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What Russia's Facebook war didn't do

Traditional Russian matryoshka dolls depicting Vladimir Putin, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are seen on sale at a gift shop in central Moscow on November 8, 2016.
Kirill Kudryatsev | AFP | Getty Images
Traditional Russian matryoshka dolls depicting Vladimir Putin, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are seen on sale at a gift shop in central Moscow on November 8, 2016.

For those Democrats waiting for some evidence that will prove the Russians stole the 2016 presidential election, it's not much but better than nothing: The revelations that Russian agents ran hundreds of fake Facebook accounts trafficking divisive stories as well as similar activity on other platforms such as Google and LinkedIn give us some idea about how a hostile foreign power run by a dictator thinks it can manipulate American public opinion. The fake accounts posted inflammatory stories, pictures, and videos that, in the words of the New York Times' deep dive into the matter, "harvested American rage to reshape U.S. politics."

That seems to back up a narrative of Russian responsibility for Trump's victory even if it does nothing to show collusion with the GOP. But those looking to this as an excuse for Hillary Clinton's loss are deluding themselves.

There's nothing particularly new about Russian efforts to sow dissension inside the United States and other democracies, but it is nonetheless disturbing to learn about the mix of sophistication and crudity in Moscow's efforts. Yet this story doesn't do much to back up the idea that a coherent Russian conspiracy of some sort aiming at electing Trump was a major factor in the outcome. Vladimir Putin may have preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton as his American protagonist. But what we now know about the Russian campaign is that it was not only far more diffuse than a mere pro-Trump effort but that their efforts were also merely a faint echo of broader trends that were being far more successfully exploited by Americans.

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Outrage over a foreign power's engaging in such activities is entirely justified. But in order to believe that it was the Russians who were, as the Times claims, reshaping American politics, you'd have to ignore the fact that Trump was sowing dissension with divisive statements and taking advantage of existing cultural and political fault lines in American society long before the Russians were investing in Facebook accounts.

The first problem with the notion of the Facebook accounts' constituting proof of a stolen election is that not all of what was being promoted on them was aimed at helping Trump. As the Times reports, some of the material was devoted to exposing discriminatory treatment of American Muslims, a topic that would, in theory, make voters more inclined to back Hillary Clinton or at least to despise Trump.

This is a crucial point because it shows that what the Russians did in 2016 was more or less in line with tactics they've been using since the Kremlin was run by Communists rather than an autocrat like Putin. The common denominator in all of the Russian posts — whether aimed at whipping up resentment on the right or the left — was to discredit Western democracy. The Russian/Soviet intention was never so much to favor one candidate over the other — though prior to 2016, they certainly preferred, as a general rule, Democrats to Republicans. Their main goal was to undermine the idea that representative democracy was inherently superior to their own tyrannical system.

Russian accounts were happy to fuel all sorts of anger, no matter what its source or target, so long as it promoted the notion that American democracy was a fraud. That's the same pattern their destabilization efforts have followed whether ordered by Soviet bureaucrats or Putin's underlings in democracies across the globe.

Yet this behavior never generated much interest from the mainstream media prior to the Trump–Clinton matchup.

Part of the explanation for this stems from the recent rise of social media as a pervasive force in American society. The Russians were always trying to persuade Americans that their own country was a terrible place, but the Internet and social media provide the sort of widely accessible forums that make it easier to peddle lies and fake news on a mass scale.

But just as important is the fact that the American Left and the liberal media never felt particularly threatened by Russian destabilization campaigns until Trump arrived on the national scene. Four years earlier, Democrats chortled heartily when President Obama mocked Mitt Romney in their foreign-policy debate for describing Russia as the chief geostrategic foe of the United States. That year, it was Obama who told Putin underling Dmitri Medvedev in a hot mic moment that he should tell "Vladimir" that he (Obama) would have "more flexibility" to accommodate his demands after he got re-elected. That's exactly the kind of quid pro quo smoking gun Democrats would take as proof of collusion between Trump and Putin. But it didn't bother them when it was Obama doing the colluding.

The real question to ask about this story is what exactly the Russians were doing to expose the seamy side of American politics that wasn't already being done by Republican and Democratic operatives, not to mention the presidential candidates? Trump and everyone else dragging the 2016 election into the sewer needed no lessons in divisiveness from Russians who were merely recycling popular memes and sometimes doing so without properly translating them into English. That the Russians figured out how to use Facebook to promote their goals isn't shocking. But the claim that these ads altered the results of the election to any degree is shocking because they were no better or worse than the flood of negative attacks that was already deluging Americans.

Social media helps exacerbate the bifurcated nature of American society since most users insulate themselves from those with different beliefs and loyalties. That's why it's not clear that the Russian ads reached many people who weren't already receptive to those messages.

Americans should prod their government to take measures to better monitor foreign interference in the future. But, as with everything else we've learned about the 2016 campaign, there's still no reason to believe liberal conspiracy theories about a stolen election or to even think the troubling Russian efforts were actually effective in aiding Trump. Democrats looking for reasons to explain his victory other than Trump's ability to reflect the discontent of the voters and Hillary Clinton's lack of credibility are doing the country and themselves a disservice.

Commentary by Jonathan S. Tobin, an opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributor at National Review. Follow him on Twitter @jonathans_tobin.

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©2017 National Review. Used with permission.