Assessing the Russian Internet Research Agency’s impact on the political attitudes and behaviors of American Twitter users in late 2017

Abstract

While numerous studies analyze the strategy of online influence campaigns, their impact on the public remains an open question. We investigate this question combining longitudinal data on 1,239 Republicans and Democrats from late 2017 with data on Twitter accounts operated by the Russian Internet Research Agency. We find no evidence that interacting with these accounts substantially impacted 6 political attitudes and behaviors. Descriptively, interactions with trolls were most common among individuals who use Twitter frequently, have strong social-media “echo chambers,” and high interest in politics. These results suggest Americans may not be easily susceptible to online influence campaigns, but leave unanswered important questions about the impact of Russia’s campaign on misinformation, political discourse, and 2016 presidential election campaign dynamics.There is widespread concern that Russia and other countries have launched social-media campaigns designed to increase political divisions in the United States. Though a growing number of studies analyze the strategy of such campaigns, it is not yet known how these efforts shaped the political attitudes and behaviors of Americans. We study this question using longitudinal data that describe the attitudes and online behaviors of 1,239 Republican and Democratic Twitter users from late 2017 merged with nonpublic data about the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) from Twitter. Using Bayesian regression tree models, we find no evidence that interaction with IRA accounts substantially impacted 6 distinctive measures of political attitudes and behaviors over a 1-mo period. We also find that interaction with IRA accounts were most common among respondents with strong ideological homophily within their Twitter network, high interest in politics, and high frequency of Twitter usage. Together, these findings suggest that Russian trolls might have failed to sow discord because they mostly interacted with those who were already highly polarized. We conclude by discussing several important limitations of our study—especially our inability to determine whether IRA accounts influenced the 2016 presidential election—as well as its implications for future research on social media influence campaigns, political polarization, and computational social science.

Publication
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences