“I think it [Facebook, Twitter, Instagram] helped me win all of these races where they’re spending much more money than I spent.”
President Donald Trump, on “60 Minutes,” Nov. 13, 2016
“Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing.”
Brad Parscale, Digital Director, Trump for President, Wired, Nov. 15, 2016
“…the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians…”
President Donald Trump, Twitter, Feb. 17, 2018
Logic and facts have never been Donald Trump’s touchstone, nor have they been the forte of those who serve him.
He can argue that his digital campaign was effective, or he can argue that the results of the election were not impacted by the Russians. But he can’t have it both ways.
If his digital campaign could have impacted votes, then so could the Russians’.
As I’ve said here before, we will really never know how much effect the Russian effort did have, but to argue definitively that the Russian campaign had none, while his own was powerful, is absurd.
There is an argument to be made that digital advertising — and indeed campaign persuasion techniques of every kind — have no real impact. A few weeks ago, I critiqued a carefully researched academic paper that reached exactly that conclusion.
I obviously don’t subscribe to that view, and neither does the Trump campaign, nor the digital platforms that present analysis after case study demonstrating the persuasive power of advertising on their platforms.
But, if you want to make the case for no effects, be consistent. No effect of the Russian campaign means no effect of the Trump campaign.
Now, this rule isn’t ironclad. Perhaps the Russian campaign was too small to be meaningful. But 10 million people did see these ads and they were disproportionately located in swing states.
And, if Trump’s 100-person Alamo Project could have changed 70,000 votes in three states, how can we be sure that Russia’s Internet Research Agency’s 80-person staff didn’t also have an impact?
However, paid digital advertising was, by no means, the only way Russia inserted itself into our election. The Russian attack operated on at least five fronts:
• Stealing and weaponizing emails
• Spreading defamatory information about Hillary Clinton and positive pieces about Donald Trump through social media and digital ads
• Using Russian state media to disseminate false positive information about Trump and inaccurate negatives about Clinton
• Using digital advertising and social media to create a more positive environment for Trump by sowing discord
• Working with potentially unwitting individuals and groups in the U.S. to further Trump’s interests
Arguing that none of this had any impact is fruitless.
Hillary Clinton’s image was badly damaged by the email controversy. Analyses of press coverage reveals that this subject got far more attention than any other during the campaign and it dominated voters’ associations with Clinton.
Though largely unrelated to the issue of the private server, the Democratic National Committee email hack, followed by the Podesta email theft and dump, kept “Clinton email” in the headlines, in addition to fomenting division among Democrats.
Russia also used social media to disseminate attacks on Clinton and to create a positive electoral environment for Trump. Facebook estimated that some 29 million people were served content in their news feeds directly from the IRA’s 80,000 posts.
Because posts are also shared, liked, and followed by people on Facebook, the company’s “best estimate” is that approximately 126 million people may have been served content from a page associated with the Internet Research Agency.
It’s impossible to demonstrate that none of this had any impact on voters. As a result, we’ll never know who would have won absent the Russian assault on our democracy —a fact that apparently drives President Trumpcrazy(ier).
The Russian attack will forever cast a shadow on his election. Foolish contradictions won’t spare Trump that fate.
Mellman is President of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.