Monday, May 29, 2023

‘Stolen election’ conspiracies already spreading ahead of US midterm

‘Stolen election’ conspiracies already spreading ahead of US midterm

POLITICO analysis shows election deniers already spreading doubts about the integrity of the November 8 vote.

With less than a week before the U.S. midterm elections on November 8, scores of local groups in key battleground states like Arizona, Michigan and Georgia are spreading conspiracy theories about alleged election fraud and calling on voters to take in-person action, based on POLITICO's review of social media activity over the last three months.

The falsehoods, which appear on mainstream networks like Facebook and Twitter as well as fringe platforms, include accusations that ballots will be tampered with and right-wing voters will be disenfranchised, as well as threats of real-world violence. Some of these allegations are fueled by high-profile figures, including former U.S. President Donald Trump.

In many ways, the activity mirrors the so-called Stop the Steal movement in 2020.

For months before that movement erupted in November protests across the country and on the National Mall on January 6, right-wing activists were peddling unsubstantiated claims on social media that accused Joe Biden and other Democratic politicians of rigging and plotting to steal the presidential election.

That election-denying rhetoric, which began months ahead of the 2020 election, eventually led to nationwide protests — primarily organized online by MAGA-supporting groups — that promoted local allegations of election fraud to disgruntled voters in key swing states.

Misinformation experts now worry that similar protests — and potentially violent confrontations between voters, police and elected officials — are almost inevitable given the level of false narratives being shared widely ahead of next week’s vote.

“Calls for actual violence after the midterms are real,” said Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which has been monitoring repeated efforts to organize potential violence in Arizona, Michigan and Georgia. “The foundational lies that lead to January 6 are increasingly gaining ground in the lead-up to the midterms.”

The stakes are high: Control over both chambers of the U.S. Congress hangs in the balance and multiple election-denying candidates are standing for office, at both the state and national levels.

Another January 6-type attack against Capitol Hill or nationwide protests are unlikely, according to the Atlantic Council's Brookie, because midterm elections focus on local and state candidates, and not who controls the White House.

But online groups are already planning offline events in specific states after the vote and are calling on others to join them based on unfounded claims that primarily Democratic candidates will try to rig the outcome.

Since August, POLITICO reviewed tens of thousands of social media posts across encrypted-messaging service Telegram, Gab, Parler, Truth Social, Facebook and Twitter, including those written by predominantly right-wing voters who believe the 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen from Trump. The analysis focused primarily on private groups — some of which have tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of followers — that have become crucibles for conspiracy theories over the last two years.

POLITICO subsequently worked with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank tracking election fraud narratives in specific swing states, including Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona. The researchers similarly analyzed tens of thousands of social media posts across at least six social networks such as Telegram, Truth Social and Rumble, a fringe video-sharing platform. The group’s work focused on pinpointing how state-focused online conspiracy groups had promoted false election-denial claims, first to local online audiences and then across the nation.

Facebook and Twitter, both of which have content moderation policies intended to prevent the spread of disinformation, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. (POLITICO’s analysis was before Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter closed last week.)

On a call with civil society groups Wednesday, Musk promised to clamp down on election-related misinformation, according to three individuals who participated in that discussion. In a blog post, Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, said the company’s focus was on stopping voter interference, providing reliable information to voters and offering transparency tools to track online political ads.

Smaller and fringe platforms like Gab, Parler and Telegram either do not moderate content, or deliberately do not police misinformation because they believe it is an unfair infringement on people’s free speech.

Denial drumbeat

The steady drumbeat of election denial did not spring up overnight.

Following Trump’s 2020 loss, a cottage industry of online influencers — running the gamut from the MAGA movement to those with more extremist ideologies — sprouted up, decrying what they called a “deep state” conspiracy and claiming the election was stolen. That narrative — now known as “the Big Lie” — has gained more mainstream attention, and is now repeated by numerous Republican midterm candidates.

Election-denying influencers have developed large followings on fringe social networking platforms like Gab, Parler and Telegram after being banned from more mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter for spreading falsehoods.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump rally in Washington, DC, on November 14, 2020. - Supporters are backing Trump's claim that the November 3 election was fraudulent.

In daily posts, many of which are reshared by self-promoting, like-minded users, they blend allegations about the midterm elections with other conspiracy theories like those associated with 1COVID1-19, QAnon and the war in Ukraine, based on POLITICO’s reviews of tens of thousands of social media posts.

