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Duke University study: Russia likely had no significant effect on US social media during 2016 election

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The narrative of Russia’s malign influence on US voters via social media, one so successful that it has been able to sway a US election – took hold in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, and is these days by and large taken for granted.

There is one aspect of the narrative, though, that makes even its proponents uncomfortable: it paints Russia as an extremely powerful entity and US voters as extremely gullible.

Without disputing that Russian trolls – i.e., what has been identified as the Internet Research Agency – indeed conducted a social media campaign, a new Duke University study focuses on the effects it might have had.

Chris Bail, a Duke professor engaged in “building tech to counter political tribalism,” took to Twitter to reveal some of the study’s findings. The key one is that the answer to the question of whether Russian trolls influenced US social media users “might be ‘no’.”

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The research was produced by the university’s Polarization Lab – that “brings together machine learning and social science to reduce political polarization on social media.”

The study, carried out in late 2017, included “6 distinctive measures of political attitudes and behaviors” on a sample of 1,239 Republican and Democratic Twitter users.

Researches put together their own data obtained in this way with Twitter’s large dataset made public after the 2016 election, and their conclusion is that Twitter users in the US did not appear to be significantly affected by exposure to the Russian influence.

“We also found that the people who are mostly likely to interact with trolls are primarily those who are already highly polarized,” Bail said on Twitter.

This Duke professor also sees no reason for Russian campaigns aimed at influencing voters to be more successful than those crafted by Americans – considering that “the net effect of most political campaigns is probably zero,” as he remarked, citing another recent study.

But Bail at the same time notes that one reason for the apparently low success of the Russian effort might be that most engagements with users on Twitter had been “brief and sporadic.” A larger campaign attracting more frequent interactions that lasted longer might have produced different results, he speculates.

Admitting that the study is preliminary and has its limitations, given the complexity of the subject, Bail nevertheless remains optimistic that the American public “may be more difficult to manipulate than many people think.”

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