After Initial Euphoria, Doubts Heard in Liberal Media Over Impact of Russian Trolls

March 1st, 2018 9:18 PM

Two weeks since special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of 13 Russians for an alleged propaganda assault to interfere with the 2016 campaign, euphoria among liberals has given way to much more sober assessments.

Typical of the hot-take reaction on the left to Mueller's indictment was the response of National Public Radio journalists on the NPR Politics podcast on Feb. 16, the same day the indictments were announced.

After introducing themselves to listeners, the NPR staffers could barely contain their glee --

WHITE HOUSE REPORTER TAMARA KEITH: And we said we were not going to have another podcast unless there was some sort of significant news development (howls of laughter in background).


KEITH: There has been a significant news development! And, and really significant, and stunning! When this came and we started reading through it with our yellow highlighters or whatever color highlighters we had, it was like, wow! We knew a lot of this stuff but here it is, in black and white, and now with yellow highlighter all over it. Before we get into the specifics here, what stands out to both of you in reading it?

JUSTICE DEPARTMENT REPORTER CARRIE JOHNSON: After months and months and months of talking on Capitol Hill and inside the Justice Department about what exactly the Russians did, this grand jury and this special counsel team with the help of the FBI have actually gotten to the bottom of and named 13 people, 13 individual Russians, in a blockbuster indictment alleging that they attempted and conspired to interfere with the American political system, and to a large extent they spelled out detailed ways in which that happened, that actually happened.

Wow, that didn't take long. Mere seconds after Johnson -- a reporter who covers the Justice Department, not incidentally -- pointed out that the indictment makes allegations, she then gushes that what it alleges "actually happened." (!) More merriment followed as specifics in the indictment are cited --

JOHNSON: They paid real Americans, they purchased space on US computer servers, they put out Facebook ads. On one occasion, they actually found an American to build a cage and paid that person and they found another American to dress up like Hillary Clinton in a prison jumpsuit and stand inside the cage, at a rally!

KEITH: Unbelievable!

We haven't seen anything like this since the Gore campaign paid that guy to wear a chicken suit at Bush rallies!

But no sooner had the arrested adolescents at NPR stopped swinging from the chandeliers did a growing number of that rarest of species, the clear-eyed liberal, begin airing their skepticism.

Among the first to cast doubt that the Saint Petersburg troll factory made much of an impact was the Russian-born New Yorker magazine writer Masha Gessen, who is unlikely to be mistaken as an apologist for Trump or Putin.

In a New Yorker post titled "The Fundamental Uncertainty of Mueller's Russia Indictments," published Feb. 20, Gessen wrote that "loyal Putinites and dissident intellectuals alike are remarkably united in finding the American obsession with Russia meddling to be ridiculous. (emphasis added and again) ... Their sub-grammatical imitations of American political rhetoric, their overtures to the most marginal of political players, are suddenly at the very heart of American political life. This is the sort of thing Russians have done for decades, dating back at least to the early days of the Cold War, but those efforts were always relegated to the dustbin of history before they began."

Two days later, New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane (shown in the photo) appeared on the widely syndicated NPR radio show Fresh Air to discuss Mueller's indictment. While saying he respected Gessen, Shane wondered if she was motivated by skepticism that any Russian government initiative would be competent enough to make an impact on the 2016 election. He added this on his way to an eyebrow-raising analogy --

SHANE: You know, you could argue 'til the cows come home about whether this had a big impact, a little impact, no impact. But I guess I've been impressed on the more than a year that I've been looking at this. As a picture filled in, I'm more and more impressed by what they achieved. And I'm not just talking about the social media aspect of this. You know, everyone who's looked at this would agree that the biggest impact the Russians had by far was to hack into the Democratic National Committee, into the Clinton campaign, and then through WikiLeaks mostly put up these emails. You know, they managed to disrupt the Democratic National Convention, force the resignation of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz on the eve of the convention. They dripped out John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman's emails over a period of weeks before the election, day after day after day, they produced many, many news stories. And actually, Donald Trump picked up the contents of some of that leaked material, including Clinton's speeches, and made that the centerpiece of many speeches that he gave. So there was that, that was very high profile, very significant, and then you have all this social media stuff.

