The Washington Post is out with a report today from NYU saying that Russian disinformation on Twitter probably had very little impact on the 2016 Election. The basic finding is that the tweets probably didn’t reach nearly a big or broad enough audience to really make a difference. The report notes that Facebook posts reached a much wider audience, and “hack and dump” operations against the DNC likely did reach the broader public, based on other studies. In the end it’s nearly impossible to see exactly how much Russian operations were because of missing variables.
Setting aside the issue that Twitter has more of a “political influencer” crowd on it, there’s not a lot to argue against from the report. As the years have passed since 2016, I have not for one second doubted that Russia was messing around in our elections, or that Trump was okay with it. I’ve had two basic problems with the whole narrative though. First, “collusion” is not the crime, conspiracy would be, and that would require a direct agreement of some kind, which hasn’t been totally laid out to us. Second, I spent most of 2016 in Northeast Pennsylvania and Eastern North Carolina- do I really think all the Trump voters I saw needed Russia to convince them? Sure, bad people tried to do bad things, but is that really why Trump won?
It’s an uncomfortable conversation for a lot of liberal-leaning Americans, because I don’t think we like the implications, but Donald Trump did win the 2016 Election. Sure, he lost the popular vote, but that isn’t our system. So much of the conversation about Russian interference in our elections has been an attempt to discredit the result, rather than secure the future, and that is probably energy poorly spent. In 2012, the swing states broke mostly as a group towards Barack Obama, while the rest of the country voted along red and blue lines. In 2020, the swing states broke narrowly towards Joe Biden, while the rest of the country voted along their partisan lines. In 2016 they broke the opposite way. Typically the winner of the election is the candidate who does best where the paid communications are happening, which is to say the swing states. In 2016 that happened to be the Republican nominee.
Part of the reason the Russian interference narrative is a comforting way to explain 2016 is that it avoids saying that nearly half the country actually agrees with what Trump is saying. The truth is, they do though. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a fluke. Joe Biden needed north of 81 million votes to narrowly beat him four years later. To treat Trump’s win as though it didn’t really happen is to comfort one’s self in a reality that never really existed.