‘Stolen election’ conspiracies are already spreading ahead of US midterms – POLITICO
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Get ready for Stop the Steal 2.0.
With less than a week to go until the Nov. 8 U.S. midterm elections, dozens of local groups in key battleground states like Arizona, Michigan and Georgia are spreading conspiracy theories about alleged voter fraud and are calling on voters to take action in person, according to a POLITICO review of social media activity over the past three months.
The lies, including accusations that ballots will be tampered with and right-wing voters will be disenfranchised, as well as concerns about real-world violence – fueled by high-profile figures including the former US President Donald Trump – reflect the so-called Stop the Stealing Movement in 2020, which saw right-wing activists organize via social media to accuse Joe Biden of stealing the presidential election.
Disinformation experts now fear that similar protests – and potentially violent confrontations between voters, police and elected officials – are all but inevitable given the level of widely shared false narratives ahead of next week’s vote. The stakes are high: control of both houses of the US Congress is at stake, and several non-election candidates are running for office, both state and national.
Another Jan. 6-style attack on Capitol Hill or nationwide protests are unlikely due to the local focus of the midterm elections. But online groups are already planning offline events in specific states after the vote and calling on others to join them based on unsubstantiated claims that the Democratic candidates will mainly try to rig the result.
“The calls for real violence after the midterms are real,” said Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which monitors repeated efforts to stage potential violence in Arizona, Michigan and in Georgia. “The fundamental lies that led to January 6 are gaining more and more traction as the midterm elections approach.”
Since August, POLITICO has 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 US presidential election was stolen from Trump. The analysis focused mainly on private groups – some of which have tens or even hundreds of thousands of followers – which have become hotbeds for conspiracy theories over the past two years.
POLITICO then worked with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks stories of voter fraud in specific swing states, including Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona. The researchers also analyzed tens of thousands of social media posts on at least six social networks like Telegram, Truth Social and Rumble, a fringe video-sharing platform. The group’s work focused on how state-focused online conspiracy groups had promoted bogus election denial claims, first to local audiences online and then across the country.
Drumbeat of denial
The steady drumbeat of election denial did not arise overnight.
After Trump’s loss in 2020, a cottage industry of online influencers – ranging from the MAGA movement to those with more extremist ideologies – sprung up, decrying what they called a “deep state” conspiracy. and claiming the election was stolen. This narrative – now known as the “Big Lie” – has garnered more mainstream attention and is now being repeated by many Republican midterm candidates.
Election-denying influencers have developed large followings on fringe social media platforms like Gab, Parler and Telegram after being banned from more mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter for spreading lies.
In daily posts, many of which are re-shared by like-minded, self-promoting users, they mix allegations about the midterm elections with other conspiracy theories like those associated with COVID-19, QAnon and the war in Ukraine, based on POLITICO’s criticism of tens of thousands of social media posts.
“Chinese companies that develop election software for the Chinese Communist Party with Huawei, China Telecom and China Unicom should not code American election software,” argued one such influencer, known online as Kanekoa. The Great, whose Telegram channel has more than 210,000 subscribers. The post has been viewed over 170,000 times.
Kanekoa, who did not respond to requests for comment, publishes almost exclusively right-wing voter fraud allegations, including that Beijing is responsible for widespread tampering with voting machines. They also post praise for Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, personal attacks on Biden, and unsubstantiated claims that COVID-19 is a man-made virus.
This online voter denial network, built over the past two years and accelerated during the pandemic as conspiracy theories have been unleashed, works to promote local accusations of voter fraud to a national audience, by s pressing internet culture like memes and reams of online content alleging a widespread conspiracy to undermine American democracy.
“A lot of these groups are local, but the networks are coordinated by people who have national visibility,” said Renée DiResta, head of research at the Stanford Internet Observatory and a member of the Election Integrity Partnership, a group academics, government officials and social media companies trying to counter the spread of election-related misinformation.
For many conspiracy theorists, the truth about voter fraud is right in front of them.
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue has tracked small networks of online users — some with fewer than 1,000 members on Telegram channels almost exclusively dedicated to voter fraud — in competitive states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Georgia. They posted grainy images of alleged, but unsubstantiated, allegations of ballot tampering. They pointed to legitimate voter registration errors as evidence of a conspiracy to disenfranchise right-wing voters. They accused the Democratic candidates of repeated voter 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, drawing the attention of Trump and others. other elected officials.
The initial accusation was shared with local Telegram groups with names like “Freedom Fighters of Central Wisconsin”. He was later picked up by Janel Brandtjen, a state official who promoted election denial views and used the unproven claims to argue for high vigilance around midterms. Finally, it was shared by Trump himself on Truth Social, his own social media network.
“Election rigged, what a waste,” the former president wrote in reference to the bogus Wisconsin charges, in a post shared more than 5,000 times.
Similar popular lies have also gained national notoriety. These include misinformation about voter registration errors in Arizona released by the official Twitter account the state Republican Party; claims dead people vote midterm in Michigan shared by Kristina Karamo, the Trump-backed Republican candidate for Secretary of State; and alleged irregularities in Dominion voting machines in Pennsylvania repeatedly published on Truth Social. Influencers and officials who deny the elections shared these lies – 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 tracked these election-denying narratives, said the state-level activity mirrors how the groups spread lies during the previous Stop campaign. the Steal and organized offline activities in response to alleged voting irregularities. The difference now, he added, was that many Holocaust deniers were running for office.
“Similarities [to Stop the Steal] are very clear,” O’Connor said. “There are groups trying to delegitimize the types of voting that favor Democrats.”
Online to offline
Not all online conspiracy theories lead to offline violence. But local Holocaust denial groups in Arizona, Georgia and Michigan are calling on disgruntled voters to descend on precincts next week and show up at the polls to ensure Democrats don’t swing the election unfairly in their favor. , based on POLITICO’s review of this social media activity and separate Atlantic Council research.
On a Telegram channel with just under 10,000 members and a focus on Michigan, Holocaust deniers shared maps where they claimed voter fraud could be taking place — mostly in Democratic-leaning parts of the state — and urged people to come forward in person to root out any wrongdoing. In Arizona, right-wing social media users shared tactics for organizing in-person protests against alleged wrongdoing in Maricopa County, a hotspot for election denial in 2020.
In Georgia, where a close Senate race could determine control of the chamber, Republican and Democratic candidates have warned of potential fraud. Several members of a Telegram channel favored by right-wing extremists have posted viral memes touting Second Amendment gun rights and saying violence may be necessary to protect people’s democratic freedoms.
“Don’t believe the lies,” one such right-wing social media user said on Telegram. “They are coming for our democracy. We have to be ready.”
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