from fooled by fake news, and accounts known to share fake news have been shown to rapidly lose credibility on social networks. There is a channel through which the Russian fake news blitz could have done some real damage: when the media constantly hypes up misinformation (Russian or otherwise) this tends, paradoxically enough, to lower people’s overall trust in the media. But even here, research shows that the effects are temporary.
In short, it is not satisfactory to claim that the problems that plague America and other countries are caused by Russian interference. Such interference only exacerbates existing issues. To truly understand and heal the rifts dividing us, we must look not to outside enemies, but to inside our own societies.
Hugo Mercier is a cognitive scientist at the French National Center for Scientific Research (Institut Jean Nicod, PSL) and the author of Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe.
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