The sources we analyzed on the Senate and House hearings promote an idea that lawmakers put forth, which is that Russian ads and posts are in part to blame for last year’s presidential election results. The same blame was also extended to tech companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter. There is evidence of misinformation paid for by Russian groups, but was it powerful enough to sway voter decisions? That’s perhaps the most relevant question in these investigations, but the articles we looked at didn’t write about it. Here are the premises that back the blame and where each may fail.
1. The ads “widened divisions”
PCMag wrote that the ads “touched on immigration-related issues in order to widen divisions among the US electorate.” The same outlet noted that two Facebook pages promoted a rally in Texas, enrolling two groups on opposite sides of an issue, and that “the effort worked.”
Information can influence the way people make decisions, especially in the absence of critical thinking. But to what extent the ads “widen divisions” is debatable, principally because it’s difficult to measure. To accept the idea also shifts responsibility away from the individual. In other words, it’s easy to blame the ads for inciting conflict among people, for example, but people are ultimately responsible for their actions.
2. The ads “disrupted” the U.S. political process
The Associated Press (AP) wrote that the Facebook ads were linked to a “Russian effort to disrupt the American political process …” but the outlet didn’t specify how. Additionally, none of these articles included questions that Burr and other lawmakers asked about the supposed impact of the ads on voter decisions. He reportedly cited examples like Maryland, a state that received “five times” as many ads compared to Wisconsin, but Maryland still voted for Clinton “overwhelmingly.” If the ads did influence voter decisions, the data would need to be somewhat consistent across the board, and that’s not the case here. The absence of this information, which other articles likePolitico’s included, biases how we evaluate the potential impact of the ads.
3. The ads succeeded due to their reach
The articles cite different estimates of the potential reach these ads reportedly had, but the units of measure vary and are sometimes vague. For instance, AP cites the number of clicks certain content had, PCMag noted the number of followers certain Facebook pages had, and Forbes wrote that Facebook told lawmakers that 80,000 posts and ads were seen by 126 million people over a two-year period. Regardless of the unit of measure, if the total reach were known, it doesn’t mean people actually read them.CNN is the only outlet of the four that points this out.
In addition to supporting the idea that these ads were responsible for the election results, none of the articles we analyzed mentioned perhaps a bigger issue: readers’ potential gullibility due to a lack of critical thinking. The Russian-backed ads and posts, “fake news” and other misinformation wouldn’t be such an issue and would likely subside if the public were better educated on how to separate data from distortion, and were better equipped to critically evaluate information. Similarly, understanding the nature of things like dishonor and violence could help people identify and understand the disadvantages that come with those behaviors.
Consider the amount of resources put into these investigations, not just in time and effort, but also in taxpayer money: What if the U.S. government directed even a fraction of that towards education that helps people discern fact from fiction? According to aForeign Policy report, that approach is working for Finland. The report says, “Finnish officials believe their country’s strong public education system, long history of balancing Russia, and a comprehensive government strategy allow it to deflect coordinated [Russian] propaganda and disinformation.”
Needless to say, the media is one of the most powerful educational instruments. As long as the media dilutes information in ways that are similar to Russia’s ads and posts — such as using spin, bias, inaccuracy and illogic — it contributes to the problem. That’s why The Knife advocates data-based, unbiased reporting that provides readers not just information, but also tools to improve critical thinking.
Written by Ivy Nevares
Edited by Ivy Nevares and Jens Erik Gould
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Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News