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A nation must think before it acts.
Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s 448-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election revealed insights into Donald Trump’s campaign, uncovered 10 possible instances of obstruction of justice, and provided plenty of material for late-night comedians. The report concluded that “the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” However, the report also claimed that it could “not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in the election interference activities.”
Regardless of the investigation’s conclusions, politicians, journalists, and academics still debate—and will for a long time—whether the Trump campaign actively colluded with the Russians and how much the Kremlin’s propaganda on social media shaped the outcome of the 2016 election.
Unfortunately, President Trump has fueled partisan divisions over Russian interference and the Mueller investigation with his unique brand of rhetoric. Evidence suggests that he strongly influences his supporter’s views on the Kremlin’s actions and the Russia investigation, which has implications for the health of American democracy. The mere perception that international propaganda is effective can shape public opinion and increase polarization, regardless of whether it actually had any direct influence. While it is undeniably important to track the influence of foreign propaganda and/or collusion with hostile international actors, we should be aware how overemphasizing these themes can lead to further divisions among the electorate.
Reactions to the Mueller investigation reveal the deep political polarization on Russian interference in American politics. Data from FiveThirtyEight demonstrates that partisan favorability toward Mueller has diverged over the past two years. According to an April 2019 HuffPost/YouGov poll, 86% of Clinton voters thought the report revealed that Trump tried to obstruct Mueller’s investigation, while only 6% of Republicans think the same. More startling, 65% of Clinton voters believe that the report suggests that Trump is unfit to be president, with only 1% of Republicans agreeing.
There is little indication that more information about the investigation is going to lead to consensus. According to Pew’s September 2018 Political Survey, nearly 85% of Democrats believed that Robert Mueller was “conducting a fair investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election,” while only 34% of Republicans thought the same. Alarmingly, those who were the most informed were also the most divided on this issue. The gap widens by nearly 14% among respondents who claimed to know the most about the investigation (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Partisans Who Claim to Know the Most about the Investigation are the Most Divided
As trust in democratic institutions becomes politically polarized, the ability of independent counsels to uphold the rule of law weakens. Well-functioning democracies need institutions to monitor government officials, but the political opposition can also use these same institutions to undermine the people’s will. If the public perceives investigations as politically motivated and biased, then corrupt politicians can disregard these checks and balances. Additionally, it creates incentives for poorly behaving politicians to sow doubt in the credibility of independent counsels, which undermines trust in government.
Divisions about foreign interference extend well beyond the Mueller investigation. In my own online survey conducted on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk in February 2019 (N=993), I found a strong partisan divide concerning the influence of Russian propaganda on the outcome of the 2016 election (Figure 2). According to my survey, nearly 70% of Democrats believed that propaganda helped sway the outcome of election compared to 16% of Republicans. Similar to the split over the Mueller investigation, the partisan divide on the effectiveness of Russian propaganda is strongest among the most politically interested individuals.
Figure 2: Attitudes toward Propaganda’s Effect on the 2016 Presidential Election
While we often assume that people just need more information to come to a consensus, those who closely follow politics are actually the most polarized. More educated and politically sophisticated individuals are the most adept at internalizing party cues, making them more sure of their beliefs. Social psychology research show us that people tend to underestimate the influence of mass communication on themselves and overestimate it on others, especially the impact of harmful media on disliked outgroups. Most people believe they are too smart to be influenced by foreign propaganda, but they assume that others—especially members of the opposite party—are less resistant to threatening persuasive appeals.
At first glance, this may seem like a reasonable inference since Russian propaganda reached over 126 million people on Facebook alone. However, over that same period, Americans received 33 trillion items in their newsfeeds. Most Americans had minimal contact with Russian propaganda, but Democrats tend to believe that Russian propaganda influenced how other citizens voted. In sum, our hyper-partisan media environment has divided Americans about the influence of foreign governments on national elections, and those who follow politics the most are the most divided.
People’s beliefs that members of the opposite party are susceptible to foreign propaganda can create the perception that the other side is “too stupid” or gullible to participate in politics. When these attitudes become common and people think that propaganda is ubiquitous, they tend to become more tolerant of censorship to protect “vulnerable” groups. One concern is that legislation to protect individuals from harmful content can lead to broader elite control over media—raising concerns about the balance between security and democratic liberties.
Despite what one thinks about the influence of Russian interference on electoral outcomes, it is undeniable that the mere presence of Russian propaganda has caused policy officials to dedicate millions of dollars into countering the influence of foreign propaganda based on perceptions of its effectiveness. Technology firms are also asserting control over acceptable speech on their platforms following reports of foreign active measures. It is increasingly apparent that the Kremlin has successfully influenced political debates in the United States by exacerbating political polarization and increasing doubt in the electoral system.
As 2020 approaches, cybersecurity experts and policymakers need to consider the myriad of ways foreign entities are trying influence elections. Unfortunately, Russia is not the only threat. Chinese effort to influence external public opinion are perhaps more troubling than Russian interference, since they are hidden from the public eye. Chinese donations to political parties, suspicious connections to former politicians, and the funding of pro-Chinese think tanks may exert more influence on U.S. foreign policy than Russia’s social media campaign. Moreover, homegrown fake news outlets have learned important lessons about how to best spread misinformation from observing the Russian campaign: “Americans are being attacked by Americans and it is widely flying under the radar.”
Yet, we should be cognizant that our own counter-propaganda initiatives may be exerting more influence over public opinion than propaganda itself. Efforts to counter fake news can increase skepticism toward true information and can even increase the likelihood that citizens share propaganda with others. The view that other people are vulnerable to international propaganda can cause citizens to question the legitimacy of democratic elections and advocate for greater elite control over the media. Emphasizing the threat of foreign interference may be politically advantageous for some groups and may be necessary to promote greater skepticism toward disinformation, but it can also have detrimental spillover effects on citizens’ general attitudes toward the democratic process.
 This survey over represents Democrats (56%) to Republicans (32%), but offers unique insights into how citizens have grown divided about the influence of foreign propaganda in our political system.