On Wednesday, around 40 members of the Yale community gathered in the Whitney Humanities Center to watch  Kathleen Jamieson, a professor in the Annenberg School for Commnication at the University of Pennsylvani, talk about the impact Russian hackers had on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In a talk titled “How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President — What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know,” concentrated on how Russian propaganda impacted the news agenda and results of the presidential campaign.

“Russian hackers affected press agenda during critical times because their message aligned with anxiety [toward] social change,” Jamieson said.

In her talk, Jamieson emphasized the role that “magnified fears of cultural change” in the U.S. played in the election. She noted, for instance, a Washington Post article which broke down how white working class voters who said they “often feel like a stranger in their own land” and believed that the United States needed protection against foreign influence during the run up to the 2016 election were three and a half times more likely to favor Trump versus voters who did not share their concerns.

She added that social media limitations, such as the obscured identities of authors and an “echo chamber” phenomenon within politicized communities made the election more vulnerable to online influence.

Jamieson conceded that she cannot definitively say whether President Trump colluded with the Kremlin.

Still, she added that most of the Russian content on social media was not pro-Trump, but rather anti-Hillary Clinton LAW ’73.

“Putin blames Clinton for mass Russian reactions to one of his earlier elections, [claiming] that something she said triggered the mob against him,” Jamieson said, referring to the anti-Putin protests held in Russia between 2011 and 2012.

Jamieson said that she cannot determine if the outcome of the election would have been different without the Russian influence, but she added that they influenced the public’s perception of Clinton nonetheless. 

She also noted that each party could use social media to target voters of its own.

She said that the U.S. press were an “unwitting accomplice” in the Russian efforts, since the media picked up ill-gotten information leaked online by hackers and other politically motivated agents.

For example, news networks cited a quote from one of Clinton’s paid speeches, which was published on Wikileaks.

“My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders,” the quote read.

This drew public criticism about Clinton’s immigration policy, even though the speech had been in reference to opening borders for energy trade.

Jamieson said that in preparation for the 2020 presidential election, she would like to see an international agreement on cyber defense signed and media literacy initiatives implemented for the public.

“Social media platforms have put protections to minimize outside intervention, but they’re not foolproof,” she said. “It’s very important for the press to determine how it will treat hacked content.”

Sarah Grube ’22, who attended the event, said the talk was “really interesting” and gave her “a slightly more in-depth” explanation of Russian interference in the election.

“I was very impressed, she presented a huge amount of material,” said Suzanne Boorsch, a former curator at Yale University Art Gallery. “I had not thought all that much about the shortcomings of the press.”

Jamieson came to speak at Yale as part of the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, which was founded in 1971 to bring distinguished journalists to campus.

Samuel Turner  | samuel.turner@yale.edu