What was the actual impact of Russian information operations on US elections?

It may seem like an old debate now — and indeed I’m not interested in rehashing the past or re-litigating the 2016 election. But this week, one in which we adjudicated the “boom” that lay at the end of a series of information operations, I wanted to revisit one important point which remains poorly articulated even among experts on the topic.

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A staff member arranges a display showing social media posts during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Nov. 1, 2017. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

One morning this week, I tuned into two talks by experts on information operations. Thomas Rid, whose recent book Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, offers a broad historical overview of information operations employed by the Soviet Union, Russia, and by western democracies. Rid has excellent insights into the categories of information operations that have been effective — particularly so-called “exposure” operations.

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Cover for Mr. Rid’s 2020 book.

Exposure operations aim to either lay bare information that had previously been secret, and which might embarrass a government or a specific political opponent—or, they may be aimed at exposing and amplifying existing divisions within a society. Russia deployed both kinds of exposure operations against the US. There was no shortage of endemic vulnerabilities (race, class, geographic, ideological divisions) to exploit, and indeed they did so with great flair and skill. Americans helped.

But when asked, “Did Russia’s IRA operations have an effect on the 2016 election?”, Mr. Rid made an argument I’d heard him make before: “There is no particular evidence that the IRA operations had an effect on the outcome of the 2016 election. And the fact that so many people think they did is giving Russia too much credit, and only makes them more successful.”

While I agree with Mr. Rid about those specific facts (there is no particular evidence that IRA’s actions caused President Trump to win the election itself), I don’t think it’s correct to end the discussion there.

Immediately following Mr. Rid’s talk, I tuned into another discussion featuring Maria Snegovaya, Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, and co-author of a new report on Russian disinformation operations, who was asked essentially the same question: What was the impact of Russia’s operations on the 2016 election?

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Free Russia Foundation Report by Snegovaya and Watanabe.

I found her answer (paraphrased here) to be more nuanced: “Data from our study showed that the operations left the country much more polarized, such that people were specifically more likely to strongly oppose the presidential candidate of the opposite party.”

This is closer to the truth, and this increased polarization and tribalism has had effects on all of our elections — not only national, presidential elections, but in Congressional elections, local elections, and in civil discourse, in 2016, 2018, 2020 and beyond.

Indeed, it is this societal manipulation that makes America less civil, less manageable, less inclined to reach compromise. And it is this kind of manipulation, driven by actors both foreign and domestic, that has left our country more vulnerable to cults, conspiracies, and emerging phenomena like QAnon.

And that vulnerability led directly to the cultish display of violence and insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6th. That day was the “boom” that was planted in part by Russian information warfare that began several years prior.

Citizens of western democracies are in the early phases of accurately understanding how information and political warfare operations work, and it is especially naïve (and very 2015–2016) to think that the goal of information warfare campaigns such as those undertaken by Russia was simply to secure the election of one candidate vs. another. Indeed, that’s a misdirection, and Mr. Rid is correct to point it out as such. The goal of the campaigns was to drive division and ultimately make the country less manageable.

Ms. Snegovaya better characterized the nature and results of the operations, and I would encourage those looking to understand these important questions to synthesize the sensibilities of both of these analysts.

While Russia does not deserve credit for electing Trump, they did play a part in destabilizing and dividing the country that helped to further inflame and ultimately embarrass our democracy. In this regard, Russia was successful in achieving its goals.

January 6th, and the sad, failed impeachment process which has followed it, is just one more dividend yielded by their relatively meager investments in information and political warfare operations.

Analysts and historians should neither dismiss nor exaggerate the effects of these operations. They helped set the stage for a divided and unruly United States, and should be given credit for exactly that—not more, not less.

Disinformation researcher, thinker, writer, entrepreneur, TED speaker, and data visualization geek. Twitter: @davetroy Email: davetroy@gmail.com

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