Preliminary evidence that Russian meddling may have impacted the 2016 election

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, March 13, 2018)

{Send comments to: kkroeger@nuqum.com; the SPSS dataset used in this article can also be provided upon request}

It is important to state upfront: The 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) was not designed to measure the impact of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

[A detailed description of this nationally-representative survey conducted by The University of Michigan and Stanford University during every national election can be found in Appendix A.]

Social science inquiry is hard enough when a study is specifically designed to measure precise empirical questions, but when they are not, conclusions are often heavily qualified.

That will be the case here.

The following analysis shows that over the course of the 2016 campaign there were attitudinal differences in specific segments of the population consistent with the hypothesis that Russia’s social media efforts, particularly the memes portraying Clinton in a negative light, targeted older conservatives otherwise open to voting for Clinton.

We cannot say for certain that Russian meddling is the cause of these attitudinal differences. And, in fact, the first suspect must be the overall partisan nature of social media itself. A recent Harvard study of the 2016 elections found Facebook and Twitter to be highly partisan social media platforms and a person’s ideological orientation largely determined what platforms they used and what information they consumed.

Before we blame the Russians for strengthening partisan differences in Americans’ evaluations of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, we must account for the broader impact of social media in general.

Furthermore, the objective evidence that the Russians even engaged in such detailed social media targeting is minimal and comes largely from Facebook’s internal analysis of Russian-sourced content during the 2016 election.

Nonetheless, it is interesting that older conservatives that used social media for sharing political information were significantly more negative in their attitudes towards Hillary Clinton.

Either they were unusually susceptible to negative information about Clinton found on social media, or they were targeted with negative political information about Clinton…or both.

In the 2016 election, older conservatives that used Facebook/Twitter for sharing political information had particularly negative views of Clinton

With those caveats in mind, our analysis of the 2016 ANES shows preliminary evidence that, among politically conservative adults over 40-years-old, the use of Facebook and Twitter for sharing political information during the 2016 election correlated with significantly more negative opinions and impressions about the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, both in absolute terms and relative to the Republican candidate Donald Trump.

In rating Hillary Clinton on a 0 to 100 favorability scale, “slightly conservative” adults aged 40 or older who used Facebook or Twitter to share political information, on average, gave her a rating of 20.7, compared to 32.1 among otherwise similar adults who had not used Facebook or Twitter for sharing political information (see Figure 1 below). A similar relationship emerged among “conservative” adults (aged 40 or older). This pattern did not appear however among adults under 40 years of age, regardless of political ideology.

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Figure 1: Favorability Towards Clinton by Ideology and Facebook/Twitter Use (aged 40+); Source: NuQum.com

“Slightly conservative” and “conservative” Americans accounted for 25 percent of the U.S. vote eligible population according to the 2016 ANES.

When comparing favorability ratings between Clinton and Trump, “conservative” adults aged 40 or older who used Facebook or Twitter to share political information, on average, gave Trump a 74.1 point advantage over Clinton, compared to 53.7 among otherwise similar adults who had not used Facebook or Twitter for sharing political information (see Figure 2 below). This pattern again did not appear among adults under 40 years of age, regardless of political ideology.

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Figure 2: Favorability Gap by Ideology and Facebook/Twitter Use (aged 40+); Source: NuQum.com

Likewise, when assessing the honesty of the two presidential candidates, “slightly conservative” and “conservative” adults (aged 40 or older) who used Facebook or Twitter for sharing information, thought Trump was much more honest than Clinton than did otherwise similar adults who had not used Facebook or Twitter (see Figure 3 below).

Figure 3: Clinton-Trump “honesty” gap by Ideology and Facebook/Twitter Use (aged 40+); Source: NuQum.com

Again, this disparity in the honesty gap did not occur between Facebook/Twitter users and non-users for any other ideological or age group (see Appendix B for similar charts on those under 40 years of age).

