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Study finds correlation between Russian social media trolls and 2016 polling

Trump and Putin at the 2018 G20 plenery
President Trump and Russian President Putin at the 2018 G20 summit. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

A new study found a correlation between retweets of known Russian troll accounts during the 2016 election and Donald Trump's poll numbers.

Why it matters: The study, conducted by a team headed at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and published in the peer-reviewed University of Illinois-Chicago journal "First Monday," suggests that — despite protests to the contrary by Republicans and Trump allies — the Russian disinformation campaign was successful in influencing the 2016 election.

Caveat: Correlation does not always mean causation. If a Trump talking point encouraged a particularly viral Tweet, for example, it may have also encouraged a change in Trump's polling on its own.

  • It's also worth noting that the U.S. intelligence community has not conclusively weighed in on whether Russia's interference in 2016 had a tangible impact on the results of the election.

Details: The Tennessee-Knoxville study analyzed 770,005 tweets in English from known Russian troll accounts, as well as corresponding poll data from FiveThirtyEight's archive of multiple polling outlets.

  • Every 25,000 retweets of Russian accounts correlated to a 1% increase in Trump's poll numbers one week later.
  • Given the frequency of tweets from Russian accounts, 25,000 retweets would average around 10 retweets per tweet.
  • Retweets did not have a similar effect on Hillary Clinton's poll numbers.
  • The study also found that 91% of first retweeters of known Russian bots were non-Russian bots, "which suggests that propaganda spread into networks of real U.S. citizens."

Go deeper: U.S. is underestimating Putin's "grand strategy" for Russian dominance

Editor's note: The headline and first paragraph of this story have been updated to clarify that the study suggests a correlation between troll posts and Trump poll numbers.

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