Caitlin Johnstone: Walking Back the Russian Troll Scare

None of the news outlets that helped spread suspicion about Russian Twitter trolls helping Trump win the 2016 U.S. election is owning up to their hype or catching any flak. 

One-time home in St. Petersburg, Russia, of Internet Research Agency. (WikiMedia Commons)

By Caitlin Johnstone

Listen to a reading of this article.

Research conducted by New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics into Russian trolling behavior on Twitter in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election has found “no evidence of a meaningful relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior.”

Which is to say that all the years of shrieking about Russian trolls interfering in U.S. democracy and corrupting the fragile minds of Americans — a narrative that has been used to drum up support for internet censorship and ever-increasing U.S. government involvement in the regulation of online speech — was false.

And to be clear, this isn’t actually news. It was established years ago that the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency could not possibly have had any meaningful impact on the 2016 election, because the scope of its operations was quite small, its posts were mostly unrelated to the election and many were posted after the election occurred. Its funding was dwarfed by orders of magnitude by domestic campaigns to influence the election outcome.

What’s different now, six years after former President Donald Trump’s inauguration, is that this time the mass media are reporting on these findings.

The Washington Post has an article out with the brazenly misleading headline “Russian trolls on Twitter had little influence on 2016 voters.“ Anyone who reads the article itself will find its author Tim Starks acknowledges that “Russian accounts had no measurable impact in changing minds or influencing voter behavior,” but the insertion of the word “little” means anyone who just reads the headline (the overwhelming majority of people encountering the article) will come away with the impression that Russian trolls still had some influence on 2016 voters. 

“Little influence” could mean anything shy of tremendous influence. But the study did not find that Russian trolls had “little influence” over the election; it failed to find any measurable influence at all. 

Support CN’s  
Winter Fund Drive!

Starks does some spin work of his own in a bid to salvage the reputation of the ever-crumbling Russiagate narrative, eagerly pointing out that the report does not explicitly say Russia definitely had zero influence on the election’s outcome, that it doesn’t examine Russian trolling behavior on Facebook, that it doesn’t address “Russian hack-and-leak operations,” and that it “doesn’t suggest that foreign influence operations aren’t a threat at all.”

None of these are valid arguments. Claiming Russia definitely had no influence on the election would have been beyond the scope of the study. The report’s authors do in fact argue that the effects of Russian trolling on Facebook were likely the same as on Twitter, that the (still completely unproven) “Russian hack-and-leak operations” were outside the scope of the study, along with the question of whether foreign influence operations can be a threat in general.

[Related: Researchers Find Massive Anti-Russian ‘Bot Army’]

What Starks does not do is make any attempt to address the domination of mainstream news and punditry for years by claims that Russian internet trolls won the election for Donald Trump. He does not, for example, make any mention of his own 2019 Politico article telling readers that the Russian Twitter troll operation ahead of the 2016 election “was larger, more coordinated and more effective than previously known.”

Nor does Starks take the time to inform The Washington Post’s readership about the false reporting this story has received over the years from his fellow mainstream news media employees, like The Washington Post’s David Ignatius and his melodramatic description of the St. Petersburg troll farm as “a sophisticated, multilevel Russian effort to use every available tool of our open society to create resentment, mistrust and social disorder” in an article hysterically titled “How Russia used the Internet to perfect its dark arts.”

Or The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg in her article “Yes, Russian Trolls Helped Elect Trump,“ in which she argues that it looks increasingly as though the Internet Research Agency “changed the direction of American history.”

Or NBC’s Ken Dilanian (a known C.I.A. asset), who described Russian trolling on Twitter in the lead-up to the election as “a vast, coordinated campaign that was incredibly successful at pushing out and amplifying its messages,” a claim that was then repeated by The Washington Post. This is to pick just a few out of basically limitless possible examples.

