National Security & Defense

Can Russian Meddling Really Swing the Midterms?

From left: FBI director Christopher Wray, CIA director Mike Pompeo, and DNI Dan Coats testify on Capitol Hill, February 13, 2018. (Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
It seems exceedingly unlikely.

On Tuesday morning, the heads of America’s intelligence agencies publicly warned that the Russians are seeking to meddle in this year’s midterm elections. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Russians aim to use “propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.”

The United States was, Coats said, “under attack.” Since the Russians considered their 2016 meddling to be a “success,” the 2018 assault was likely to be as brazen as their past behavior. The warning, echoed by the other intelligence chiefs, was in stark contrast to President Trump’s dismissal of both the evidence about Russian activity in 2016 and the possibility of a repeat performance. Though CIA director Mike Pompeo said his agency was prepared to respond to attempted Russian mischief with local law-enforcement officials and even to launch a counter-attack on Moscow, the disconnect between the president’s ongoing indifference to the issue and alarms being sounded in Congress is disquieting.

But lost in all this hand-wringing was the most pertinent question of all: Could Russia’s interference even make any difference?

Judging by what we know about 2016, the answer is: not much.

As the New York Times noted in an Upshot column published the same day as the hearings, there is no reason to believe Russia’s dirty work altered many opinions during the 2016 election, let alone swung the presidency to Trump. Infuriating as the Kremlin’s propaganda operations were, studies showed that only two American voters out of every 10,000 were exposed to them during the course of the campaign, and the odds that even those few voters were the least bit affected by said exposure seem very small indeed. The Upshot post, citing a meta-analysis of various forms of campaign persuasion, indicated that the net effect on voters of what the Russians did was “zero.”

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about a foreign power’s mucking around in American politics or that Congress shouldn’t be pressing the intelligence agencies to act to prevent such activity in the future. Nor does it render Trump’s denial of the problem any more defensible.

But it should cause us to take some of the hyperbole heard about this subject with a grain of salt. Russia may have illegally meddled in the 2016 campaign, but the idea being promoted by some on the left that the Kremlin stole that election or is about to steal the midterms allows Russia to achieve its goal of undermining faith in American democracy.

The problem for the Russians or anyone else looking to influence Americans by these methods is that despite the reach of the Internet, it isn’t as easy to spread propaganda as one might think.

As the Times points out, no matter how many bots the Russians create to infiltrate Facebook, getting their fake news onto enough news feeds to reach a significant percentage of voters is a task that is likely beyond their capabilities.

Even if we leave that inconvenient fact aside, the Times also makes clear that in the current political environment, only a very small percentage of Americans are open to persuasion. Most Republicans and Democrats get their news from sources that confirm their views, so few voters are willing to listen to appeals from the other side; the notion that a significant number of people might be affected by the sort of disinformation that the Russians were trying to spread seems risible.

No matter how many bots the Russians create to infiltrate Facebook, getting their fake news onto enough news feeds to reach a significant percentage of voters is a task that is likely beyond their capabilities.

If the Times is to be believed, the 1 percent of political tweets published during the election season by Russian bots didn’t get much of an audience. Nor is it likely that many of those who did see them were willing to accept them at face value, let change a vote because of them.

The reason for Trump’s resistance to the truth here is obvious. He perceives talk of Russian meddling as an attempt by Democrats to rationalize their election defeat and delegitimize his presidency. That is petty and foolish on his part, but it is not irrational, given that Democrats have spent the last year harping on as-yet-unproved allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to steal the election.

Since there is no incontrovertible evidence of such collusion, the belief of a portion of the Democratic base in the theory is largely a matter of faith. But that didn’t stop liberals from speculating after the Intelligence Committee hearing that Trump was reluctant to believe in Russian meddling because he had been in on it. So long as liberals are trying to sell such charges as facts, Trump will likely remain hesitant to treat Russian shenanigans with the seriousness they deserve.

For good reason, the full extent of the efforts of U.S. intelligence agencies to combat Russian cyber mischief is unknown. But if, as one would hope, they are doing what is necessary to ensure that this year’s vote counts are unaffected by Moscow’s campaign, then the discussion of the influence of Russian bots should be placed in perspective.

Yet by effectively sowing doubt among liberals about the integrity of elections, the Russians have already done their worst, undermining trust in our democracy. In some left-wing quarters, outrage at the Kremlin’s actions is not so much a function of desire to defend U.S. sovereignty as of a lack of faith in the judgment of the American electorate. How else could one explain the belief that millions voted for Trump because they saw fake-news stories planted by Russia?

It’s a false belief, of course: Russian propaganda wasn’t the reason for Trump’s win and nothing Russian dummy accounts post on Facebook will be responsible for a midterm victory by either party. But until we can all accept that obvious conclusion, it will be impossible to reach the consensus necessary to successfully confront a perfidious Russian regime both at home and abroad.