Sure, Russia interfered in the 2016 election — and in elections before that. But what exactly does that mean?
Six months after the election, a majority of Democrats still believed, falsely, that the Russians actually stole the election by rigging the outcome. This week, we got a quick look at the Putin regime's tools of persuasion, and they're a lot less impressive than all that. Nor were they all aimed at helping one candidate. Or any candidate, for that matter.
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released several examples of social media ads that were disseminated during and immediately after the 2016 election. Some of these examples are explicitly political, and others are not. On aggregate, they were seen by hundreds of thousands of people. But they probably didn't cause many people to change their vote. So what was the point?
Here are a few of the major themes:
1) Attacking Clinton. Here's the part of the story that I think most people get subtly wrong. The Russians didn't really expect to install Trump as president. They didn't expect him to win any more than you or I did. They were just trying to weaken the candidate whom everyone assumed — Russian President Vladimir Putin included — would be the next U.S. president. These aren't going to make you change your vote. Maybe they'll cause you to respect Hillary Clinton — or Trump? — a bit less, depending on your persuasion.
2) Supporting Clinton. Yeah, OK, this is pretty counterintuitive. But maybe not if your goal is to collect data on American Muslims for future targeting operations. This ad didn't attract that many clicks anyway:
3) Defending gun rights. Politically active gun owners tend to respond when you tell them their gun rights are at risk:
4) Encouraging racial tension/disharmony. Diversity may be a strength, but with the right propaganda, you can turn it into a weakness. American society can be weakened if you make it seem like all of America's institutions are racist, that all the police want to do is shoot black people, and/or that black activists are essentially responsible for police shootings. The Russians used all of those messages. Turn black and white against one another, encourage the belief in an inevitable race war (a belief shared by white supremacists and black radicals), make all points of agreement between people of different races seem impossible. Voila, you have created an unsustainable and unstable America. Which is what you want if you're Putin.
5) Attacking Trump. Once he'd actually won, they went after Trump. Why not? It's perfectly consistent with everything else they did. What better way to weaken the society than to create the appearance of mass rejection of an election result? Again, though, the Russians probably spent far less to promote this message than the candidates did. By the way, remember when Trump refused to commit to accepting the election result?
There were other examples. Ads targeted Texans with a secessionist message (note that Russia is also behind the California secessionist movement); immigration hawks with an immigration hawk message; anti-Sharia Facebookers with an anti-Muslim message; gay Bernie Sanders supporters with a gay Bernie Sanders message, etc.
Did any of this stuff affect anyone's vote? Doubtful. But if these ads succeeded in upsetting you or making you dislike people you disagree with a bit more than before, making Americans a little bit more divided? Then mission accomplished.
As clumsy and easily sniffed out as this part of the Russian operation seems, it makes you wonder where else they do it, and how long they've actually been doing this sort of thing. Here's an interesting thought: American political participation has declined considerably since the 1940s. Just how much of Americans' disillusionment with politics in general was egged on by subtler, harder-to-trace forms of Soviet propaganda?