The Russian government’s campaign to interfere in the 2016 American presidential election in order to install Donald Trump in the White House may be one of the greatest intelligence operations in modern history.
What is publicly known is damning. Russia intelligence operatives and other foreign parties working in conjunction with them were able to influence (if not infiltrate) the highest levels of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign staff and other parts of his inner circle. Many of those relationships may have continued well past his election as president. The apparent goal was to manipulate Trump and by extension America’s foreign policy in order to advance Russia’s and Vladimir Putin’s interests to the disadvantage of the United States and the West.
The Russian government also wanted to undermine faith in Western democracy by creating domestic chaos, uncertainty and a crisis of faith in liberal democratic social and political institutions. As special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal continues, public evidence suggests that the worst case scenario seems much more likely than not to be correct: Donald Trump, either directly or because he was manipulated by his closest aides and advisers, may be doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin and other Russian interests.
The Russian effort to elect Donald Trump went beyond compromising Trump’s closest aides and advisers — and perhaps even the candidate himself. Russian intelligence services waged an information warfare influence campaign against the American people. This involved circulating disinformation and outright lies through social media and other online conduits with the goal of demobilizing key Democratic constituencies such as African-Americans while simultaneously encouraging white conservatives to vote for Donald Trump. These latter were apparently focused on shattering Hillary Clinton’s support in key battleground states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Russian operatives also used information stolen from the Democratic National Committee to shape the American news media’s narrative about Hillary Clinton in such a way as to advantage Donald Trump.
The Russian campaign was successful, at least insofar as Donald Trump is now in the White House. But how much did their various strategies actually influence Donald Trump’s voters? Why are some individuals and groups more susceptible to being influenced by propaganda, disinformation and other types of inaccurate information? How does the right-wing echo chamber threaten American democracy? Is it possible to actually quantify the number of votes that were won by Donald Trump — and lost by Hillary Clinton — because of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election? Would Donald Trump be president today if the Russians and their intelligence operatives had not helped his campaign?
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Kathleen Hall Jamieson. She is the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor at Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania and director of its Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Jamieson is the author of many books, including “Packaging the Presidency,” “Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment,” “Eloquence in an Electronic Age,” “Presidents Creating the Presidency” and “The Obama Victory.” She is also the co-founder of FactCheck.org. Her newest book is “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President.” This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
One of the narratives that has become common over the past two years is that Donald Trump’s election is unprecedented and that there has never been such a partisan environment as exists now in the country. What do we actually know, empirically, about partisanship and American politics?
We’ve had times in which the country was deeply divided. The country was deeply divided over Vietnam. The country was polarized over civil rights. The 1968 election comes to mind in that regard. In the 1960s there were also political assassinations of national leaders.
The country survived those challenges. And then there was the Watergate scandal and the public becoming aware that presidents of both parties have lied to them about the war in Vietnam. Again, this shows that the American people are resilient and the country’s institutions are resilient as well. I look at those past situations and draw hope from them. That doesn’t mean that we’re out of the woods yet, but we’ve navigated some pretty tough times as a country.
How does social media and the internet more generally influence partisanship and polarization, especially in regard to the Trump-Russia scandal?
One of the things that is intriguing about a social media environment is that the same content can be trafficked through very different sources to reach an audience. For example, when we examine the information that is put into the body politic by Russian trolls and other operatives in cyberspace, that information was often coming from the American right wing and the Republican Party. Sometimes that information and those talking points were refashioned and in other instances they were not. This information was amplified by bots and other means to increase the likelihood that the public believes that support for a position is more widespread than it actually is.
We get the illusion that attitudes and beliefs are more widespread than they are, when in reality they are from the fringe and are extreme. The Russians come into the American political environment and use trolls and other technological means to skew people’s perceptions.
What role does the right-wing media’s echo chamber play in circulating disinformation?
Research shows that disinformation is fed within the fairly narrow confines of the right-wing echo chamber.
The synergy among Breitbart and Fox News and Rush Limbaugh is very real and the likelihood that any one of them would be citing the Russian information that was released through WikiLeaks, for example, is extraordinarily high relative to mainstream news outlets and other sources. The amplification power for its audience is higher on the conservative end of the ideological sphere than for those people who pay attention to more mainstream news media outlets and other sources.
Information has to be received and processed and evaluated as being somehow “political” in order for it to have an impact in this context. What does political psychology teach us about why some people and some groups are more susceptible to disinformation and other types of propaganda?
Some people are more predisposed towards accuracy. When confronted with new information they are more likely to ask, “How do I know that? Is that correct?” To the extent that we, as individuals, feel and become more partisan in our identity, we are less likely to emphasize accuracy, to question the motivations about the information that we seek out and subsequently use. Confirmation bias is also very important here, as human beings are often critical and highly analytic about anything that we disagree with and uncritically accept information that may be more suspect when it agrees with our priors.
