There’s little reason to worry Russian troll posts on social media significantly influence the political attitudes and behavior of Republicans or Democrats, according to a new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study, led by Duke Sociology Professor Christopher Bail and published on Monday, found there is “no evidence” Russian troll accounts contributes to “ideological polarization.” It also found there is “no evidence that interacting with Russian Twitter trolls influenced the attitudes or behaviors of Republicans and Democrats who use Twitter at least 3 times a week.”
The findings push back against fears the Internet Research Agency — the Kremlin-backed troll farm — played a major role in swaying voters during the 2016 U.S. election. The IRA, through a network of accounts and pages, pushed more than 100,000 posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram between 2016 and 2017. The IRA’s memes routinely touched on hot-button political social issues, including gun control, immigration and Colin Kaepernick; others championed Donald Trump while ripping Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Many of the memes included remarkably poor grammar and Photoshop efforts.
The PNAS study looked at the impact of IRA posts on six measures of political attitudes, including how people felt about the opposing party and if they became more entrenched in their liberal or conservative views; the troll posts ended up having a “minimal” effect on all measurements.
“We found no substantial effects of interacting with Russian IRA accounts on the affective attitudes of Democrats and Republicans who use Twitter frequently toward each other, their opinions about substantive political issues, or their engagement with politics on Twitter in late 2017,” the study said.
The study acknowledged some restrictions: it only looked at posts between October and November 2017, and it dealt with people that were relatively active Twitter users. Research was limited to Twitter, while the effect IRA posts had on Facebook and Instagram users was not looked at. Altogether, the study looked at the behavior and attitudes of 1,239 Republicans and Democrats.
One reason the troll posts were ineffective, according to the study, is that they were essentially preaching to the choir: Those looking at posts bashing Clinton, for instance, were already not inclined to vote for her.
“These findings suggest that Russian trolls might have failed to sow discord because they mostly interacted with those who were already highly polarized,” the study said.
Despite the findings, Facebook and Twitter — after being bashed for their inability to weed out Russian disinformation during the 2016 election — have become more proactive heading into 2020, with both companies purging thousands of troll posts and pages in the last 18 months.
You can check out the full PNAS findings here.