It does appear older conservatives that used Facebook or Twitter for sharing political information experienced a different election than those that did not. More importantly, the implication is that, for conservative Americans, the election was a much more negative experience with respect to Clinton. By comparison, among liberals, use of Facebook or Twitter for sharing did not relate to their relative views about the two candidates.

As to why “extremely conservative” adults aged 40 or older didn’t show similar attitudinal disparities between Facebook/Twitter users versus non-users, it may be that once people pass a threshold in their dislike of a candidate, the heart can’t get any darker. Similarly, the lack of a social media effect on “extreme” conservatives may be that they were already exposed to so much negative information about Clinton outside of social media that anything else was redundant.

It is also puzzling that the social media effect was not significant with people that considered themselves ‘middle of the road’ ideologically, though directionally their attitudes were more negative towards Clinton if they used Facebook or Twitter for sharing.

Are these differences necessarily a function of Russian meddling?

It cannot be emphasized enough, these attitudinal differences are not necessarily a product of Russian meddling. In fact, from what we know about the differences in social media spending by the two presidential campaigns compared to the Russians, it is reasonable to question how the Russians could possibly have impacted the election.

Combined, Clinton and Trump spent $81 million on social media advertising. That is substantially more than the $1.5 million spent per month by the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in the year or two prior to Election Day, as detailed in the indictment of 13 Russians by the Robert Mueller -led investigation.

However, $1.5 million per month isn’t just pissing in the wind either. And through IRA’s use of Twitterbots and other impression-seeding and multiplier techniques, that $1.5 million per month may well have had a much bigger impact than the reported monthly spending figure indicates.

And while we want to think social media have become decisive in national elections, the campaign ecosystem is too massive and interdependent to assign that much power to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

A comprehensive media study of the 2016 election by Rob Faris, Hal Roberts, Bruce Etling, Nikki Bourassa, Ethan Zuckerman and Yochai Benkler shows that the media’s “coverage of Trump overwhelmingly outperformed coverage of Clinton.” Where Clinton’s coverage was focused on scandals, Trump’s was focused on his core issues (immigration, trade and jobs). To what extent Russian trolls contributed to that phenomenon is difficult (if not impossible) to assess using their data (..but we are trying as you read this). You can access their data here.

So, we are extremely cautious about reading too much into some attitudinal differences within a small segment of the vote eligible population (25 percent, approximately). It is too soon to assign differences to Russian meddling.

Yet, the attitudinal differences we are seeing in the 2016 ANES related to social media use are proving to be robust. Though not included in this article, in trying to explain candidate favorability ratings and assessments of their honesty, we ran numerous linear regression models controlling for factors such as age, ideology, sex, education, interest in politics, race, and Hispanic heritage. And, across the various models, the impact of social media use (Facebook/Twitter) among older conservatives never lost statistical significance.

We believe something unique in the social media sphere happened among older conservatives affecting their views of Hillary Clinton.

But we remain skeptical of our own results. And there are three additional reasons why we are so skeptical:

First, social media is already so partisan and negative that it didn’t require the Russians to make it worse. Facebook and Twitter are already virtual cesspools of hate, negativity, distrust, and unhinged hostility. Those platforms didn’t need the Russians’ help to make them repositories of society’s lowest forms of political dialogue.

Besides, the Russian meme’s were often more absurdist than negative, and sometimes even funny. We highly recommend, if you haven’t visited already, an anonymously authored blog on Medium.com that is warehousing the Russian 2016 election memes.

Given the already negative nature of social media, the attitudinal differences seen in the 2016 ANES are likely due more to the overall nature of social media than anything the Russians did. But we have seen no evidence to help us decide what was the cause of these differences.

Second, to determine the effect of Russian meddling on attitudes, we would need to know what respondents actually saw on Facebook or Twitter, including both the Russian-sourced content and other content. The 2016 ANES tells us about sources and channels of communication used during the election, but tells us little about the specific content. Without that information, it is impossible to definitely conclude the “Russians caused it.”

