Study finds no evidence Russian troll campaign impacted polarization among U.S. Twitter users

A Russian organization known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA) has conducted an online campaign designed to ramp up political polarization and erode trust in democratic institutions in the United States, according to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

These Russian troll accounts “exploited the fault lines of our society to divide Americans,” according to Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner.

But the first study to assess the impact of the IRA’s campaign on Twitter has failed to find evidence it had much of an impact. The research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our lab became interested in this topic because there has been quite a bit of public speculation of the impact of Russia’s social media influence campaign but very little evidence about whether it is having any impact. We wanted to take a first step towards filling this gap,” said study author Chris Bail, a professor and director of the Polarization Lab at Duke University.

The researchers compared longitudinal data from a survey of 1,239 Republican and Democratic Twitter users to data on Russian influence campaigns released by Twitter’s Elections Integrity Hub.

The longitudinal survey assessed political and ideological polarization among U.S. Twitter users in October and November 2017. Twitter’s data allowed the researchers to examine who had interacted with IRA accounts over this one month period.

Bail and his colleagues found that 76 of the U.S. Twitter users had mentioned, retweeted, liked, or followed one of the IRA accounts or liked a tweet that mentioned an IRA account.

Twitter users in echo chambers — meaning those who mostly followed accounts that were aligned with their political views — were more likely to have interacted with an IRA account. But there was no evidence that interacting with these accounts had a significant impact on polarization.

“By analyzing one month of Twitter data from a large group of Republican and Democratic Twitter users in late 2017, we were not able to find any evidence that interaction with trolls shaped a range of political attitudes and behaviors,” Bail told PsyPost.

“While there are myriad reasons to be concerned about the Russian trolling campaign—and future efforts from other foreign adversaries both online and offline—it is noteworthy that the people most at risk of interacting with trolls—those with strong partisan beliefs—are also the least likely to change their attitudes,” the researchers wrote in their study.

“In other words, Russian trolls may not have significantly polarized the American public because they mostly interacted with those who were already polarized.”

But that’s not to say that the IRA campaign had no effect whatsoever.

“Our results cannot speak to the influence of trolls in the 2016 election, or since our study period. We also only studied one platform and one country. Finally, we did not examine several outcomes such as whether trolls influence public trust, or whether they influence the news cycle,” Bail said.

The study, “Assessing the Russian Internet Research Agency’s impact on the political attitudes and behaviors of American Twitter users in late 2017“, was authored by Christopher A. Bail, Brian Guay, Emily Maloney, Aidan Combs, D. Sunshine Hillygus, Friedolin Merhout, Deen Freelon, and Alexander Volfovsky.