The media today: Are Russian trolls behind everything?

Now that special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted a dozen Russian agents and several Russian corporations as part of his investigation into interference in the 2016 US election, the troll problem must be solved, right? Not quite. In fact, Russian trolls seem to be popping up almost everywhere: A New York Times report, for example, said that a number of Twitter accounts with links to Russia moved quickly to take advantage of the attention focused on the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida, by posting hundreds of updates related to the event and using popular hashtags.

How extensive or influential this was, however, is unclear. The Times relied in part on data from Hamilton68, a site that tracks the behavior of a range of Russian accounts, but the site’s conclusions have been questioned. It was created by The Alliance For Securing Democracy, which is in turn associated with the nonprofit German Marshall Fund. According to The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, the Alliance and the Fund are backed by notorious right-wing warmongers such as Bill Kristol and Mike Chertoff, and therefore their conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt. Others have also raised concerns: The Russia-focused news site Meduza notes Hamilton68 won’t disclose which accounts it follows, and in some cases, they appear to just be accounts set up by actual Russian entities such as the broadcaster Russia Today.

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Russian trolls seem to have become everyone’s favorite excuse for any negative outcome. Newsweek and the site RawStory, for example, both ran with pieces that claimed former Senator Al Franken’s resignation after sexual harassment allegations was driven by Russian trolls hijacking the #MeToo campaign. These reports were also based in part on conclusions by Hamilton68, which Newsweek said called the anti-Franken campaign “officially a Russian intelligence operation” (Hamilton68 later said that it did no such thing). But fact-checking by found some holes in the story, including references to a piece by Ijeoma Oluo that was supposedly part of the campaign and was promoted by trolls. Oluo told Snopes her article was written after Franken had already resigned. Newsweek and Raw Story both later unpublished their stories.

Even New Yorker writer Adrian Chen, who wrote what is probably the definitive profile of the Russian “troll factory” known as the Internet Research Agency, has been downplaying the influence of the IRA. In an interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, Chen said that while some commentators have compared the troll campaign to Pearl Harbor and other major global events, it was “essentially just a social-media marketing campaign.” Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal seems to concur: He says the Russian troll campaign “wasn’t that sophisticated,” and that if the IRA had been a Silicon Valley startup “they probably would not be picking up a fresh round of venture capital” because their methods were so haphazard.

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Here’s some further reading on the topic of Russian trolls and their alleged activity in the US:

  • Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight asks, “How much did Russian interference affect the 2016 election?” and comes up with a not-very-satisfying answer: “It’s hard to say.” Russian activity was part of a campaign that had been going on for years before the election, Silver says, and its actual influence is difficult to measure. He believes a letter from former FBI Director James Comey to Congress—stating that the investigation into Hillary Clinton was still open—probably had more impact.
  • Foreign policy analyst Molly McKew, however, who specializes in information warfare and has advised several European governments, says in Wired that “it’s now undeniable” Russia affected the 2016 election. The troll factory campaign involved tens of millions of dollars spread over several years to build what she calls a “broad, sophisticated system that can influence American opinion.” For example, McKew notes that actual events took place that were orchestrated by the Russians.
  • But were those events actually successful in changing anyone’s mind about Trump or Clinton or the election? A piece in The New York Times makes it sound as though at least a few of them were poorly organized and failed to amount to much of anything. A fake group called Heart of Texas, for example, set up an anti-Muslim rally in Houston, but only a dozen people showed up.
  • Also in The New York Times, Amanda Taub and Max Fisher argue that whatever Russian meddling there was amounts to “a drop in the ocean of American-made discord.” The real problem, they say, is a wave of partisan polarization that has “infected the American political system, weakening the body politic and leaving it vulnerable to manipulation.” In particular, Taub and Fisher say, research suggests that people who are hyperpartisan in their views are more susceptible to “fake news.”  
  • Meanwhile, a Facebook executive was forced to apologize to his colleagues after comments he made on Twitter about the Mueller investigation were retweeted by Donald Trump. Rob Goldman, a vice-president in charge of advertising, suggested the main goal of the Russian troll campaign was not to influence the election but to destabilize American society. Goldman sent a message to staff apologizing for his comments, and said he didn’t intend to undermine the special counsel or his conclusions.


Other notable stories:

  • In a recent speech at the University of Oxford, Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron talked about how the media and social landscape in the US have changed, and how the rise of “fake news” and conspiracy theories has changed the game. “I think we must recognize that something profound has changed in our profession,” he said. “Journalism may not work as it did in the past. Our work’s anticipated impact may not materialize. The public may not process information as it did previously.”
  • Adeshina Emmanuel writes in CJR about his experiences with alt-weekly Chicago Reader editor Mark Konkol, who was fired after less than three weeks on the job. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Konkol had pledged to “bring a new vibe” to the magazine, but quickly acquired a reputation for being a bully, and also drew controversy with a racially charged image he chose for the cover of a new issue.
  • Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has banned a local news site called Rappler from covering his official events, according to a Reuters report. Duterte blamed the site for publishing “fake news” about his government, including a story that reported his senior aide had intervened in a navy procurement deal. Philippine securities regulators recently revoked Rappler’s license to operate because of what they said were irregularities involving one of its investors, eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar. Rappler is appealing.
  • Dylan Byers of CNN has launched a beta test of a newsletter called Pacific, which will cover “the innovation economy.” According to a tweet from Byers with a mockup of the newsletter masthead, a group of 150 tech and media executives, journalists, and friends have been given access to a trial version of the newsletter, which was announced in September and is set to officially launch in March. CNN said it will focus on the West Coast-based companies “that have changed media, technology, and politics.”
  • A judge in St. John’s, Newfoundland, has ruled that it was not a criminal act for a man to yell an offensive phrase at a TV reporter as he drove past her while she interviewed the mayor. The phrase in question has become a popular internet meme, and has been shouted at journalists both in the US and elsewhere. But the judge ruled that while it was offensive and hurtful, it was not a criminal offense.

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Correction: An earlier version of this newsletter quoted a Newsweek story as saying that Hamilton68 called the anti-Franken campaign “an official Russian intelligence operation.” The site says it never did this, and Newsweek later unpublished the story that contained that reference.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.