One of the most compelling articles documenting how the Russians hacked the 2016 U.S. presidential election and turned the outcome in favor of Donald Trump is by Jane Mayer in this week’s New Yorker, entitled, “How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump.” The subtitle is, “A Meticulous Analysis of Online Activity During the 2016 Campaign Makes a Powerful Case That Targeted Cyberattacks by Hackers Trolls Were Decisive.”
The essay is based on interviews with the author of a forthcoming book, “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President — What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know.” The author, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, is a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, directed the Annenberg Public Policy Center at Penn and was the co-founder in 2003 of FactCheck.org, a non-partisan watchdog group.
She is a remarkably well-respected non-partisan, “epitome of a humorless, no-nonsense social scientist,” according to Steven Livingston, a professor at George Washington University, who adds, “She doesn’t bullshit. She calls it straight.” Mayer writes that she asked Jamieson “point-blank if she thought that Trump would be President without the aid of the Russians,” adding, “She did not equivocate. ‘No,’ she said, her face unsmiling. Clearly cognizant of the gravity of her statement, she clarified, ‘If everything else is a constant? No, I do not.” She added, “It is not just plausible that Russia changed the outcome of the 2016 — it is likely that it did.” While it may be unlikely that evidence can prove “beyond a reasonable doubt,” it can be if the criterion is, as in civil court cases, “based on the preponderance of evidence.”
It was done without directly altering votes cast in the election, she argues, but “is based on a growing body of knowledge about the electronic warfare waged by Russian trolls and hackers – whom she terms ‘discourse saboteurs” – and on five decades’ worth of academic studies about what kinds of persuasion can influence voters, and under what circumstances.” They did it because “they persuaded enough people to either vote a certain way or not vote at all.”
Noting that Hillary Clinton got 2.9 million more votes than Trump, it was 80,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that were decisive for giving Trump the Electoral College margin, the result of the fact that “Russian masterminds pulled off a technological and political coup,” and the American media “inadvertently helped.”
In these targeted populations, the ability to generate and exploit a sentiment that Clinton could not be trusted, was “two-faced,” and that she “says one thing in public and something else in private,” was key.
Samplings of dozens of Facebook ads paid for by the Russians and released by the House Intelligence Committee in the fall of 2017 provided clues to the Russians’ M.O., including the evidence that the Russians reached 126 million Facebook users, something Sen. Dianne Feinstein called “cataclysmic.” Russian hacking derived Democratic “targeting data” and campaign “internal modelling” suggesting who the Russians were going after, including diminishing the African-American vote, and going for undecided voters, of which there were 36 million the weeks leading up to the election. “Russian saboteurs nimbly amplified Trump’s divisive rhetoric on immigrants, minorities, and Muslims.” They targeted churchgoers and military families, “promoting Biblical memes including one that showed Clinton as Satan.”
This was all aided by the release by WikiLeaks of caches of stolen e-mails obtained by Russian hackers with quotes (taken out of context and distorted) by Clinton of speeches to Wall Street groups and a Brazilian bankers group. In all of this, Russian hackers and “discourse saboteurs” “had been alarmingly successful in reframing the American political narrative, and “a steady stream of content stolen from the Clinton campaign – which the press generally described as coming from WikiLeaks, rather than from Russia – reweighted the news environment in Trump’s favor.” The Russians by the summer of 2016 came to target “Hillary defectors” in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, countering a Clinton campaign effort to win back those voters. Clinton lost those three states by a combined 80,000 votes, and 660,000 votes were cast in those states for third party candidates, persuaded by Russian propaganda not to vote for Clinton.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].