In the wake of the surprising indictments of 13 Russians involved in the coordinated trolling of the 2016 election, online arguments raged as to what impact it had on Donald Trump’s win.
But the already-fertile ground that the misinformation landed on was left mostly unexplored.
We know how Russia trolled us. But we still don’t really know why. And given the fairly low amount of effort they put into it, we don’t know why it worked.
Detractors claimed that there was no way to tell whether the avalanche of Twitter trolls and fake news had any impact. Maybe the whole thing was just a glorified series of pranks meant to piss off Americans, and had no political purpose at all.
This has a lot of truth to it. In October, The Nation pointed out that six of the most shared and subscribed Russian Facebook pages were a diverse collection of interests – “Blacktivists, United Muslims of America, Being Patriotic, Heart of Texas, Secured Borders, and LGBT United.” That sounds like pure trolling, not a pointed political attack.
Meanwhile, Clinton supporters claimed that because the margin of victory for Trump was so close, if even a tiny number of people in a few states were persuaded by Russian-backed trolling to vote for Trump, vote third party, or not vote at all; then the campaign could have been devastatingly effective.
Beyond that, the racial strife and party infighting played up by the trolling helped inflame the passions that ushered Trump in. Would the argument over Trump’s attacks on NFL players taking a knee for the National Anthem be as effective if Russian trolls weren’t pumping out tens of thousands of tweets both for and against it?
Unless individual voters starting coming forward, we will never know if the trolling swung votes to Trump. And it’s not as if Russian trolling created racial strife in the US. We’ve spent centuries perfecting that ourselves.
And the effort WAS small, amateurish, and crudely targeted. If Russia wanted to swing the election to Trump (or start a race war, for that matter), they’d need more than 90 folks to crank out lame memes and hilariously mangled message board comments.
But if the Russians didn’t think the trolling campaign was going to work, why bother? And if it didn’t work, why are they still doing it?
Why, for example, have obvious Russian bots flooded social media with conspiracy theories and partisan attacks in the wake of the Douglas High School shooting?
Why did Russia’s ham-fisted attempt to play on America’s lack of critical thinking skills take root at all?
A few people have taken a swing at it. In August 2016, New Yorker writer Adrian Chen posited the purpose of the “Russian troll farm” as “not to brainwash readers but to overwhelm social media with a flood of fake content, seeding doubt and paranoia, and destroying the possibility of using the Internet as a democratic space.”
Meanwhile, the Mueller indictment claims the purpose was nothing less than to “interfere with the US political system, including the 2016 US presidential election.”
But in interviews with ex-trolls, its becomes clear that even the workers seem to either not know the point of the work, or claim there was no purpose at all. “It was a colossal labor of monkeys,” a former troll told the Washington Post. “It was pointless.”
So why did the Russians do it?
Maybe they did it because they knew that no matter what they did, it would unbalance Americans and drive us deeper into our partisan trenches, weakening our national resolve and wasting our precious time.
How did they know that? Because Americans are remarkably susceptible to being lied to and believing stupid things. And everyone but us seems to know that.
Conspiracy theory grifters like Alex Jones and his ilk have made careers pushing insane plots and ludicrous accusations into the marketplace. Most people ignore or laugh at them, but a few people turn them into gospel truth. Their posts get millions of views and their videos get hundreds of thousands of shares. Not by me, and not by you, but by someone. Of course Russia knows this. A huge number of tweets using popular conspiracy hashes like #QAnon and #Pizzagate are pumped out by Russians.
They know we believe inane medical misinformation. Ten percent of Americans believe vaccines are unsafe, despite every reputable piece of information saying just the opposite. We believe eclipses can change menstrual cycles, that bio-frequency stickers can alter our moods, and that keeping a woman’s placenta attached to a baby for days can supercharge its immune system.
They know that at least some non-zero number of Americans believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that gay people can be converted to straight people, that Sandy Hook was a hoax, that 9/11 featured buildings wired with explosives, that the Earth was created 5,000 years ago, and that the Earth is flat.
Most people don’t believe this stuff. But a few do. And people who believe one conspiracy theory are predisposed to believe another. If you think Big Pharma is killing holistic doctors to hide natural cures for cancer, you might be open to believing that the DNC rigged the 2016 primary, or that NFL players who take a knee for the Anthem should be arrested.
And you’re probably going to share a tweet that says the same thing.
Russia has been running active measures and propaganda for a century. They’re really good at using fake documents, fake news stories, dirty tricks, and outright lies to get weak-minded people to do their bidding.
In America’s fetid fever swamps of paranoia and racism, they found a whole bunch of minds ready to believe whatever they were told, as long as they already agreed with it.
Maybe it didn’t get Trump elected, or make white people go door-to-door killing black people.
But it messed with our minds. It made us feel insecure. It made us feel unsettled.
And Russia knew it would.