Online disinformation and propaganda do not have to be particularly effective at duping voters or directly altering electoral outcomes in order to be fundamentally toxic to a well-functioning democracy, though. The rise of disinformation and propaganda undermines some of the essential governance norms that constrain the behavior of our political elites. It is entirely possible that the current disinformation disorder will render the country ungovernable despite barely convincing any mass of voters to cast ballots that they would not otherwise have cast.
Much of the attention paid by researchers, journalists, and elected officials to online disinformation and propaganda has assumed that these disinformation campaigns are both large in scale and directly effective. This is a bad assumption, and it is an unnecessary assumption. We need not believe digital propaganda can “hack” the minds of a fickle electorate to conclude that digital propaganda is a substantial threat to the stability of American democracy. And in promoting the narrative of IRA’s direct effectiveness, we run the risk of further exacerbating this threat. The danger of online disinformation isn’t how it changes public knowledge; it’s what it does to our democratic norms.