No Impact?

Russians used the same social media tactics that worked for Trump.

Rod Rosenstein.
Rod Rosenstein.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

On Friday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 13 Russians for unlawfully interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election,” said Rosenstein.

President Donald Trump pounced on this statement, claiming vindication. In four tweets over the weekend, the president said the indictment, presented by special counsel Robert Mueller, proved that Russians “had no impact” on the election. His press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, repeated his message on Tuesday, saying Russia’s meddling “didn’t have an impact.” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told Fox News: “Now we know for a fact, it didn’t affect the outcome of the election at all.”

As with everything else Trump has said about Russia, this is a lie. The indictment doesn’t say or imply, much less prove, that Russian interference didn’t affect the election. To the contrary, it shows that Russian operatives used the same social media and mobilization techniques that Trump credits for his victory.

“The fact that I have such power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.—I think it helped me win all of these races where they’re spending much more money than I spent,” Trump told 60 Minutes in November 2016, a week after winning the election. “Social media has more power than the money they spent. And I think maybe, to a certain extent, I proved that.” Trump’s digital director, Brad Parscale, told the Associated Press that in the campaign’s final days, Trump and the GOP had invested $5 million in digital ads targeted at Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida. “If we hadn’t spent that,” said Parscale, “we might not have won.” Or, as Parscale put it to Wired: “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing.”

Trump also credited his victory to rallies. In the campaign’s final 100 days, he visited five key states—Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin—46 more times than Hillary Clinton did. Afterward, Trump told supporters he had won because “We outworked them. Three, four, five speeches a day.”

The alleged Russian conspirators described in Friday’s indictment amplified those efforts, using the same techniques. “From at least April 2016 through November 2016,” says the indictment, the Russian operatives “began to produce, purchase, and post advertisements on U.S. social media and other online sites expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton.” The conspirators “conducted operations on social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.” They orchestrated “political rallies” in Florida, Pennsylvania, and other states.

According to the indictment, the conspirators had “an annual budget of millions of dollars,” illustrated by a monthly budget document that exceeded $1.25 million. They “employed hundreds of persons,” created “hundreds of accounts on social media networks,” and grew their “controlled groups” to “hundreds of thousands of online followers.” A sample Facebook ad “reached over 59,000 Facebook users in Florida, and over 8,300 Facebook users responded to the advertisements by clicking on it.”

The operation explicitly aimed to tip the election. Quoting a text exchange, the indictment says the conspirators followed specific advice to focus on “purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.” They studied methods for maximizing “audience engagement” in the United States. And, according to the indictment, they constantly refined their techniques:

To measure the impact of their online social media operations, Defendants and their coconspirators tracked the performance of content they posted over social media. They tracked the size of the online U.S. audiences reached through posts, different types of engagement with the posts (such as likes, comments, and reposts), changes in audience size, and other metrics.

This organization is just one part of the broader Russian influence campaign. In October, Facebook reported that 10 million Americans had seen Facebook ads placed by groups connected to the Russian government. (Caveat: Only 44 percent of the ad impressions were before the election.) Some ads were targeted specifically at Michigan and Wisconsin. In addition to the ads, Russian-backed Facebook posts, including many from groups identified in the indictment, were shared hundreds of millions of times.

Last month, Twitter reported that 677,000 people in the United States had followed or retweeted at least one of 3,800 accounts linked to the troll farm. Many more liked, quoted, or otherwise circulated the Russian tweets. Beyond those 3,800 accounts, Twitter reported “a total of 50,258 automated accounts that we identified as Russian-linked and Tweeting election-related content during the election period.” Again, researchers found that exposure was more highly concentrated in key electoral states.

Russia also manipulated the election through its hacks of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. During the campaign, according to the U.S. intelligence community’s January 2017 report, Russia’s military intelligence directorate “relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks.” To influence voters, says the report, the Russians used “WikiLeaks to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets.” Trump promoted these leaks because he knew they would hurt Clinton. In the campaign’s final month, he cited them “more than five times a day,” gloating that “Wikileaks has done a job on her.” After the election, FiveThirtyEight noted that “the timeline of Clinton’s fall in the polls roughly matches the emails’ publishing schedule.”

To believe that the Russian influence campaign had no impact, you’d have to believe that Trump won the election by going around promoting leaks that moved nobody. You’d have to believe that elections aren’t affected by hundreds of operatives, tens of thousands of social media accounts, hundreds of thousands of followers, and hundreds of millions of exposures. You’d have to believe that the $5 million Trump spent on digital ads in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida tipped the election, but the $1.25 million spent by one Russian organization in a single month, much of it aimed at Florida and other “purple states,” made no difference.

No thinking person can believe such things. Of course the Russians affected the election. The indictment explains, in part, how they did it. They used the same tools Trump used. If it worked for Trump, it worked for Russia.