Social media is very important here. Because people are increasingly involved with social media, it’s more likely their partisan and other political identities are being triggered in those spaces. In turn this means that people are less likely to be concerned with what is accurate. The result is that we are much more vulnerable to propaganda.
That is a direct threat to a healthy democracy. If people cannot agree on the facts and the nature of empirical reality then political legitimacy and good political decision-making are made very difficult if not impossible. When did you decide that you needed to research the role and impact of Russian interference on how Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election?
I originally thought that the idea that the Russians could have used social media to create a substantial impact on the election was absurd. I started to change my mind when I saw the first release of Russian social media and troll campaign ads and messaging during the U.S. Senate hearings in October and November of last year. These ads were a coherent plan and understanding of the presidential election which was consistent with Donald Trump’s political needs.
If acted on systematically, these ads would have produced a communication effect that on the margins could have affected enough votes to change the outcome of the election in his favor. If the Russians didn’t have a coherent theory of what it took for Donald Trump to win — or what it would take to make it more likely that Hillary Clinton would lose — then all their machinations would not have mattered. But the Russians knew who to mobilize.
The Russians were trying to mobilize evangelicals and white conservative Catholics. The Russians also knew that they needed to mobilize veterans and military households. The Russians knew they had to demobilize Bernie Sanders supporters and liberals, especially young people. The Russians were also attempting to shift the voters they could not demobilize over to Jill Stein.
You add that together with demobilizing African-American voters with messaging that Hillary Clinton is bad for the black community, and then Clinton’s whole messaging strategy is at risk. If Hillary Clinton can’t mobilize the black vote at levels near Barack Obama’s, although not the same level, then she is in trouble.
I then started to examine where the Russians and their trolls spent their time and attention. They were spending more of it on trying to demobilize African-American voters by emphasizing things that group may not like about Hillary Clinton. When a person casts a vote they are not thinking about every detail or issue relative to a candidate. Voters make decisions based on what is most important in that moment of time, what is on the top of their mind.
So if you remind voters who are African-American that at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency there was a very high level of increased incarceration of African-Americans on drug charges then an African-American voter may say, “Maybe I should think about Hillary Clinton differently.”
If you remember her “superpredator” comment and take it to be about black people in general and not about gangs specifically, then you as an African-American voter may be less likely to support her.
By featuring these types of messages, the Russians were increasing the likelihood that while you may not be likely to cast a vote for Donald Trump, you are more likely to stay home and not vote for Hillary Clinton.
I then started to wonder whether maybe there was enough troll activity that was addressed to the right constituencies to have impacted the margins of the vote. The question then becomes, did the Russians and their trolls target the right voters in the right places? We still don’t know that.
The social media platforms know the answer, but they have not released the information. The trolls alone could have swung the electorate. But in my judgment the WikiLeaks hacks against the DNC is a much stronger case. There we see a clear effect on the news media agenda. We know from decades of communication scholarship that if you change the media agenda you then change the criteria that people vote on. The shift in the media agenda from October forward was decisively against Hillary Clinton. And the questions in the presidential debates which were based on information stolen by WikiLeaks and the Russians disadvantaged Clinton and, looking at the polling data, predicted the vote.
How did the 2016 presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump reflect what the Russians were doing?
One of the things I point out in my new book, “Cyberwar,” is that the 2016 presidential election was different than past elections. Usually, we can pretty much predict the eventual vote by knowing where people are as of the conventions, because political party identification is such a strong determinant. Plus, voters know their candidates well enough by that point that they pretty much have logged in their vote. In all, there are not enough votes up for grabs in the last week of an election to shift the outcome and make a difference — except in a very close election.
Debates will matter in close elections. The 2016 presidential election also demonstrated a very interesting phenomenon: Not simply that there were a lot of votes still available, but there were many Americans who were going to cast a vote and who did not like either of the major-party candidates.
We don’t ordinarily have voters who are as conflicted as they were in 2016. And we had a higher percent of people self-identifying as “independent,” which meant they were less anchored to a political party. When you come into those final weeks and you see that almost one out of eight voters hasn’t decided yet, that’s unusual. There were enough people able to be influenced when the hacked content gotten illegally by the Russians from the Democratic campaign headquarters burst into the news after Oct. 7, 2016 — and that’s when early voting is taking place.
There were enough undecided voters watching those last two debates to make an impact on the election. For example, one of the questions that was based on the hacked information was about Hillary Clinton saying one thing in public and another thing in private. In reality, Clinton was using an example from the Steven Spielberg movie about Abraham Lincoln when she said, “Sometimes you need to do some things with one constituency and some with another.”
She was talking about all the maneuvering that Abraham Lincoln did to ensure that he could protect the country through the Civil War. She was not saying, “Well, when I was behind closed doors, I told Goldman Sachs one thing while I’m telling the public something else.” When that statement about the Lincoln film is taken out of context, it seems to be an admission that she was saying things in private that did not agree with her public statements. Hillary Clinton is thrown onto the defensive in that presidential debate and Trump gains a major advantage out of that.