And, third, there is the problem of self-selection. Perhaps older conservatives that use Facebook or Twitter for sharing political information are distinguishable from otherwise similar adults on a factor that was not measured. And if that factor correlates with political attitudes and opinions, we could see the same results shown in Figures 1 and 2 without being the result of the Russians.

Next steps and final thoughts

The relevant questions to vote eligible Americans about the 2016 presidential election and the Russian-sourced social media effort are simple:

  • What did the eligible voter see on social media during the campaign and when did he/she see it?
  • What Russian-sourced content did he/she see on social media and when did he/she see it?
  • Did his/her candidate evaluations change over the course of the campaign and, if so, when did the evaluations change?
  • Did changes in his/her candidate evaluations relate to his/her social media exposure?

Simple to ask, but hard to answer.

A comprehensive media study of the 2016 election by Rob Faris, Hal Roberts, Bruce Etling, Nikki Bourassa, Ethan Zuckerman and Yochai Benkler shows that the media’s “coverage of Trump overwhelmingly outperformed coverage of Clinton.” Where Clinton’s coverage was focused on scandals, Trump’s was focused on his core issues (immigration, trade and jobs). To what extent Russian trolls contributed to that phenomenon is difficult (if not impossible) to assess using their data (..but we are trying as you read this). You can access their data here.

So, we are extremely cautious about reading too much into some attitudinal differences within a small segment of the vote eligible population (25 percent, approximately). It is too soon to assign these differences to Russian meddling. Still, not too long ago we would have said, emphatically, no way was it the Russians. Now we are not so sure.

We believe these attitudinal differences within older conservative Americans warrant closer examination if we are ever to find how Russian meddling affected the 2016 election.

The 2016 USC Dornsife / LA Times Presidential Election Poll and the RAND 2016 Presidential Election Panel Survey (PEPS), both of which implemented panel designs to allow for assessing the impact of specific events and media exposures during the campaign, may offer an opportunity to merge Facebook, Twitter and Instagram behaviors to specific individuals in their surveys. If so, those two research instruments may represent the best (and only) chance we have to answer the question, “Did the Russians affect our presidential election result in 2016?”

As of today, we believe the Russians did target older conservatives who were more vulnerable to their anti-Clinton memes and messages. The result is that these conservatives became significantly more negative towards Hillary Clinton than they would have been otherwise without Russian meddling.

K.R.K

Appendix A — Methodology

The 2016 American National Elections (Time-Series) Study is sponsored and managed by the University of Michigan and Stanford University.

The national survey is designed to assess electoral participation, voting behavior, and public opinion as it relates to eligible U.S. voters. In addition to the political content of the survey, it also measures media exposure, cognitive style, and personal values.

Data collection for the ANES 2016 Time Series Study began in early September and was completed in January, 2017. Pre-election interviews were conducted with study respondents during the two months prior to the 2016 elections and were followed by post-election re-interviewing beginning November 9, 2016. Both face-to-face interviewing and Internet-based data collection was conducted independently, using separate samples but substantially identical questionnaires. Web-administered cases constituted a representative sample separate from the face-to-face.

The SPSS dataset we used for our analysis combined the face-to-face and Internet samples which can be summarized as follows:

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Analytic survey weights, provided by the ANES researchers, were used in all of the quantitative analyses presented in this article.

A complete description of the ANES 2016, including datasets, questionnaires, and supporting documentation, can be found here.

Appendix B — Other Figures and Tables

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Figure 4: Favorability Towards Clinton by Ideology and Facebook/Twitter Use (< 40 yrs. old); Source: NuQum.com
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Figure 5: Favorability Gap by Ideology and Facebook/Twitter Use (< 40 yrs. old); Source: NuQum.com
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Figure 6: Clinton-Trump “honesty” gap by Ideology and Facebook/Twitter Use (< 40 yrs. old); Source: NuQum.com

{Send comments to: kkroeger@nuqum.com}

About the author: Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY). He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

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I am a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion (You can contact me at: kroeger98@yahoo.com)

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