11 January 2023

Russia’s disinformation campaign in the US did not influence political attitudes or voting behavior


The Russian online disinformation effort during the 2016 US presidential election influenced neither attitudes nor voter behavior, new research shows. But the disinformation campaign may have had its largest effects by convincing Americans that its campaign was successful.

Donald Trump. Photo: Darron Birgenheier (Flickr)
Donald Trump speaking during the American election in 2016. Photo: Darron Birgenheier (Flickr)

There is growing concern that foreign actors are using social media to interfere in democratic elections. The most famous example of such interference occurred during the 2016 US presidential election.

Previous research and government investigations have concluded that Russian interference was designed to sway Americans' voting behavior in favor of Donald Trump, either by shifting support to Trump himself or by encouraging disaffected liberals—often Bernie Sanders voters—to vote for a third-party candidate or to abstain altogether.

So far, however, it has not been possible to investigate whether such foreign influence campaigns actually influence the political behavior of voters.

Preaching to the choir

Now a group of researchers from Copenhagen, New York, Dublin, and Munich have investigated Americans’ exposure to Russian disinformation and voting behavior during 2016 US election campaign.

"Overall, we find no evidence that the Russian disinformation campaign on social media influenced Americans’ political attitudes or voting patterns," says Gregory Eady, assistant professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen, a lead author on the study.

According to the study, the Russian Twitter campaign primarily reached a small subset of strongly partisan Republicans, who were unlikely to need convincing to vote for Donald Trump.

"Those who identified as 'strong Republicans' were exposed to about nine times as many Russian posts as those who identified as Democrats or independents," explains Gregory Eady.

Overall, the campaign was highly targeted: just 1% of users in the study accounted for 70% of impressions.

Drowned in election coverage

The reason for the limited effect of the Russian interference is perhaps to be found in the fact that it was significantly overshadowed by content from domestic news media and politicians.

"On average, Americans on Twitter were exposed each day to approximately four posts from Russian Twitter profiles in October 2016. But during the same period, they were exposed on average to 106 posts from national news media and 35 posts from US politicians,” says Gregory Eady.

He adds that other sources, such as TV channels and online news, will also have drowned out the content from Russian' campaign.

Russia's attempt to change the outcome of the election may have had other effects, the researchers believe.

"Even if the Russian Twitter activity failed to shift voter attitudes, it may still have had an impact on the election and the integrity of the US election by convincing Americans that Russian meddling on social media was indeed successful," Gregory Eady assesses.

The survey, which was linked to data from respondents’ Twitter feed, was conducted by YouGov, and included nearly 1,500 respondents in the US. Respondents shared their Twitter account information for research purposes and answered questions regarding their political views and beliefs at various times during the 2016 US election campaign.

You can read the entire study, published by Nature Communications, here


Gregory Eady
Assistant professor, tenure track
Department of Political Science
Mail: gregory.eady@ifs.ku.dk
Phone.: +45 35 33 21 62

Simon Knokgaard Halskov
Press and communications officer
Mail: sih@samf.ku.dk
Phone: +45 93 56 53 29


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