Washington Post Columnist Debunks Claims Of Russia Affecting Election Result Despite Many Other Misleading Articles At The Post On Russia

The Washington Post has been spreading a lot of false stories which increase hysteria about Russia, similar to stories about fictitious WMD in Iraq prior to the Iraq war. However, despite the general fallacious editorial view of the newspaper, one columnist actually got matters right recently, debunking claims that Russian ads on social media affected the election results.

Glenn Greenwald once again criticized the coverage in The Washington Post yesterday in an article entitled  WashPost Is Richly Rewarded for False News About Russia Threat While Public Is Deceived:

In the past six weeks, the Washington Post published two blockbuster stories about the Russian threat that went viral: one on how Russia is behind a massive explosion of “fake news,” the other on how it invaded the U.S. electric grid. Both articles were fundamentally false. Each now bears a humiliating editor’s note grudgingly acknowledging that the core claims of the story were fiction: The first note was posted a full two weeks later to the top of the original article; the other was buried the following day at the bottom.

The second story on the electric grid turned out to be far worse than I realized when I wrote about it on Saturday, when it became clear that there was no “penetration of the U.S. electricity grid” as the Post had claimed. In addition to the editor’s note, the Russia-hacked-our-electric-grid story now has a full-scale retraction in the form of a separate article admitting that “the incident is not linked to any Russian government effort to target or hack the utility” and there may not even have been malware at all on this laptop.

But while these debacles are embarrassing for the paper, they are also richly rewarding. That’s because journalists — including those at the Post — aggressively hype and promote the original, sensationalistic false stories, ensuring that they go viral, generating massive traffic for the Post (the paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron, recently boasted about how profitable the paper has become).

After spreading the falsehoods far and wide, raising fear levels and manipulating U.S. political discourse in the process (both Russia stories were widely hyped on cable news), journalists who spread the false claims subsequently note the retraction or corrections only in the most muted way possible, and often not at all. As a result, only a tiny fraction of people who were exposed to the original false story end up learning of the retractions.

Baron himself, editorial leader of the Post, is a perfect case study in this irresponsible tactic. It was Baron who went to Twitter on the evening of November 24 to announce the Post’s exposé of the enormous reach of Russia’s fake news operation, based on what he heralded as the findings of “independent researchers.” Baron’s tweet went all over the place; to date, it has been re-tweeted more than 3,000 times, including by many journalists with their own large followings:

But after that story faced a barrage of intense criticism — from Adrian Chen in the New Yorker (“propaganda about Russia propaganda”), Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone (“shameful, disgusting”), my own article, and many others — including legal threats from the sites smeared as Russian propaganda outlets by the Post’s “independent researchers” — the Post finally added its lengthy editor’s note distancing itself from the anonymous group that provided the key claims of its story (“The Post … does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings” and “since publication of the Post’s story, PropOrNot has removed some sites from its list”)…

Greenwald proceeded to provide many more examples of poor media coverage. Of course misleading coverage is not limited to The Washington Post as I described here. There have been multiple examples of various news sources posting material on Russia which was later retracted as false. Then there is the hysterical coverage at MSNBC.

Despite the overall misleading coverage, there is a recent exception at The Washington Post. Philip Bump wrote, There’s still little evidence that Russia’s 2016 social media efforts did much of anything. This overlaps with the material  I previously posted here, but includes some additional facts worth reading. As I previously noted, the information released after the Congressional investigations showed that material from Russian pages accounted for “less than 0.004 percent of all content — or about 1 in 23,000 news feed items” on Facebook.

Bump discussed the false narrative that Russia was responsible for Clinton’s loss, and wrote:

All of that, though, requires setting aside what we actually know about the Russian activity on Facebook and Twitter: It was often modest, heavily dissociated from the campaign itself and minute in the context of election social media efforts.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released a series of examples of the sorts of ads purchased by the Russians in November. Many, as The Washington Post reported, focused on highlighting divisive cultural issues, like the Black Lives Matter movement and immigration.

Of the 30 ads shared by the Democrats, six, viewed 1.2 million times in total, ran in 2015. Only seven ran in the last month of the campaign, totaling about 340,000 views. The ads targeted none of the four closest states in the election — New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — specifically; most were national ad buys. States that were targeted specifically included Texas and New York, neither of which was considered a swing state.

A little-noticed statement from Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, detailed how unsophisticated the Russian ad targeting actually was in the context of the election. Among the points he made:

  • Maryland was targeted by nearly five times as many ads as was Wisconsin (262 to 55).
  • Thirty-five of the 55 ads targeting Wisconsin ran during the primary.
  • More ads targeted DC than Pennsylvania.
  • A total of $1,979 was spent in Wisconsin — $1,925 of it in the primary.
  • The spending in Michigan and Pennsylvania were $823 and $300, respectively.
  • More of the geographically targeted ads ran in 2015 than in 2016.

Facebook’s own public numbers hint at how the ads were weighted relative to the campaign. Ten million people saw ads run by the Russian agents — but 5.6 million of those views were after the election.

Bump also debunked the claims regarding Twitter:

Just before Election Day in 2016, Twitter announced 1 billion tweets had been sent from August 2015 through that point. Even assuming all 202,000 of those tweets from the Russian accounts were in that period, it means they constituted 0.02 percent of the election-related tweets. On Election Day itself, there were another 75 million election-related tweets. If all of the Russian-linked tweets had been dropped on Election Day — closer to the point at which they would have directly helped suppress or boost turnout — they would still only have constituted 0.27 percent of the tweets that day. But they weren’t.

Perhaps, one might argue, there is classified information about Russia’s meddling that suggests a more dramatic problem. Perhaps. On Thursday morning, though, Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) of the House intelligence committee told CNN he hadn’t seen much evidence of any criminal collusion the American people weren’t already aware of. (There’s also the argument that, in an election as close as that of 2016, even small efforts by Russian actors might have had an outsized effect. This is true, but it is also true of hundreds of other small things that happened (and didn’t) in the closing days of the presidential race.)

As it stands, the public evidence doesn’t support the idea that the Russians executed a savvy electoral strategy on social media to ensure Trump’s victory. In fact, it seems less the case that they did so now than seemed might be possible back in July.

In other words, while there is evidence of Donald Trump acting to cover-up crimes such as money laundering, the evidence disputes Clinton’s claims of a conspiracy between Donald Trump and Russia which altered the election results.

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