How Disinformation Affects Elections


Yesterday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians and 3 organizations for interfering with the U.S. political system by using “information warfare” to sow discord in numerous ways. The Atlantic has a good explanation of what the indictment means here, and you can read the indictment for yourself here.

This indictment is leading, once again, to a chorus of people saying that  “no votes were changed.” I’m going to blow that narrative up, and reference the work of a Nobel Prize winner to do it.

Note: I am not talking about if any votes cast for Person A were changed to Person B after the fact through machine tampering, etc. because that’s not what these indictments are referencing. I see tweets saying “no votes were changed” and “the results of the election were not impacted” based on what is in this indictment, so that’s what I’m talking about.

The DOJ said these 13 Russians and 3 organizations were indicted for waging “information warfare” to disrupt our political system “including the 2016 presidential election.” The indictment charges that the Russians flooded U.S. social media and posted derogatory information about some candidates, supported other candidates, staged political rallies, etc.

The questions remains: Did this activity influence how individual Americans made their decisions as to who to vote for (or to vote at all)?

Enter Professor Daniel Kahneman from Princeton University who won a Nobel Prize for his insights into human judgement and decision-making.

We like to think that we make rational decisions. That, say, how you came to choose the shampoo you use was perfectly rational. What Prof. Kahneman’s work tells us is that every decision or judgement you make is the result of the battle in your mind between your intuition and logic.

Simply put, his work shows that we always have two systems of thinking that are operating side by side at any given point in time.

We have the logical part of our mind that can analyze a problem and come up with a rational answer. We are aware of this activity in our mind. It’s also why we think we’re rational. But the other system—the intuitive one—is fast and automatic. It’s almost totally hidden to us. And it’s responsible for a lot of what we think and believe.

Trying to trace why we believe what we do is really hard because our logical mind comes up with a “cover story” for why we believe something, not seeing the part that our intuitive mind has played. There are a host of biases that affect how we react to information presented to us. You’ve no doubt heard about confirmation bias and negativity bias, for example. Unless you’re trained to look for those biases, they’re essentially hidden to you.

Every time we see information, our intuitive mind reacts to it. Whenever we have to make a decision, our intuitive mind is working in the background as our rational mind works in the foreground.

Stepping away from Prof. Kahneman’s work, just look at what companies do with their advertising and marketing to influence our decisions. They know it’s not any one thing that makes the difference. There are so many things at play that affect our decision to buy or not buy something and so they employ a multitude of tactics to influence us.

Knowing all this, let’s get back to DOJ’s indictment.

The President and right-wing media are focused on this quote by Deputy AG Rosenstein: “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”

Key #1: The DOJ cannot allege anything in an indictment that they can’t prove.

Key #2: No one can ever prove HOW an individual makes up their mind.

No one who filled out their ballot to vote for one person or another will be able to trace all the things that influenced that decision. Nor can the person who decided not to vote at all be able to trace all the reasons why they didn’t vote. What we know now is that Americans were barraged, in a multitude of ways, with deceitful information over a long period of time.

Did any of it influence anyone? Unknowable. Except for the pesky fact that it did influence many Americans enough to like, retweet, comment, and share the disinformation…

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