A recent study from Duke University appears to support former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's February 2018 announcement that Russian internet trolls did not affect the outcome of the 2016 US election - a campaign which the New York Times described as "the Pearl Harbor of the social media age."
Researchers analyzed the "6 distinctive measures of political attitudes and behaviors" of 1,239 Republican and Democratic Twitter users from late 2017 over a one-month period.
Lead researcher Chris Bail notes that while "many studies have analyzed the content and strategy of these campaigns," hardly anyone has looked at their actual impact.
By combining a massive data set released by Twitter in the wake of the 2016 US election with their own data from a late-2017 study, the team found that Russian efforts had "no significant effects," and that people who interacted with troll accounts were "primarily those who are already highly polarized."
7. Though our analysis has important limitations (see below), we found no significant effects of interacting with trolls for any of our outcomes. We also found that the people who are mostly likely to interact with trolls are primarily those who are already highly polarized.— Chris Bail (@chris_bail) November 25, 2019
Offering suggestions as to why this is the case, Bail says their finding is consistent with the theory of "minimal effects" in political communication research, which is that "people who are most likely to engage with political messaging are the least likely to be influenced by it."
Another thought is that "interactions with trolls were relatively rare and usually very brief/sporadic."
10. It is also possible we found no effects simply because interactions with trolls were relatively rare and usually very brief/sporadic. Things might have been different if interaction was more widespread and extended over protracted time periods.— Chris Bail (@chris_bail) November 25, 2019
That said, the Bail admits the study has Limitations.
For example, they only studied Twitter and were unable to analyze "whether troll interaction shapes perceptions of trust, voting behavior, and other more indirect forms of influence." They also were unable to determine whether trolls had more influence during the 2016 US election, or whether their influence "has evolved to become more impactful in the U.S. (or elsewhere)" since 2017.
15. For now though, we think our finding is an important reminder that the American public is not tabula rosa and may be more difficult to manipulate than many people think.— Chris Bail (@chris_bail) November 25, 2019
Perhaps in addition to forcing Hillary Clinton to abandon the rust belt, Vladimir Putin has infiltrated Duke University?