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Were those Russian social media ads powerful enough to influence us? Let’s look at the evidence.

- November 14, 2017
Some of the Facebook ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues that were released by members of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee. (Jon Elswick/AP)

On Nov. 1, Congress released some of the thousands of Russian-funded social media ads aimed at manipulating the 2016 U.S. election and dividing Americans. As a result, there’s been a great deal of concern and discussion about how and whether American politics is vulnerable to such foreign influence.

But these debates overlook an important question: Are these ads effective?

Luckily, for decades, scholars have researched the effects of media, persuasion and political communication. Three important findings are particularly helpful when considering the effects of such foreign interference and potential remedies.

1. We are not passive dupes.

Within four days of the 1941 attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hollywood director Frank Capra joined the U.S. Army, where he was commissioned to create a film series titled “Why We Fight” to inform and sell the war to U.S. soldiers. Capra called this a “counterattack” to Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 “Triumph of the Will,” which was considered a powerful example of how the Nazis used propaganda to rally the masses and consolidate power. The period between the world wars was a golden age for propaganda; both the public and academia believed that powerful messages could turn the masses into an “unthinking herd.” Orson Welles’s 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio drama depicting a Martian invasion, which allegedly created mass panic when many listeners believed it to be real, was often cited at the time as evidence. Theories from the time, such as the “hypodermic needle model,” assumed that messages could be injected into minds, leading to uniform change in opinion and behavior.

After the war, however, psychologist Carl Hovland and other researchers challenged such claims. Their research found that propaganda wasn’t uniformly effective; how individuals received such messages varied with their personal characteristics and predispositions. In general, research found that people resist information that clashes with their core existing beliefs. Because people prefer psychological consistency, they tend to seek and interpret information that confirms their existing biases — a concept called “confirmation bias.”

Confirmation bias is one reason that contemporary research has concluded that, for the most part, political advertising and messaging aren’t very effective in changing minds. For instance, the effects of political advertising are short-term and fleeting, as people’s attitudes bounce back pretty quickly from such attempts to persuade them. Even on social media, recent research suggests that ads do not impart new information or change attitudes. Moreover, the people most susceptible to propaganda — those with weak political attitudes — are least likely to pay attention to political messages, online or elsewhere.

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Then there’s the issue of exposure. Facebook says that up to 150 million users were likely exposed to these ads and related content. But as communication scholar David Karpf explained here in The Post, it’s hard to tell how much Facebook activity originates from actual Americans rather than from fake accounts and botnets. Furthermore, while these numbers seem big, they are a drop in the bucket compared to the trillions of posts that Americans saw on Facebook between 2015 and 2017.

2. Credibility matters.

In 1936, psychologist Irving Lorge did an experiment to see how the credibility of a particular messenger influenced what an audience thought of the message. He asked one set of American students whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing.” When the statement was attributed to Thomas Jefferson, most agreed. When it was attributed to Vladimir Lenin, most disagreed. How you feel about the source, in other words, affects what you feel about the message.

Decades of research have upheld similar findings. For example, sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld argued that the news media do influence public beliefs — but indirectly, in a two-step process. First, the media inform opinion leaders; those leaders then interpret the information to the various groups who hold them in high regard. In like manner, political scientist Adam Berinsky examined American opinion from World War II to Iraq and found that during wartime, public opinion doesn’t shift with each event or even news on casualties; rather, it’s influenced by the positions of political elites.

Russia’s  “Internet Research Agency” is clearly aware of the importance of source credibility. For example, one of the fake online communities attributed to it is called Black Matters US, which mimics and draws upon the credibility of Black Lives Matter. This group garnered over 200,000 Facebook likes and even organized a rally following Trump’s election, which up to 10,000 protesters attended in New York City. Had people known who was really behind this effort, they likely would not have shown up.

Based on this important research finding, recent efforts by lawmakers to make social media companies reveal who pays for political ads is likely essential in limiting the future impact of foreign interference.

3. Media follows politics.

Political scientist Gadi Wolfsfeld has argued that in the relationship of the mainstream media and politics, the media follow politics and thus confine their news frames to those found in their existing political environment. To the degree that they have influence, it is through amplifying a selection of those arguments, often based on news values that are driven by commercial imperatives.

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While foreign propaganda efforts to influence U.S. politics and society are a disturbing trend, it is important to realize that such messaging is, likewise, not manufactured out of whole cloth and is created and situated within an era’s existing political conversations. Social media messaging can only exploit and amplify polarization if a democracy is already polarized and politically torn. Online social networks are not the source of the problem; they are just a medium, albeit one with a new set of tools whose vulnerabilities we are just discovering. Fixing social and political divisions will require much more than new rules for social media; it will require a longer-term effort to heal the country’s body politic.

Babak Bahador is a research professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA) at George Washington University and a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the Network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts in the series can be found here.