The torrent of misinformation that hit American democracy on Tuesday showed how myths accumulated over the past two years have created an alternative online ecosystem where all adverse election results are suspect.
Paranoia and the pre-emptive effort to discredit midterm exam results may have found their clearest expression in a headline on a website devoted to spreading conspiracy theories about the pro-Trump Capitol seat. American on January 6, 2021, an attack powered largely by online misinformation. “Expect theft,” the website warned.
This expectation is no longer a marginal vision. It is a political doctrine for whole sections of the country.
Trump’s ‘big lie’ fueled a new generation of social media influencers
“We’re not looking at single stories or misrepresentations here and there that go viral,” said Cindy Otis, a former CIA technology officer and analyst who now studies disinformation. “We look at entire social media platforms, independent news commentary websites and social media influencers who start from a place where ‘elections are rigged against conservatives’ and cover the election from there. “
In some cases, the online conversation included calls for violence.
The encouragement to storm count sites in Georgia came in response to news that the mail-in ballot deadline had been extended for some Cobb County voters following a logistical hiccup, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremists online. On The Donald, where much of the planning for the Jan. 6 Capitol siege took place, some posters called on supporters in Georgia to “be ready to lock and load” around election offices in case of “scheming.”
One user replied, “I hope for your sake you are ready to follow through and not go back. Because soon there will be no second chances. Wrote another, “We won’t do that again s—!”
Problems with machines at some polling places in Maricopa County, home to more than half of Arizona’s voters, have become water for prominent right-wing voices who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election to assert without evidence that Tuesday’s vote was also fraudulent. County officials stress that ballots were not misread but rather rejected, and that voters had several options to ensure their choices were reflected in the results.
Those who preemptively suggested that something nefarious was happening included Blake Masters, the Republican candidate for the US Senate from Arizona. Masters, who is vying to unseat Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Arizona), was the most prominent candidate to amp up suspicion, portraying incidents of mechanical errors as part of a Democratic scheme. “Hard to know if we are seeing incompetence or something worse,” he wrote. “All we know right now is that Democrats are hoping you get discouraged and go home.”
Arizona Republicans were also quick to paint the incidents as part of a national problem, though their claims contradict the facts.
A post from a Twitter account with about 30 followers, claiming voting machines were also malfunctioning in Bell County, Texas, gained attention after being shared by Arizona GOP Chairman Kelli Ward . “It’s not just happening in Arizona…” she wrote. This tweet, in turn, inspired a headline on the Gateway Pundit website. “THE FIX HAS ARRIVED!” » the claimed site.
None of this was true. James Stafford, a Bell County spokesman, told the Washington Post there was no problem with the voting machines, but rather the recording machines, which briefly failed to connect in eight of the county’s 42 voting centers. The issues were resolved early Tuesday morning, Stafford said, and county officials extended voting time by an hour to give residents additional opportunities to vote.
Efforts by election officials to set expectations for how long it will take to count ballots have also fueled right-wing conspiracy theories.
On the former president’s Twitter clone, Truth Social, his son, Donald Trump Jr., posted a collage of headlines explaining that it’s okay for the vote count to last all night and said, “Vote for overwhelm those bulls—.”
The 2020 tabulation process — and the “red mirage” of early votes suggesting a Republican victory, only for subsequent polls to shift to the Democrats — has become an item of right-wing suspicion, even as count delays mail-outs and other ballots are largely the result of decisions by Republican states not to count mail-in ballots before Election Day.
The anticipated delay in the counting of ballots, especially in close races, could lead to “a long period of uncertainty” that could incubate rumors, said Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington who studies online misinformation. Due to the sustained attacks on the election administration, she added, “the pump is already primed” for voters to believe such rumours.
After initially refusing to take action against a flurry of claims that a multi-day count would allow Democrats to cheat, Twitter has applied info boxes to some of the most popular posts. “Democrats say it could take days and weeks to count mail-in ballots,” wrote one right-wing commenter, earning thousands of engagements, which means retweets or likes. “Looks like they need time to cheat.”
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Social media platforms were divided on Tuesday in their approach to moderating identical content posted online.
This year, GOP deniers got a free pass from Twitter and Facebook
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, refused to remove or add context to a misleading video, captured during the Texas primary in March, which is now recirculating on its platforms with unsubstantiated claims of suppressed votes from the GOP in Tuesday’s election.
The video captured a poll worker appearing to tell Republicans they couldn’t vote due to understaffing. The parties were responsible for recruiting the electoral judges, who had to be on site for the polls to take place.
An Instagram account run by a news agency that says it caters to Jewish readers reposted the video without any context about the time or location of the alleged trouble. When watchdog group Common Cause reported the video to Meta, the company responded that the content did not violate its policies, according to communications reviewed by The Washington Post. A Meta spokesperson declined to comment on the video, which had minimal engagement on the platform.
Twitter took a different decision regarding the same video, applying a label informing users that the content “is presented out of context”. Yet one of the posts sharing the misleading claims gained over 5,000 retweets.
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