In one of our earliest posts (April 6) “How a Minority and a Propaganda Blitz Elected a President,” we evaluated the results of the 2016 presidential election, focusing specifically on the margin of victory producing 75 Electoral College votes for the winner. We concluded nine months ago:
… the results have come under scrutiny due to information that has called into question foreign propaganda in the 2016 election in favor of the Republican winner and critical of the Democratic loser. Notwithstanding this allegation, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stated in a radio interview reported in Politico: “I don’t think they’d [voters] be influenced by ads posted by foreign governments.”
The Electoral College margin of victory was 75 votes deriving from four states, which produced a popular vote margin of just over 190,000. Two new reports analyzing data related to Russian propaganda and commissioned by a bipartisan US Senate Select Intelligence committee presented findings that demonstrate the scope of the meddling. The blitz was twofold: to suppress Democratic voter turnout, particularly African Americans, and encourage support for the Republican while disparaging the Democrat.
One of the reports noted that while “other distinct ethnic and religious groups were the focus of one or two Facebook pages or Instagram accounts the black community was targeted extensively with dozens.” Facebook ads were targeted at users who had shown interest in black history, the Black Panther Party, and Malcolm X. The most popular of the Russian Instagram accounts was @blackstagram, with 303,663 followers. On YouTube, the Russians played on police shootings of unarmed black men with channels with names such as “Don’t Shoot” and “BlackToLive.”
The Russian effort spearheaded by the Internet Research Agency (IRA) located in Moscow had a vast reach. Of 81 Facebook pages, 30 targeted African American audiences, amassing 1.2 million followers. Another 25 pages targeted the political right, drawing 1.4 million followers. Most social media platforms were targets: Reddit, Google+, Vine, Gab, Meetup, Pinterest, and Tumblr.
Rather like the absence of the “smoking gun” cited by Defense Secretary Mattis in refusing to credit the findings of the intelligence community in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it is not likely that a direct line of causation can be established between the Russian propaganda siege and numbers of votes cast or suppressed. However, the proportions of the campaign compared with the margin of victory strongly point to a causal relationship and raise questions about the security of our election campaigns.
The four states that provided the margin of victory for Trump—Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—have a population of some 48.7 million, with 22.3 million (46%) casting votes in 2016. The popular vote margin of 190,600 producing the 75 Electoral College votes in favor of the Republican represented .0085% of the total cast in those states It seems naïve to believe that no voters were influenced by the Russian campaign, and the data are clear that it was not all about “ads” by the IRA but a far more subtle media campaign designed, on one hand, to suppress votes, and on the other, to promote a candidate.
The analyses in the new reports lay to rest the “what” and “how” of the Russian campaign meddling, but do not yet answer whether there were US players in the game—the “who.”