Starks and his editors could easily have included this sort of information in the article. It would have greatly helped improve clarity and understanding among those in The Washington Post’s audience if they had.

It would have been entirely possible to clearly spell out how all those other reports appear to have been incorrect in light of this new information, or at least to acknowledge the glaring difference between this new report and previous reporting. It would do a lot of good for awareness to grow, especially among Washington Post readers, that there’s been a lot of inaccurate information circulating about Russia and the 2016 election these past several years.

But they didn’t. And nobody else in the mass media has done so either. Even The Intercept’s report on the same story, despite having the far more honest headline “Those Russian Twitter bots didn’t do $#!% in 2016, says new study,” doesn’t name any names or criticize any outlets for their inaccurate reporting on Russian trolls stealing the election for Trump.

Indeed, it’s very rare in the West to see mainstream journalists hold other mainstream journalists accountable for their false reporting, facilitation of propaganda, or journalistic malpractice, unless it’s journalists whose approval they don’t care about, such as members of the opposing political faction or independent media reporters.

The most important reporting a Western journalist can do is help expose the lies, propaganda and malpractice of other Western journalists and news outlets. But that is also the last thing a Western journalist is likely to do, because they seek praise and approval not from the public, but from other Western journalists.

You can see this in the way they post on Twitter, with their in-jokes and habit of cliquing up and beckoning and signaling to each other. Twitter is a great window through which to observe Western journalists, because they really lay it all out there.

Watch their bootlicking facilitation of status quo power, their ingratiating tail-wagging with each other, the way they gang up on dissenters like zealots burning a heretic. To see what I’m talking about you have to pay attention not to their viral tweets but to all the rest that receive little attention, because the ones that take off are the ones of public interest.

If you watch them carefully it becomes clear that for most of them the intended audience of the majority of their posts is not the public, but fellow members of the media class.

For a good illustration of this look at this Twitter conversation between Australian journalists right after the Ecuadorian embassy cut off Julian Assange’s internet access in 2018. Former ABC reporter Andrew Fowler (now a vocal supporter of Assange) questions ABC’s Michael Rowland for applauding Ecuador’s move, and ABC’s Lisa Millar rushes in to help Rowland argue that Assange is not a journalist and doesn’t deserve the solidarity of journalists, and that Fowler is putting himself on the outside of the groupthink consensus by claiming otherwise.

Millar and Rowland are part of the clique, Fowler is being ostracised from it and Assange is the heretic whose lynching they’re braying for:

Western journalists have a freakish herd-like mindset that makes the derision and rejection of their class the most nightmarish scenario possible and the approval of their class the most powerful opiate imaginable.

They’re terrified of other journalists turning against them, of being rejected by the people whose approval they crave like a drug, of being kicked out of the group chat. And that’s exactly what would happen if they began leveling valid criticisms at mass media propaganda in public. And that’s exactly why that doesn’t happen.

The Western media class is a cloistered circle that doesn’t care about creating an informed populace or holding the powerful to account. It cares about approval, inclusion and acclaim from its own ranks, regardless of what propagandistic reporting is required to obtain it.

The Pulitzers are mostly just a bunch of empire propagandists giving each other trophies for being good at empire propaganda.

A journalist with real integrity would spurn the approval of the media class. It would nauseate and repel them, because it would mean you’ve been aligning yourself with the most powerful empire in history and the propaganda machine which greases its wheels. They would actively make an enemy of the mainstream Western press.

Journalists without integrity — which is to say the overwhelming majority of journalists — do the opposite.

None of this will be news to any of my regular readers, who will likely understand that the role of the mass media is not to inform but to manufacture consent for the agendas and interests of our rulers. But we shouldn’t get used to it, or lose sight of how odious it is.

