Over the past few months I’ve heard the question, “is there any evidence of Russia influencing the outcome of the US Presidential election?”. From what I’ve read and heard, the answer is unquestionably yes.
Influence and influencers
Influence, and influencers, are part of the language of the communications industry. They’re the new darlings of the PR and marketing industry because of their claimed ability to change the behaviour and opinions in favour of one brand or another. Companies are spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars courting influencers, or having them represent their products through sponsorships, endorsements or by providing them with products.
Most influencer relations programs misunderstand how influence works – and, as a result, choose people with no real ability to influence potential customers. The 2016 US election is a perfect example.
Count candidate swing, not votes cast
Based on the recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nevada it was concluded that there was no evidence to suggest this was the case. The reason given was because there was no evidence of fraudulent votes. This should come as no surprise – but it doesn’t discount Russian influence in the outcome of the election.
Hacking the US voting infrastructure is almost impossible. It’s also fraught with the risk of leaving a paper-trail. Not even the Russian government would attempt it. Instead, they chose to generate fake news designed to influence the perception of one candidate in favour of the other. By creating stories that cast doubt over Hillary Clinton they attempted to have voters change their vote to support Donald Trump.
Asking the right question
Rather than looking for discrepancies between electronic voting machine tallies and votes cast investigators should instead have looked at the number of voters changing allegiance. How many switched from Clinton to Trump in the wake of stories focused on Wikileaks releases of Clinton campaign emails? They should ask which stories caused them to change their vote, and look at the outlet, source and whether or not the story was fact or fact.
By looking at whether fake news stories created by Russian-backed sites the cause of a significant switch from Clinton to Trump in key districts investigators would have a much clearer understanding of whether Russia influenced the outcome of the 2016 US election. I suspect that this would have resulted in a very different assessment than the one from the recounts in four states.
Changing behaviours and perceptions
The Russian-backed fake news sites are the perfect example of influence in action. Influence is all about changing perception and behaviour and I think it’s unquestionable that a significant number of voters in key districts changed their vote from Clinton to Trump based on fake news stories. In the years to come it will be studied by communications students and presented as the perfect example of influencer marketing.
Using fake news stories in order to discredit one candidate in any election is about as good an example as of influence as you will find. Using fake news stories to change the outcome of the 2016 US election is as big as it gets.