Was Russia’s Fake News as Negligible as a New Study Suggests?

Last week, Benedict Carey of the New York Times reported on a recent study (conducted by political scientists from three universities) that provides some insight into the effect that fabricated stories from phony news sites had on the 2016 election. The findings, derived in large part from the web-browser histories of over 2,500 adults, were interesting.

Some highlights:

  • One out of every four participants saw at least one false story in the four weeks prior to election-day.
  • 80% of the bogus articles on these sites favored Donald Trump.
  • The most conservative 10% of the study’s participants accounted for 65% of the visits to fake news sites.
  • Trump supporters were roughly three times more likely than Clinton supporters to visit phony news sites promoting their candidate.

At first glance, these results would appear to lend credence to the notion that fake news stories played a significant role in Trump’s election win.

But not so fast.

The study also revealed that even the most ambitious consumers of fabricated news absorbed far more real news (from online newspapers, network websites, etc.). Only six percent of the overall news consumption of Trump voters came from phony news sites. For Clinton voters, it was just one percent.

Personally, I’m not surprised by this. I’ve long believed that these sites did more damage culturally than electorally, sparking endless social-media arguments (many of them between friends and family), but not changing the voting preferences of all that many people. Donald Trump didn’t win the presidency because of a few hundred mock news sites. He won because his opponent was Hillary Clinton.

With that being said, I think the scope of the study falls short in its determination of how people consume online news. It’s a mistake to measure information consumption only by page visits (the act of actually opening a web-page in a browser). You also have to factor in that page’s social-media reach.

What do I mean by social-media reach? Let me give you an example.

Once the column you’re reading right now is published on BernardGoldberg.com, it will be shared by me on multiple social-media platforms. When that happens, the piece’s linked headline (along with a short excerpt from the piece) will appear on the Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines of people who follow me. Some of those people will click on the link to read the column. Some won’t. Either way, they will have seen the headline, thus my column will have reached them.

Now imagine, that I had used a differently worded headline — something that delivers a definitive, eye-opening (but demonstrably false) statement like this: “New Poll Shows Trump at 55% Approval”.

I guarantee that a lot of fervent Trump supporters would share a social-media post like that without bothering to click on the accompanying link. The same would be true for a number of liberal individuals, had the headline read: “Obamacare Has Cut National Debt by Trillions”.

Partisans who are active on the Internet tend to share messaging that confirms their political biases, often in a reflexive manner. Thus, false stories can (and regularly do) spread like wildfire in a very short period of time, without much regard to their legitimacy.

A powerful headline is often all it takes to make a story go viral. And during the 2016 election, Russian bots had a lot of help from American voters in advancing false information.

The significance of this drive-by method of news consumption (which wasn’t factored into the study described above) can not be underestimated, because it is ingrained in the culture of how we process information. If you don’t believe me, take some time to read the social media responses to legitimate news pieces — factual articles published by major news organizations. Most people are replying to the headlines (not the actual content of the articles), and many of those replies reveal quite clearly that the commenters did not, in fact, read the articles.  The same is true with opinion columns (believe me, I see it with my own work quite frequently).

Now, consider that during the 2016 election cycle, over 100 million people are estimated to have been presented with fake news (in one form or another) by Russian troll farms. And that was just through Facebook alone.

A true measure of Russia’s propagandist efforts, both in our election and our politics moving forward, must take into account multiple components: website content, social-media reach, paid advertising, troll accounts, etc. All are part of the formula, and all pose a potential threat to our electoral process.

Unfortunately, even if we gain a better grasp of the situation, and come to better understand the effects of these methods on the American psyche, addressing the problem comes with its own challenges — both logistically and philosophically.

I suppose that’s a topic for a future column.

The Insanity of a Cyber-Partnership With Russia

In 2014, in a move that stunned many, a United Nations vote led to Iran being appointed to several human rights committees, including one that oversaw the protection of women’s rights. Having led the world in public executions, and having just sentenced a 26-year-old rape victim to death, the advancement of Iranian influence in the human-rights arena earned quick condemnation from the West — most notably the United States.

Both sides of political aisle voiced outrage over the farce. The issue became a big topic in the media (especially the conservative media), and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power released a statement on behalf of the United States, saying, “The unopposed candidacy of Iran, where authorities regularly detain human rights defenders, subjecting many to torture, abuse and violations of due process, is a particularly troubling outcome of today’s election.”

It was a clear and outrageous case of the fox guarding the hen house, but because of the way many U.N. committees are set up by regions, there was nothing the United States could have done about it.

Sadly, we’ve come to expect such travesties from the United Nations. International positions of influence are sometimes granted to the world’s worst possible actors — oppressive governments that will assuredly exploit such power. One would like to think that if American leaders had a say on such matters, transparently damaging conflicts of interest wouldn’t be given so much as a serious thought.

Well, not so fast.

Last Sunday, when President Trump tweeted details from his G20-summit discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin, they included this gem:

“Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded … and safe.”

One could quickly visualize the few thousand spit-takes that assuredly took place in U.S. and allied intelligence agencies across the world.

Yes, our president was actually entertaining (and later communicated) the idea of forming a cyber-security unit, for the benefit of democratic elections, with the foreign leader who led an unprecedented, cyber-warfare effort to meddle with our country’s national election.

You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

U.S. lawmakers and other political figures quickly weighed in on the suggestion, including some strong statements from leaders within Trump’s own party.

Senator Marco Rubio took to Twitter, saying, “Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with Assad on a ‘Chemical Weapons Unit’.

“It’s not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, but its pretty close,” Senator Lindsey Graham told NBC News’s Chuck Todd.

Congressman Adam Kinzinger tweeted, “Working with #Putin to combat cyber hacking & letting him take the lead in #Syria is letting the fox guard the henhouse…”

Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska tweeted, “This obviously should not happen–& obviously will not happen. Why the President of the United States would tweet it is inexplicably bizarre.”

The backlash led to President Trump getting back on Twitter later that night, seemingly in attempt to tamp down his earlier remark. He tweeted, “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t-but a ceasefire can,& did!”

Both Sasse and Trump are right, of course, in their assertion that a “cyber security unit” with Russia will not happen. A U.S. president doesn’t have the power to make such a decision on his own, and congress would never support something so potentially catastrophic to our national security.

What’s troubling, however, is the notion that if the decision were left solely to Trump, he would move forward with it. Otherwise, why would he have publicly touted the idea of this type of partnership in the first place? The fact that he didn’t immediately recognize the perverse nature of the proposal should simultaneously scare the heck out of Americans, and instill a deeper appreciation for our nation’s constitutional separation of powers.

Longstanding, unproven charges of Russian collusion aside, President Trump’s well-documented affinity for Vladmir Putin has always been perplexing and of concern. His inclination to dismiss and even excuse Putin’s atrocities (whether it be the invasion of other countries or the permanent silencing of reporters) seems to stem from a deep, high-schoolish yearning for Putin to like him.

It bears repeating time after time: Russia’s interests are almost never America’s interests. Trump would clearly love to believe otherwise, but he would be wrong.

That’s not to say that our president has been a total push-over when it comes to Russia. He of course hasn’t, as we saw with his authorization of missile strikes in Syria back in April. Fortunately, Trump has surrounded himself with some strong national security advisors who have steered him away from positions of weakness when it comes to dealing with Putin. That’s a good thing.

Based on Trump’s weak G20 meeting, however, where our president (as suggested even by Secretary of State Tillerson) gave Putin a virtual pass on denials that Russia interfered with our election, the job of Trump’s inner circle will be even more important in the years to come.