Caitlin Johnstone’s work is entirely reader-supported, so if you enjoyed this piece please consider sharing it around, following her on FacebookTwitterSoundcloudYouTube, or throwing some money into her tip jar on Ko-fiPatreon or Paypal. If you want to read more you can buy her books. The best way to make sure you see the stuff she publishes is to subscribe to the mailing list at her website or on Substack, which will get you an email notification for everything she publishes.  For more info on who she is, where she stands and what she’s trying to do with her platform, click here. All works are co-authored with her American husband Tim Foley.

This article is from and re-published with permission.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

Support CN’s  
Winter Fund Drive!

Donate securely by credit card or check by clicking the red button:


12 comments for “Caitlin Johnstone: Walking Back the Russian Troll Scare

  1. LeoSun
    January 16, 2023 at 01:18

    Repeat the Line: “The Kremlin’s Hand At Work”

    “Entrez s’il vous plait,” ROBERT MUELLER III, et al., who accused RUSSIA of mounting an “INFORMATION WARFARE” operation, in the 2016 Election, to benefit Trump & destroy HER, Hilary.

    “The Russian firm accused the special counsel of ‘pettifoggery.’

    AND, TIM STARKS does NOT “make any mention” of, POLITICO’s reporting of MAY 6, 2018, ROBERT MUELLER piss’n his pants. The IRA’s lawyers are in D.C., demanding PROOF that “three (3) Russian companies &13 Russian citizens were using social media and other means to foment strife among Americans in advance of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

    Mueller panicked, groveled & begged the Court to delay the first hearing. The Federal Judge, DENIED the panic stricken criminal posing as $pecial Counsel, his request. She, the judge, f/knew:,

    1. “The 13 people charged in the high-profile indictment in February, were considered unlikely to EVER appear in a U.S. court.
    2. The three businesses accused of facilitating the alleged Russian troll farm operation — the Internet Research Agency, Concord Management, and Concord Catering — were also expected to simply ignore the American criminal proceedings.”

    “Welcome to The Malarky Factory.” The State of The Union’s EXTREME decline accelerates. The ebbs and flows of the OLDigarch’s “golden” years, posing as POTUS, masquerading as Human, days are spent shuffling, fumbling, yapp’n & yell’n. Concluding, “A Parasite CANNOT Live Alone,” i.e., Mueller, OhBama, DJTrump, Hilary, Biden-Harris, the AOCs/The Squad + 2, the MSM have always captured the minds and the hearts of the masses. This is how their actions are able to move forward, under the guise of good will.

    Imo, it’s one colossal cluster fluck!!! The moral is, “A body of men & women holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”

  2. CNfan
    January 14, 2023 at 23:38

    Analyst Garland Nixon recently noted that the American corporate press is essentially waging “an information war against the American people”.

    Their coverups for the crimes of the oligarchy are legion. They are not covering the Twitter file revelations of government “security” agencies directing Twitter censorship, in blatant violation of the 1st Amendment. They are covering up the Ray Epps story, and the January 6th committee’s complete coverup of tht story. They are covering up the disappearance of 70% of the weapons sent to Ukraine, and it’s being the most corrupt country in Europe. They are covering up the wrecking of American society resulting from the oligarchy’s corrupting of society. And, of course, they are covering up their own corruption.

    In the interest of truthful branding, I’d suggest the following revisions:

    ABC American Broadcasting Criminals
    CBS Criminal Broadcasting System
    NBC National Broadcasting Criminals

    are proud to present the Evening Lies, with anchor Con Artist.

    Here’s an excellent discussion of the media, the destruction of America, and the Ukraine battlefront in America’s war against Russia.
    Command upgrade w/Larry Johnson

  3. Burt
    January 14, 2023 at 22:35

    Is it me, or does the entirety of mainstream media seem like one big psy-op?

  4. Piotr Berman
    January 14, 2023 at 18:48

    Thanks for reminding me about “a sophisticated, multilevel Russian effort to use every available tool of our open society to create resentment, mistrust and social disorder”. Back then, it sounded VERY WEIRD to me. Is amity, trust and social order axiomatically good? Isn’t it the trinity very much favored by fascists, especially the southern versions, “Giovinezza” etc.?

