A popular parlor game following the 2016 presidential election involved competitive analysis of what factors led to Donald Trump’s stunning defeat of Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College and consequently the presidential election.
This game often took place on social media, though it also could be played at the dinner table, on park benches, over the phone, or on newspaper op-ed pages.
Among friendly – or at least civil – players, the game typically started with an unspoken stipulation: That nobody can ever say definitively what factors most contributed to Trump’s victory. That being the case, everyone was free to speculate till the cows came home. (This past week the cattle started stampeding toward the barn, but more on that later.)
The “why did Trump win? / Why did Clinton lose?” game took a number of different forms, usually defined by the participants’ sympathies before the election.
For example, the version I frequently played on social media involved someone (often moi) asserting that one main reason Hillary Clinton lost the election involved disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and other progressives who either voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein or didn’t vote at all.
That assertion often would provoke another person, who after spending minutes decrying the corrupt Democratic Party, fascist Hillary Clinton and the corporate power brokers ruling both major parties, would argue that the Democratic Party establishment and Clinton had only themselves to blame for losing to Trump. This is the point at which this person, or someone of the same mind, might then drop the following dull nugget: “Anyway, they’re all bad” or “They’re all corrupt” or the more poetical but just as dim, “Clinton and Trump are opposite sides of the same corrupt coin. They’re all slaves to the corporate oligarchy!”
Another version of the “why did Trump win?” game involved foreign interference before the election, specifically by Russia. Around election time, the U.S. intelligence community already had concluded that the Russians, likely directed from the very top, had aggressively sought to influence the election.
This multi-pronged attack on our country mainly took place on social media, according to U.S. intelligence agencies.
Originating from shadowy Russian-controlled troll farms, memes and links with inflammatory assertions and exaggerated and/or fabricated facts would be posted on Facebook and other social-media platforms. A major goal of this influence campaign was to sow discord among voters, sharpening the partisan and ideological divide in this country. But our intelligence community also found that the campaign took specific steps to boost Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton.
Let’s get back to the aforementioned “why Trump won?” parlor game…
After the 2016 election, anyone claiming that the Russians’ disinformation/influence campaign might have tipped the scales in Donald Trump’s favor could expect an immediate, usually ridiculing response along these lines: **“You’ve lost and don’t know what to do? Just blame it on Russian hackers.”
This sort of snide dismissal came from both sides – Clinton haters on the left and Clinton haters on the right (including President Trump).
IT’S BEEN MORE THAN two years since Trump won the election, and since that time, evidence has been accumulating, bit by bit, to support the idea that he gained an unfair advantage from Russian interference. (Convincing evidence also has been piling up that Trump’s illegal payments to a porn actress and a former Playboy Playmate to keep quiet about his extramarital affairs with them helped him beat Clinton.)
The Russia-advantage theory gained a huge boost this past week when the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee released two authoritative, commissioned reports confirming beyond any doubt that the highest levels of Russian government directed an intensive and massive influence campaign to boost Trump and hurt Clinton.
With information gathered from several social-media platforms, the reports not only quantify an immense level of interference, but find that much of the Russian attack on our democratic institutions before the 2016 election sought to suppress the votes of both African-American citizens and progressive supporters of Bernie Sanders.
The reports, one by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity firm based in Austin, Texas, and the second by Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University and Graphika, a company specializing in analysis of social media, found that the Russian influence campaign in 2016 was run by a St. Petersburg company called the Internet Research Agency (IRA), owned by a businessman with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to a New York Times article on the reports, published Monday, “Both reports stress that the Internet Research Agency created social-media accounts under fake names on virtually every available platform. A major goal was to support Donald J. Trump, first against his Republican rivals in the presidential race, then in the general election, and as president since his inauguration.”
Later the article reports, “Creating accounts designed to pass as belonging to Americans, the Internet Research Agency spread its messages not only via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which have drawn the most attention, but also on YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and Google+, among other platforms.”
According to The Times article, the New Knowledge report found what while “other distinct ethnic and religious groups were the focus of one or two Facebook Pages or Instagram accounts, the black community was targeted extensively with dozens.”
The NYT article continues, “The Internet Research Agency also created a dozen websites disguised as African American in origin, with names like blackmattersus.com, blacktivist.info, blacktolive.org and blacksoul.us…”
The New Knowledge report suggests that the goal of this targeting of African Americans, via social media, was to alienate black voters from the political establishment before the election, discourage them about American democracy, and ultimately persuade them to stay home on Election Day or vote for a third-party candidate.
In the Times article, Renee DiResta, one of the report’s authors and director of research at New Knowledge, noted that the Internet Research Agency “leveraged pre-existing, legitimate grievances wherever they could.” She stressed that while the Russian influence campaign didn’t create “very real racial tensions and feelings of alienation in America,” it did exploit them.
According to the Senate Intelligence Committee reports, the Internet Research Agency created 81 Facebook pages, with 30 of them targeting African Americans, gaining 1.2 million followers; 25 pages targeting audiences on the political right, with 1.4 million followers; and seven pages targeting the political left, with 689,045 followers.
“While the right-wing pages promoted Mr. Trump’s candidacy,” the New York Times article said, “the left-wing pages scorned Mrs. Clinton while promoting Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate.”
To put a finer point on the matter, the article added that the reports found that “The voter suppression effort was focused particularly on Sanders supporters and African Americans, urging them to shun Mrs. Clinton in the general election and either vote for Ms. Stein or stay home.”
An NPR article from Monday reported that the New Knowledge report “said the (Internet Research Agency) troll farm had a three-pronged approach on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to suppress voters: malicious misdirection, such as ‘text-to-vote scams’; candidate support redirection, such as voting for a third party; and turnout depression, such as ‘stay at home on Election Day, your vote doesn't matter.’"
The New York Times ended its account by reporting that after the election, IRA created 70 posts on Instagram and Facebook ridiculing claims that Russia had interfered in the presidential election.
**One of these Russian-generated posts I included earlier in this column to characterize the common response after the election when anyone would suggest the Russians might have influenced the outcome:
“You’ve lost and don’t know what to do? Just blame it on Russian hackers.”
So, ironically, folks who were roundly dismissing the idea that the Russian influence campaign could have swayed the election were echoing the Russians’ efforts to cover their own tracks in this nefarious campaign to destabilize our country and subvert our democracy.
The New York Times, NPR and other mainstream media reports all have acknowledged the presidential election parlor game stipulation – that there’s still no way to conclusively quantify how much the high-level Russian influence campaign helped Trump or hurt Clinton.
But after the release of these authoritative reports confirming and verifying Russia’s aggressive efforts to persuade African Americans and progressives to not vote for Hillary Clinton, only a fool – or a Russian asset (stooge) – would dismiss the very real possibility that the Russians succeeded in their goals on Nov. 6, 2016.