"We Primed Ourselves For Discord" - The Dangers Of Exaggerating Russia's Role In The 2016 Election

As we've pointed out time and time again, anybody who has read the Mueller indictment would likely assume that Russian agents were orchestrating a sophisticated psy-op against the American people during the run-up to the 2016 vote - and that their meddling had a demonstrable impact on the outcome.

As if anybody expected the 2016 campaign season to be a placid affair, with two of the most controversial candidates in US electoral history going head-to-head?

Mueller

In today's New York Post, columnist Rich Lowry highlights how exaggerating the impact that the 13 Russians and 3 Russian entities charged by Mueller had on the election risks doing more harm than good. The Post also reported that it couldn’t find any evidence that pro-Trump and anti-Hillary rallies that were purportedly organized by the Russians in New York — not exactly a swing state — in June and July of 2016 had ever taken place.

The Russia campaign was a shockingly cynical violation of our sovereignty. President Trump would do himself and the country a favor by frankly denouncing it.

But the scale of the operation shouldn’t be exaggerated. In the context of a hugely expensive, obsessively covered, impossibly dramatic presidential election, the Russian contribution on social media was piddling and often laughable.

The Russians wanted to boost Trump, but as a Facebook executive noted, most of their spending on Facebook ads came after the election. The larger goal was to sow discord, yet we had already primed ourselves for plenty of that ourselves.

Lowry's column comes at an opportune time. Earlier this week, two interesting stories published this week by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal fleshed out new details of the suspected Putin-linked Russian bots' activities. And in both instances, though the content was salacious, alarmist and crude, almost none of it pertained directly to candidates for American office.

Which reminds us of the fact that Mueller has said there's no proof the Russians had a material impact on the election - though he has unequivocally allowed - even encouraged via the fusillade of leaks out of his office - the unfounded suspicion of unalterable wrongdoing to linger.

First, the New York Times published a story about Russia-linked bots spreading misinformation and hysteria following last week's school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Any news event - no matter how tragic has become fodder to spread inflammatory messages in what is believed to be a far-reaching Russian disinformation campaign. The disinformation comes in various forms: conspiracy videos on YouTube, fake interest groups on Facebook, and armies of bot accounts that can hijack a topic or discussion on Twitter.

Those automated Twitter accounts have been closely tracked by researchers. Last year, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, in conjunction with the German Marshall Fund, a public policy research group in Washington, created a website that tracks hundreds of Twitter accounts of human users and suspected bots that they have linked to a Russian influence campaign.

That's right: These accounts are meticulously tracked, and, researchers have proven that the vast majority of the content they produce has nothing to do with American politics. They have one trait in common: They are salacious and often include disinformation. But rarely are they political.

Hoax

And, as the Wall Street Journal demonstrates in a deeply researched piece published yesterday, this is not a new strategy. These accounts have been active for years. In citing incidents that have been identified by investigators as coordinated disinformation campaigns, the aim appears more toward impacting markets and spreading hysteria than any expressly political aim.

The story begins with a recounting of how Russian trolls spread a swiftly discredited story about food poisoning being spread by Wal-Mart turkeys. While there's no evidence the hoax impacted the stock, it's easy to imagine that this was it's aim.

WSJ says most of the bots identified by the US government first became active in 2014.

The Journal’s data shows a small number of Russian tweets before 2014, but it was a deadly plane crash that year that brought out the strongest early response. On July 17, 2014, an anti-aircraft missile shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew.

...Some of the false stories spread by the bots were intended to discredit the Ukrainian government...

Russian-linked Twitter users at first tweeted news of the tragedy, but within hours they were raising questions about who was responsible. By the next morning, they had latched onto a hashtag blaming the Ukrainian government: КиевСбилБоинг – Kiev shot down the airliner.

Despite this, Mueller insists that he's still investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russia - though, at this point, it appears that the investigation's primary achievement will be a lengthy prison sentence for former campaign executive Paul Manafort, who has been a long-time target of the FBI, beginning back in the early 2000s, around the time that Mueller's tenure as head of the bureau began.

After all, one shouldn't exaggerate the role Russians played in the election - if only to avoid sowing more partisan fear and division in a system that's already rife with both.