    For example, American policy has a rather disconcerting propensity to kill people in variety of situation. Even in my peaceful town, an un-armed guy with a mental problem was killed in his home, behaved erratically, did not follow orders… And precisely raising of this issue was one of several cited as nefarious trollish influence. Perhaps this is not a major issue, only several percent of homicides in USA, but is amity, trust and following orders the only thing to be done?

  5. Greg S
    January 14, 2023 at 17:48

    The Russiagate narrative was so implausible that I just assumed anyone pushing it was acting completely in bad faith. Legions of American political consultants charges billions in fees to advise campaigns, but all Trump had to do was collude with Russian troll farms and the election was his. Sheer lunacy.

  6. lester
    January 14, 2023 at 15:12

    Why did so many believe in the ridiculous Russiagage story? Narrative creation, as described by CJ in her daily newsletters.

    Thanks, Cailyn.

  7. jamie
    January 14, 2023 at 09:47

    There were already many people back in 2017- who did not buy the “Russian influence” narrative. I have read thousands of comments in social media from people (from a variety of ideological affiliations) who did not quite believe the Russia propaganda had a real impact on the election outcome, that a mind can hardly be changed (only reinforced) once it has been shaped by some idea of order, security, and value. Maybe some of those people did not want to believe Russia had so much power, who knows, still… “lost minds” (disappointed, deceived, betrayed by the systems) are more careful, more ready to question everything and anything, perhaps more fearful/vulnerable/socially uncomfortable in some way but free with an opening mind in another. The beautiful thing is that “lost minds” are growing exponentially today, especially with news like this, yet another lie, making this era one of the most exciting moment in human history to be part of. I see beautiful things ahead despite the mess… and maybe thanks to the mess

  8. DHFabian
    January 14, 2023 at 00:32

    In the US, anyone who criticized Hillary Clinton and the Democrat right wing was labelled a “Russian troll.” Were any actual “Russia trolls” somehow hypnotizing twitter users into voting Blue/Red? The more you think about it, the less sense it makes, and the more it just looks like Democrats pushing for political censorship of social media.

  9. Diane Rejman
    January 13, 2023 at 15:46

    Yea – the Washington Post Pulitzer should be revoked.
    Thanks for writing this. I was one of the few who never believed this crap in the first place!

  10. shmutzoid
    January 13, 2023 at 14:05

    Another gem from Johnstone. Of course, despite the weak mea culpas from corporate journalists, the general public will still have minds fixed on ‘Russian hacking of elections’ . What is that old saying? —–> “A lie will travel around the world before the truth has a chance to put on its pants”. ……… How many of you have heard (and will still hear) someone say, “Russia interfered with our elections! – all 17 intelligence agencies said so” . (never mind that it was actually a few hand-picked agents from THREE agencies who issued that bit of propaganda)

    Many of us knew in real time Russiagate was nothing more than a concerted campaign to: 1) deflect attention away from Clinton’s horribly run race for President….. 2) whip up anti-Russia hysteria while portraying Trump as ‘Putin’s puppet’.

    Russigate – probably a CIA psy-op – was a gambit to prepare the populace for eventual war on Russia. The demonization of all things Russian and Putin, specifically, was underway!

    • DHFabian
      January 14, 2023 at 00:35

      Recall that Russiagate was launched in early 2017 as a Democrat effort to overturn the 2016 election. With much help from the liberal media, the tale flew out of control.

    • Greg S
      January 14, 2023 at 17:52

      Yes, the famous “all 17 intel agencies concur” — one of which is the Coast Guard’s miniscule intel branch. I always wondered why the Republicans didn’t summon the Coast Guard commander before a committee and ask him what the Coast Guard’s analysis of Russian election meddling showed. Then do the Marine Corps, the Navy, etc.

Comments are closed.