Then came the comparison that must have caused liberals to spit out countless lattes across the land --

You know, the analogy that I have come up with in my own head to try to understand this is the Russians were wielding a firehose of information during the campaign -- but a campaign is a hurricane. So, there was a whole lot of stuff coming from the Russians, but there was a whole lot more stuff coming from Americans, a very polarized, very divided American public and that's, you know, again, that's one of the reasons it was so hard to tell on social media what was Russian, what was not. There were anti-immigrant, anti-Clinton pages on Facebook, some were Russian, many were American. And so they were adding to the sort of cacophony of political noise and the only reason I think it's possible to speculate about a significant effect on the election is this was an extremely close election.

Also skeptical of the trolls' impact was Atlantic magazine writer Alexis C. Madrigal, in a Feb. 19 article titled "Russia's Troll Operation Was Not That Sophisticated."

"It might be nice for Democrats and #NeverTrumpers to believe that Russia's troll factory brought Donald Trump the 2016 Presidential Election," Madrigal wrote. "But no."

True, this was "self-described and actual 'information warfare'," Madrigal pointed out, that reached roughly 150 million Americans through Facebook and Instagram at a monthly cost to the Russians of about $1.25 million -- "That's pretty good bang for the buck."

Then came the buts, and there were plenty. That figure of 150 million includes people who may have seen a single troll-made ad on social media -- and "even the lowest-rent operators of online stores know that it takes a lot more than one ad out of thousands Americans see every day to do anything ... Showing a lot of people -- even millions spread across the country -- a couple of ads or holding some sparsely attended rallies is not what landed Donald Trump in the White House. There is nothing in the public record or indictment that indicates the efforts were large, targeted, or effective enough to sway the vote in the key states that gave Trump the victory." (emphasis added).

Speaking of those key states, if not for one of the Russian trolls getting a tip from a single unwitting American political activist in Texas, the Russians working for the Internet Research Agency might never have learned the significance of "purple" swing states in determing the outcome of the election.

 "It is not hard to imagine a far better campaign to have actually tried to throw the election," Madrigal wrote. "For example, the Russians could have targeted electorally crucial areas within certain battleground states. Instead, as we learned at a Senate hearing in November, "the total amount spent targeting Wisconsin was a mere $1,979; all but $54 was spent prior to the completion of the primary, and none of the ads even mentioned Trump. The spending in Michigan and Pennsylvania was even smaller."

"A medium-sized hustle to mess with the American presidential election on behalf of the Russian oligarchy could lead anywhere," Madrigal concluded. "But from the looks of things, it was Americans who brought Donald Trump in the White House." (emphasis added)

Over at The Nation, Aaron Mate was even more scathing in a Feb. 22 post titled "Hyping the Mueller Indictment: Do the charges against Russian individuals and organizations really describe the 'second-worst foreign attack on America'?"

"The $46,000 in Russia-linked Facebook ads before the election amounts to about five-1,000ths-of 1 percent of the $81 million spent on Facebook ads by the Clinton and Trump campaigns combined," Mate wrote. "And beyond the ads, Facebook has previously reported to Congress that News Feed posts generated by suspected Russian accounts represented "a tiny fraction of the overall content on Facebook ... about four-thousandths of one percent (0.004) of content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content."

As for those "rallies" that the Russian trolls tried to orchestrate from thousands of miles away, one dubbed "Florida Goes Trump" failed to draw a single attendee, according to the Washington Post, as cited by Mate. An online video of another Russian-organized rally tallied all of eight people. "It's unclear if anyone attended" an anti-Clinton rally targeting Islamophobes, The Daily Beast reported.

Mate also cited New Yorker writer Evan Osnos' observation that "at the heart of the Russian fraud is an essential, embarrassing insight into American life: large numbers of Americans are ill-equipped to assess the credibility of the things they read." But Mate then quoted the journalist Max Blumenthal on the flip side of that coin -- Osnos' insight "very much applies to the 'well-educated coastal liberals' who have made Russiagate their top political issue over the past year. In the service of a narrative to explain -- and, many hope, to reverse -- Donald Trump's improbable victory, partisan thought leaders and credulous journalists have flooded the media landscape with a barrage of innuendo, supposition, and overblown claims."

When doubts like these are aired publicly by journalists from the New Yorker, New York Times, Atlantic, and The Nation, it is difficult not to conclude that others in liberal media are equally dismissive of the Russian troll campaign, while keeping their skepticism to themselves.