Russian Trolls Aren’t Actually Persuading Americans on Twitter, Study Finds

New research highlights a surprising barrier to hacking our democracy: filter bubbles

Will Oremus
Published in
5 min readNov 25, 2019


Credit: NurPhoto/Getty Images

WeWe know that Russian agents have been using social media to try to influence other countries’ politics since at least 2013. We know they’ve successfully posed as Americans to post divisive propaganda on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and we know they’ve generated significant engagement on all three platforms. They may have even managed to stage fake political rallies that real Americans attended.

But did they actually change people’s minds? A new study suggests that, at least on Twitter, the answer is no. And while there are limitations to the study’s methods, the authors offer a compelling theory of why that might be the case: The people most likely to interact with Russian trolls are the ones who were already the most entrenched in their partisan views.

The study, led by researchers from Duke University and published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to directly measure how tweets from Russian agents affected the political views of the Americans who encountered them. The researchers gave a panel of U.S. Twitter users a survey on their political attitudes in October 2017, then asked them the same questions again a month later. Next they looked at which of those users had interacted with accounts controlled by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, or IRA, in between taking the two surveys. They found that those who encountered IRA tweets showed no significant, discernible change in their political opinions, attitudes, or degree of political engagement as a result.

That finding is noteworthy in itself, because while much has been written on the scale, reach, and tactics of Russian bots and trolls seeking to interfere in U.S. politics, there has been little to no peer-reviewed research quantifying their actual impact. That’s notoriously hard to measure, leaving previous studies to grasp at murkier metrics like the number of likes or retweets Russian posts received. The authors were able to do so only because they had already been running a survey of Twitter users’ political views for other reasons, and because Twitter last year published…