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University of Tennessee researchers find Russian organization influenced opinion polls

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NASHVILLE, Tenn.--A new study of Russian influence in the 2016 election by researchers from the University of Tennessee finds activity by the Internet Research Agency (IRA) on social media influenced U.S. election polls.

Published Monday in First Monday, a peer-reviewed journal on the internet, the researchers examined activity by the IRA, an Russian-controlled organization cited by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as controlling social media accounts in an effort to interfere with the 2016 election.

Researchers looked at the polling data during the 2016 presidential election and compared it to the numbers of ret-tweets or likes of IRA tweets on Twitter. They found as the IRA re-tweet volume changed, so did the poll numbers in favor for then candidate Trump.

"As the popularity of presidential candidates ebbed and flowed during the 2016 campaign, changes in opinion poll numbers for Trump were consistently preceded by corresponding changes in IRA re-tweet volume," researchers state. Based on the data, researchers found for every 25,000 re-tweets, the Republican candidate saw a 1% increase in opinion polls.

However, they did not find it likely the tweets were the only factor, stating Twitter was "just a subset of a larger disinformation campaign carried out on multiple social media platforms."

The paper goes on to warn of the continued threat disinformation can have on future elections. "Here we have presented evidence that social media disinformation can measurably change public opinion polls. Though we focused on a particular high-profile example in 2016, social media propaganda is a growing problem affecting voting populations around the world, regardless of affiliation, and ought to be given serious attention in the future."

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Researchers are hoping future studies will examine not just social media, but all media which can be affected by disinformation and it's effects on the opinions and behaviors of people.

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