The New Yorker's Jane Mayer examines the case that Russian interference in the 2016 elections not only helped Donald Trump, but helped him in a decisive manner, as laid out in a new book out this week called Cyberwar.
Politicians may be too timid to explore the subject, but a new book from, of all places, Oxford University Press promises to be incendiary. “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President—What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know,” by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, dares to ask—and even attempts to answer—whether Russian meddling had a decisive impact in 2016. Jamieson offers a forensic analysis of the available evidence and concludes that Russia very likely delivered Trump’s victory.
The book, which is coming out less than two months before the midterm elections, at a moment when polls suggest that some sixty per cent of voters disapprove of Trump, may well reignite the question of Trump’s electoral legitimacy. The President’s supporters will likely characterize the study as an act of partisan warfare. But in person Jamieson, who wears her gray hair in a pixie cut and favors silk scarves and matronly tweeds, looks more likely to suspend a troublemaker than to be one. She is seventy-one, and has spent forty years studying political speeches, ads, and debates. Since 1993, she has directed the Annenberg Public Policy Center, at Penn, and in 2003 she co-founded FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan watchdog group. She is widely respected by political experts in both parties, though her predominantly male peers have occasionally mocked her scholarly intensity, calling her the Drill Sergeant. As Steven Livingston, a professor of political communication at George Washington University, puts it, “She is the epitome of a humorless, no-nonsense social scientist driven by the numbers. She doesn’t bullshit. She calls it straight.”
Indeed, when I met recently with Jamieson, in a book-lined conference room at the Annenberg Center, in Philadelphia, and asked her point-blank if she thought that Trump would be President without the aid of Russians, she didn’t equivocate. “No,” she said, her face unsmiling. Clearly cognizant of the gravity of her statement, she clarified, “If everything else is a constant? No, I do not.”
Jamieson said that, as an academic, she hoped that the public would challenge her arguments. Yet she expressed confidence that unbiased readers would accept her conclusion that it is not just plausible that Russia changed the outcome of the 2016 election—it is “likely that it did.”
An airtight case, she acknowledges, may never be possible. In the introduction to her new book, she writes that any case for influence will likely be similar to that in a civil legal trial, “in which the verdict is rendered not with the certainty that e=mc2 but rather based on the preponderance of evidence.” But, she points out, “we do make most of life’s decisions based on less-than-rock-solid, incontrovertible evidence.” In Philadelphia, she noted to me that “we convict people on probabilities rather than absolute certainty, and we’ve executed people based on inferences from available evidence.” She argued that “the standard of proof being demanded” by people claiming it’s impossible to know whether Russia delivered the White House to Trump is “substantially higher than the standard of proof we ordinarily use in our lives.”
Her case is based on a growing body of knowledge about the electronic warfare waged by Russian trolls and hackers—whom she terms “discourse saboteurs”—and on five decades’ worth of academic studies about what kinds of persuasion can influence voters, and under what circumstances. Democracies around the world, she told me, have begun to realize that subverting an election doesn’t require tampering with voting machines. Extensive studies of past campaigns, Jamieson said, have demonstrated that “you can affect people, who then change their decision, and that alters the outcome.” She continued, “I’m not arguing that Russians pulled the voting levers. I’m arguing that they persuaded enough people to either vote a certain way or not vote at all.”
The effect of such manipulations could be momentous in an election as close as the 2016 race, in which Clinton got nearly 2.9 million more votes than Trump, and Trump won the Electoral College only because some eighty thousand votes went his way in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In two hundred and twenty-four pages of extremely dry prose, with four appendixes of charts and graphs and fifty-four pages of footnotes, Jamieson makes a strong case that, in 2016, “Russian masterminds” pulled off a technological and political coup. Moreover, she concludes, the American media “inadvertently helped them achieve their goals.”
Jamieson stops short of saying Trump was elected illegitimately, but does posit that without the Russian social media blitz and the American media that amplified the messages of chaos and doubt, Trump would have come up short in the electoral college. 80,000 votes out of 130 million is six-tenths of one percent, and yet that influence was decisive in those three states.
But the conclusion is clear: Without Russia, Donald Trump would have lost. What we as Americans choose to do with that information in the months and years ahead is up to us.