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Did Russian ads on Facebook make a difference?

Garance Franke-Ruta
Senior Politics Editor
President Trump; Hillary Clinton (Photo illustration: Yahoo News. Photos: AP [3], Getty Images [2]).

WASHINGTON — A study concluding it’s almost impossible to persuade voters to change their views in today’s highly polarized America raises provocative questions about how much impact foreign influence campaigns on Facebook might actually have had in 2016.

“Our best estimate of the direct effects of campaign contact on Americans’ candidate choices in general elections is essentially zero,” David Broockman of Stanford University and Joshua Kalla of the University of California-Berkeley said, summarizing their results earlier this week. “Our findings throw cold water on the notion that it is easy, overall, for campaigns to persuade voters.”

But researchers believe that political advertising and campaign efforts may pay off in a different way— by increasing (or suppressing) voter turnout.

The researchers’ analysis of 49 field experiments “conducted with real-world political campaigns,” including nine they themselves conducted over the past two years with labor group Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, found no net impact on voters’ choices.

It’s a conclusion that calls into question the basis of a vast industry of political consulting that pours millions of dollars into campaign advertisements and contacts — and one that’s especially intriguing in light of fresh attention to the roughly $100,000 and 3,000-advertisement campaign on Facebook that has been traced back to a Kremlin-linked Russian company during the presidential election. Those ad buys, as well as apparent Russian influence campaigns on Twitter, are the subject of enormous public attention and will be the focus of a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Nov. 1.

The ineffectiveness of voter contacts, the authors conclude, “may help explain why campaigns increasingly focus on rousing the enthusiasm of existing supporters instead of reaching across party lines to win over new supporters.”

The core of the debate over Russian ads on Facebook may not be about what they did to swing votes but rather how they shaped perceptions of candidates and the political environment in such a way as to amp up turnout or decrease votes.

The question of voter suppression is much on the mind of those looking at what happened last year on Facebook.

“In many cases, it was more about voter suppression rather than increasing turnout,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said earlier this week. Warner and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., have said they will propose legislation to require disclosure of any ad buy of more than $10,000 on the social network. The public disclosure would also require a “copy of the advertisement, … a description of the audience the advertisement targets, the number of views generated, the dates and times of publication, the rates charged and the contract information of the purchaser,” according to a CNN report.

Studies dating back to 2012 have shown profound impacts from Facebook when it comes to turnout. “About 340,000 extra people turned out to vote in the 2010 U.S. congressional elections because of a single election-day Facebook message,” a study published in Nature found.  “The online social network helps to quadruple the effect of the message,” James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego, told Nature at the time. He collaborated on the study with the Facebook data-science team.

Voters cast their ballots at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center on the Near East Side of Madison, Wis., on Nov. 8, 2016. (Photo: Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg boasted in a Facebook post Wednesday that Facebook’s efforts to transform the electorate have continued to have real-world impact. “We ran ‘get out the vote’ efforts that helped as many as 2 million people register to vote,” he wrote. “To put that in perspective, that’s bigger than the get-out-the-vote efforts of the Trump and Clinton campaigns put together. That’s a big deal.”

“The data we have has always shown that our broader impact — from giving people a voice to enabling candidates to communicate directly to helping millions of people vote — played a far bigger role in this election” than “misinformation” on Facebook, Zuckerberg wrote. As well, “Campaigns spent hundreds of millions advertising online to get their messages out even further. That’s 1000x more than any problematic ads we’ve found.”

The scale of formal campaign spending on Facebook vastly dwarfs the foreign outlays identified so far.

Former Trenton, N.J., deputy attorney general Joel Winston in November similarly pointed to the Trump campaign’s own actions on Facebook as being more important than the question of fake news, then dominating the conversation about digital dirty tricks. “The Trump campaign used data to target African-Americans and young women with $150 million dollars of Facebook and Instagram advertisements in the final weeks of the election, quietly launching the most successful digital voter suppression operation in American history,” he wrote in a Medium piece “How the Trump Campaign Built an Identity Database and Used Facebook Ads to Win the Election.”

The Trump campaign had boasted immediately before the election about its Facebook voter-suppression efforts. “We have three major voter-suppression operations under way,” a senior Trump official told Bloomberg Businessweek. The operations, both on Facebook and on radio, were directed at “idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans,” according to the report. A “South Park-style animation” saying “Hillary Thinks African-Americans are Super Predators” was set to be delivered to African-American voters through Facebook “dark posts” in hopes of lowering turnout for Clinton. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” the official told Businessweek. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”

Voter suppression is easier to achieve than it might seem. Another study published this week showed a substantial dropoff in voting by low-income and African-American registered voters in response to the Wisconsin’s voter ID law — even when the people in question had acceptable identification documents and should have been able to vote if they’d tried to. The study, by University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Ken Mayer, estimated that nearly 17,000 voters in the two large Wisconsin counties of Dane and Milwaukee may have been deterred from voting in the 2016 presidential election thanks to the state’s newly implemented voter ID law. Trump beat Clinton in the state by 22,748 votes.


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