The idea promoted by the NYT’s Shane & Mazzetti that the Russian government seriously threatened to determine the 2016 election does not hold up when the larger social media context is examined more closely, reports Gareth Porter.
By Gareth Porter
Special to Consortium News
In their long recapitulation of the case that Russia subverted the 2016 election, Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times painted a picture of highly effective Russian government exploitation of social media for that purpose. Shane and Mazzetti asserted that “anti-Clinton, pro-Trump messages shared with millions of voters by Russia could have made the difference” in the election.
“What we now know with certainty: The Russians carried out a landmark intervention that will be examined for decades to come,” they write elsewhere in the 10,000-word article.
But an investigation of the data they cite to show that the Russian campaigns on Facebook and Twitter were highly effective reveals a gross betrayal of journalistic responsibility. Shane and Mazzetti have constructed a case that is fundamentally false and misleading with statistics that exaggerate the real effectiveness of social media efforts by orders of magnitude.
‘Reaching’ 129 Million Americans
The Internet Research Agency (IRA), is a privately-owned company run by entrepreneur Vevgeny V. Prigozhin, who has ties with President Vladimir Putin. Its employees poured out large numbers of social media postings apparently aimed at stoking racial and cultural tensions in the United States and trying to influence U.S. voters in regard to the presidential election, as Shane and Mazzetti suggest. They even adopted false U.S. personas online to get people to attend rallies and conduct other political activities. (An alternative explanation is that IRA is a purely commercial, and not political, operation.)
Whether those efforts even came close to swaying U.S. voters in the 2016 presidential election, as Shane and Mazzetti claimed, is another matter.
Shane and Mazzetti might argue that they are merely citing figures published by the social media giants Facebook and Twitter, but they systematically failed to report the detailed explanations behind the gross figures used in each case, which falsified their significance.
Their most dramatic assertions came in reporting the alleged results of the IRA’s efforts on Facebook. “Even by the vertiginous standards of social media,” they wrote, “the reach of their effort was impressive: 2,700 fake Facebook accounts, 80,000 posts, many of them elaborate images with catchy slogans, and an eventual audience of 126 million Americans on Facebook alone.”
Then, to dramatize that “eventual audience” figure, they observed, “That was not far short of the 137 million people who would vote in the 2016 presidential elections.”
But as impressive as these figures may appear at first glance, they don’t really indicate an effective attack on the U.S. election process at all. In fact, without deeper inquiry into their meaning, those figures were grossly misleading.