While some of the fake news comes from straight from California suburbs, it’s clear that a vast amount of these stories were created specifically to influence the election by a single source.
The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.
Notice that these stories were not simply noise. They didn’t hold a neutral position. They were consistently aimed at two things: promoting Donald Trump and undermining people’s faith in democracy. Though, honestly, those might be seen as one thing.
Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human “trolls,” and networks of websites and social-media accounts — echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers. The effort also sought to heighten the appearance of international tensions and promote fear of looming hostilities with nuclear-armed Russia.
They drove fake news into right-wing sites on the same fuel that has powered conservative news sites from their inception: unreasoning fear. In the final three months before the election, these fake stories were spread more readily and more broadly than stories the traditional media. But then, the traditional media was also full of stories generated by Russia, who paid hackers to steal emails from private citizens and leak it back for articles that rarely stopped to ponder the source.
Even if they never touched a voting machine, there’s absolutely no doubt: Russia hacked the election.
The Russians didn’t have to invent a means of disseminating fake news. The pipeline for delivery was already there, and similar fake news efforts had already proven it could be effective.
Two teams of independent researchers found that the Russians exploited American-made technology platforms to attack U.S. democracy at a particularly vulnerable moment, as an insurgent candidate harnessed a wide range of grievances to claim the White House. The sophistication of the Russian tactics may complicate efforts by Facebook and Google to crack down on “fake news,” as they have vowed to do after widespread complaints about the problem.
Were these stories enough to elect Donald Trump? We don’t know, but considering the narrowness of the decision, it’s far more than simply possible.
Russia waged a campaign from the outset to affect the outcome of the American election. That effort included hacking American email servers, disseminating private information, commissioning and spreading propaganda. At a minimum.
And all the while, the Russian government and the Trump campaign were in regular communication. Considering the number of known connections between Trump, Manafort, Flynn, Page and Russia, and the ways in which all worked to undermine US positions relative to NATO, Ukraine, or Syria, it can’t be dismissed that there was not just cooperation, but a deal in place.
Was propaganda that the limit of Russia's actions?
Even in advance of the election, concerns were widespread that it would be easy to hack into the voting machines that were being used and Edward Snowden shared a video just before the election that showed hackers breaking into a voting machine using only a £24 memory card.
The evidence that Russia directly altered votes in the election seems to be currently limited to the results of statistical analysis—and the outcome from that analysis is anything but “undisputed.”
But considering everything we know that Russia did to sway the election, no one should be too quick to dismiss the possibility of more direct action out of hand.