“The Chinese companies that develop election software for the Chinese Communist Party with Huawei, China Telecom, and China Unicom should not be coding U.S. election software,” argued one of these influencers, known online as Kanekoa The Great, whose Telegram channel has more than 210,000 followers. The post was viewed more than 170,000 times.

Kanekoa, who did not respond to requests for comment, almost exclusively posts right-wing allegations of election fraud, including that Beijing is responsible for widespread voting-machine tampering. They also post praise for Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, personal attacks against Biden and unfounded claims that 1COVID1-19 is a manmade virus.

This online election-denying network, built over the past two years and fast-tracked during the pandemic as conspiracy theories ran wild, works to promote local accusations of voter fraud to a national audience, relying on internet culture like memes and reams of online content alleging a widespread conspiracy to undermine U.S. democracy.

“Many of these groups are local, but the networks are coordinated by people who have visibility on a national level,” said Renée DiResta, research manager at Stanford’s Internet Observatory and part of the Election Integrity Partnership, a group of academics, public officials and social media companies trying to combat the spread of election-related misinformation.

Grassroots growth

For many conspiracy theory believers, the truth about election fraud is right in front of their eyes.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue tracked small networks of online users — some with fewer than 1,000 members in Telegram channels almost exclusively dedicated to election fraud — in competitive states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Georgia. They posted grainy images of suspected, but unfounded, claims of ballot tampering. They highlighted legitimate voter-registration errors as proof of a conspiracy to disenfranchise right-wing voters. They accused Democratic candidates of repeated electoral fraud.

In Wisconsin, for example, a local election denier falsely claimed on Telegram last month that local voting machines may have been tampered with by a left-leaning nonprofit, gaining the attention of Trump and other elected officials.

The initial accusation was shared with local Telegram groups with names like “Freedom Fighters of Central Wisconsin.” It was then picked up by Janel Brandtjen, a state official who has promoted election denial views and used the unproven claims to argue for great vigilance around the midterms. Finally, it was reshared by Trump himself on Truth Social, his own social media network.

“Rigged Election, what a mess,” the former president wrote in reference to the false accusations from Wisconsin, in a post shared more than 5,000 times.

Similar grassroots-based falsehoods have also gained national prominence.

These include misinformation about voter-registration errors in Arizona spread by the official Twitter account of the state’s Republican Party; claims that dead people are voting in the midterms in Michigan shared by Kristina Karamo, the Trump-backed Republican candidate for secretary of state; and alleged irregularities in Dominion voting machines in Pennsylvania posted repeatedly on Truth Social. Election-denying influencers and officials have reshared these falsehoods — first posted on fringe platforms — on mainstream networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Ciaran O’Connor, a senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who has been monitoring these election-denying narratives, said this state-level activity mirrors how groups spread falsehoods during the earlier Stop the Steal campaign and organized offline activity in response to alleged voting irregularities.

The difference now, he added, was that many election deniers were running for office with the likelihood that, following the midterm election, some of these candidates would be in positions of power to either overturn election results or find other ways to undermine democratic processes.

“The similarities [to Stop the Steal] are very clear,” said O’Connor. “Groups are trying to delegitimize types of voting that favor Democrats.”

Online to offline

Not all online conspiracy theories lead to offline violence. But local election-denying groups in Arizona, Georgia and Michigan are calling for disgruntled voters to descend on precincts next week and turn up at ballot dropbox locations to ensure that Democrats don’t tilt the election unfairly in their favor, based on POLITICO’s review of this social media activity and separate research from the Atlantic Council.

On one Telegram channel with just under 10,000 members and a focus on Michigan, election deniers shared maps where they claimed electoral fraud could take place — primarily in Democratic-leaning parts of the state — and urged people to turn up in person to root out any wrongdoing. In Arizona, right-wing social media users shared tactics for staging in-person protests against alleged irregularities in Maricopa County, an election-denial hotspot in 2020.

In Georgia, where a tight Senate race could determine control of the chamber, both Republican and Democratic candidates have warned against potential fraud. Several members of a Telegram channel favored by right-wing extremists posted viral memes touting Second Amendment gun rights and arguing that violence may be needed to protect people’s democratic freedoms.

“Don’t believe the lies,” said one of these right-wing social media users on Telegram. “They are coming for our democracy. We have to be ready.”


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