This year, researchers at Ohio State University tried to measure the impact that fake news had on the 2016 election. They based their analysis on a postelection survey in which they’d asked voters 281 questions, three of which were intended to determine their exposure to online disinformation. Respondents were asked to rate the accuracy of statements claiming that Hillary Clinton was suffering from a serious illness, that she’d approved weapons sales to the Islamic State as secretary of state, and that Donald Trump had been endorsed by Pope Francis. “Belief in these fake news stories is very strongly linked to defection from the Democratic ticket by 2012 Obama voters,” wrote the researchers, Richard Gunther, Paul A. Beck and Erik C. Nisbet. Even after controlling for variables like ideology, education, party identification and dislike of Clinton, they found that believing a fake news story made people who voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 significantly less likely to vote for Clinton in 2016. The study’s authors don’t claim a clear causal link between propaganda and voting; it’s possible that people who rejected Clinton were more open to misinformation about her. It’s hard to believe, however, that at least some of them weren’t affected by a social media ecosystem saturated with deliberate lies.
Still, many people on both the left and the right have been skeptical of the notion that Russia’s industrial-scale trolling campaign made a significant difference in Trump’s election. In February, the special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians connected to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian trolling operation based in St. Petersburg. Shortly afterward, National Review’s Rich Lowry scoffed that the “Russian contribution on social media was piddling and often laughable.”
That month, Adrian Chen, who reported on the Internet Research Agency for The New York Times Magazine, appeared to minimize its political impact in an interview on MSNBC. He called it “essentially a social media marketing campaign with 90 people, a few million dollars behind it, run by people who have a bare grasp of the English language and not a full understanding of who they’re targeting.”