Five Reasons Not to Feed the Russian Troll Hysteria

The claim that the 2016 election was stolen due to the actions of Russian trolls is one of the most absurd political arguments ever made. As I’ve noted previously, the Congressional testimony revealed that Russian Facebook ads and Tweets represented a minuscule amount of their traffic. 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. Half of it was not seen until after the election, much of it was not supporting Trump over Clinton, and much of it was hilariously unconvincing and amateurish. Phillip Bump added that, rather than targeting the battleground states, ads were concentrated in states such as New York and Texas which had no impact on the election results.

The claim that Russia stole the election based upon their actions on social media is harmful as it gives establishment Democrats an excuse to resist reform. It plays into the hands of neocons who desire regime change in Russia, with their claims about Russia being no more truthful than their claims about WMD in Iraq. It is also an attack on freedom of speech, and has led to McCarthyism from establishment Democrats who claim that criticism stems from support for Putin.

Reason has produced the above video on 5 Reasons Not to Feed the Russian Troll Hysteria.  They also summarized the arguments:

1) Russian trolling was a drop in the bucket.

2) Russian trolls were not very sophisticated.

Russian trolls supposedly had the Machiavellian know-how to infiltrate the American political system, but their social media posts don’t look very sophisticated. The posts often featured broken English and puzzling topic choices. A postpromoting a “buff” Bernie Sanders coloring book, for instance, noted that “the coloring is something that suits for all people.” Another post showed Jesus and Satan in an arm wrestling match under this caption: “SATAN: IF I WIN CLINTON WINS! JESUS: NOT IF I CAN HELP IT!” The post generated very few clicks and shares.

3) Russian troll rallies apparently did not attract many participants.

The indictment makes much of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton rallies instigated by Russian trolls, but it does not say how many people participated. The New York Times reported that a Russian-organized rally in Texas opposing Shariah law attracted a dozen people. An anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rally in Idaho drew four people. Attendance at other rallies was similarly sparse.

4) Russian trolling probably didn’t change anyone’s mind.

Broken English aside, the social media posts were not qualitatively different from content created by American activists, and they seemed to be aimed mainly at reinforcing pre-existing beliefs and divisions. The Russians might have gotten a few Trump supporters to show up at anti-Clinton rallies, but that does not mean they had an impact on the election.

5) Russian troll hysteria depicts free speech as a kind of violence.

The Justice Department describes the messages posted by Russians pretending to be Americans as “information warfare.” But while the posts may have been sophomoric, inaccurate, and illogical, that does not distinguish them from most of what passes for online political discussion among actual Americans. The integrity of civic discourse does not depend on verifying the citizenship of people who participate in it. It depends on the ability to weigh what they say, checking it against our own values and information from other sources. If voters cannot do that, maybe democracy isdoomed. But if so, it’s not the Russians’ fault.

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