The evidence for this is reflected in responses made by debate viewers as compared to non-viewers. Debate viewers think Clinton is more likely to say one thing in public and another in private.
In the last debate, the issue was what Clinton said about trade and immigration. The statement in the hacked speech was actually about energy transfer. What Chris Wallace implied was that Clinton had conceded that she stood for open borders. Donald Trump makes this immediately about immigration in the debate, but in reality the hacked speech had nothing to do with immigration.
She’s disadvantaged in that exchange as well. In total this shows how the Russian hackers got this into the mainstream of American political discourse. Journalists took it out of context and this information was used to hurt Hillary Clinton.
One of the dominant narratives about the 2016 presidential election was that the result reflected “economic anxiety” among working-class white voters. The evidence has shown that it was in fact racism and not class-based “anxiety” that over-predicted the 2016 election and Trump voters’ behavior. A related narrative is that there were many “Obama to Trump” voters whom Hillary Clinton lost. What do we actually know about these things?
We know that there are about 200 or so counties where the majority gave its vote to Obama in at least one of the two previous elections [in 2008 and 2012] and then gave its vote to Trump. Now the question is, how much in- and out-migration was there in those counties? Does that explain the difference? I haven’t seen a good analysis to answer that piece of the question. You can set up a scenario in which there is an economic factor at play. You can also create a model where there is a socio-cultural factor as well. All those variables melt together in an environment in which there is a high level of anxiety which makes it plausible that a given person might say, “I voted for Obama because I want change, and now I’m voting for Trump because I want change.”
Race might not be driving that vote in either case, or it might be there in different ways in those same two cases. But one should not draw the simple inference that race was not a factor in the vote for Donald Trump in those counties.
As one of the leading scholars in political communication, how would you assess the messaging strategy of the Democrats and the Republicans? Is Donald Trump some type of savant or genius in terms of how he communicates generally, and how he motivates his public, in particular?
We know that after elections people are influenced by what is called “status quo bias,” where the outcome had a certain kind of inevitability and was the result of things that we are able to observe. As a result, we tend to assume that the candidate who won the Electoral College must have been strategically adept in some ways that can be isolated. But Donald Trump lost the popular vote by an overwhelming margin, so he could not have been that strategically adept. In a presidential election that close there are so many different factors at play that I would be hesitant to say that a close defeat in the Electoral College demonstrated the strategic superiority of one candidate or the inferiority of the other.
President Trump is better at commanding the agenda than he is at any other single thing that he as a communicator does. The press has been an accomplice in the process of ceding agenda control to him by virtue of his tweeting — and having the press respond immediately, as if every tweet is presumed to be newsworthy. Donald Trump has the capacity to get whatever he wants the public to focus on by directing the cable news agenda. We really should ask: Aren’t there other things we ought to be paying more attention to? How often are we being distracted from something that Trump does not want us to pay attention to? Being distracted by his effective use of tweets to set an alternative agenda.
Fox News is de facto Trump’s state-sponsored media. How does this impact American political culture?
We are increasingly going into ideological enclaves to get our news. To the extent that people find the news compatible with what they already believe, that means they are not being exposed to alternative interpretations of reality and alternative points of view. What is unprecedented about the relationship between Fox News and the president of the United States is the extent to which what is said and shown on Fox News appears to influence what is said and featured by the president of the United States. The traditional model of agenda-setting is that the president sets the agenda and the news media follows. This reversal with Donald Trump and Fox News is something new.
How has the 2016 election challenged longstanding assumptions about American politics and the ways that people actually behave and make political decisions?
We learned that the capacity to mobilize and demobilize voters is greater than one might have expected previously. We’ve confirmed that when you change the balance of messages so that you get more messaging on one side, then elections can be impacted. The 2016 presidential election confirmed the power of agenda-setting.
If you were to explain to the average American how the Russians were able to impact the 2016 presidential election, what would say?
The Russians were able to change the climate of communication for some voters and members of the public through social media in ways that disadvantaged Hillary Clinton. The Russians were able to change the media agenda and questions asked during two presidential debates in ways that disadvantaged Hillary Clinton. The Russians and their disinformation campaign may have influenced a consequential decision by James Comey to make public the reopening of the FBI investigation into the Clinton email server on Oct. 28, 2016, in ways that decisively impacted the election.
Is it reasonable to conclude that the Russians were able to swing the election in favor of Donald Trump and against Hillary Clinton, thus securing a victory for him?
Yes, it is probable although not certain. The case for the Russian trolls is more tentative because we don’t have the targeting information from the social media companies. The information hacked and leaked by the Russians is a stronger case. Adding in the impact of Russian disinformation and its influence on James Comey makes the case very strong that the Russians were able to swing the 2016 presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor.