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The data behind the Russia debate

Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science, discusses young voter turnout at his office at the Mershon Center on Nov. 16. Credit: Sam Raudins | Social Media Editor

The story of the 2016 election has not died, and the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report over the weekend kept the flames hot. Two Ohio State professors, instead of getting bogged down in the partisan talking points, have crunched the data on the results.

By comparing the presidential election results of 2012 and 2016 and looking at the results of surveys on fake news, researchers Paul Beck and Erik Nisbet have discovered how Russian interference could have affected the 2016 presidential election.

Their research, published Feb. 15, surveyed 1,600 registered voters about fake news and asked the respondents if they believed the topics regarding the election were true.

One of the questions asked respondents if they believed that Hillary Clinton approved weapons sales to Islamic jihadists, including ISIS. The results show that 35 percent of the respondents believed that was the case, and of those, 20 percent were former Obama voters.

Paul Beck is co-director of the Comparative National Elections Project and has focused a lot of his professional research on voting behavior. CNEP is a partnership among scholars who have conducted election surveys across the democratic world since 1980. Beck said a major focus of their research was identifying people who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.

“Out of all the people who voted for President Obama in the 2012 election, only 77 percent voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016,” Beck said. “We mainly focused on who defected in the 2016 election and how fake news could have contributed to that.”

George Hudson, a political science professor at Ohio State, said Russia has always been associated with using different tactics to influence American opinion, such as fake news and social media.

Hudson said what Americans saw in 2016 goes as far back as the 1920s when Russia attempted to sway elections by supporting the American Communist Party.

“All the intelligence reports indicate that the Russians attempted to influence the elections through various means, mostly through social media,” Beck said. “They were able to organize demonstrations which were in favor of the Trump candidacy and opposed Hillary Clinton.”

Evidence of Russian attempts to interfere in American elections continued to pile up this past Sunday with the release of the long-awaited Mueller report, which essentially said that while the Trump campaign did not collude with Russia, there was significant evidence that Russia had tried to disrupt the elections.

Beck said that although the election is over, it does not mean that Russia has stopped trying to put a wedge between Americans.

He offered the example of the video of a standoff between a white high-schooler and an elder Native American that went viral in January. The video deepened partisan divisions and was widely disseminated online by Russian accounts posing as Americans.

“A lot of what the Russians have been doing is taking new stories and basically sending them to targeted populations. We know that in 2016 that minority populations received a lot of anti-Hillary content,” Beck said. “We think it was not designed to get people to vote for Trump, but to get people not to vote for Hillary.”

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