Speaking with Morning Edition host David Greene, Masha Gessen and Adrian Chen rejected the dominant media narrative that Russian Internet trolls and fake news materially swayed the election in favor of Donald Trump.
The two journalists are no novices when it comes to Russia. Gessen, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, fled Russia to escape persecution and has been described as the country’s leading LGBT rights activist. Chen wrote one of the earliest exposes on Russian Internet trolls and fake news.
Speaking to Greene, Gessen admitted the importance of Russian interference but lamented the simplistic narrative in the media:
“I think that Russian meddling in the election is an important issue. At the same time, the simplistic narrative that basically imagines that a bunch of subliterate-in-English trolls posting mostly static and sort of absurd advertising could have influenced American public opinion to such an extent that it fundamentally changed American politics is ridiculous on the face of it. And the fact that we’re sort of falling deeper and deeper into that vision of the story is a little nuts.”
Chen similarly spoke about how both liberal and conservative agendas made it difficult to accurately report on the issue:
“Well, I think for me, personally, it’s difficult because I feel a lot of pressure on the one hand from interviewers and from people to kind of blow up the threat. You know, people want to talk about how scary this is, how sophisticated it is. There’s not a lot of room for, you know, just kind of dampening down the issue. And then on the other hand, I’m wary of doing that because it instantly becomes a talking point among these sort of right-wing conspiracy mongers who basically just want to, you know, wage information warfare on behalf of the president. And so I don’t want to be contributing to that either. So it’s kind of a lose-lose situation.”
A Stanford University study by economists Matthew Gentzkow and Hunt Allcott seemed to statistically back up Gessen and Chen’s claim. Their study found that while fabricated stories favoring Donald Trump were shared a total of 30 million times, nearly quadruple the number of pro-Hillary Clinton shares leading up to the election, they were seen by only a small fraction of Americans and were minimally persuasive.
Gentzkow, an economics professor and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, noted:
“A reader of our study could very reasonably say, based on our set of facts, that it is unlikely that fake news swayed the election…For fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake news story would need to have convinced about 0.7 percent of Clinton voters and non-voters who saw it to shift their votes to Trump, a persuasion rate equivalent to seeing 36 television campaign ads.”
More important, the authors pointed out, is how social media further segregates voters based on party affiliation.