Disinformation Machine for Trump Targets Remaining Swing States

As the presidential election narrowed to a few key states, supporters of President Donald Trump began spreading false claims about election improprieties that favored Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

In Arizona, users on Facebook and YouTube have been inundated with a video of a resident who says local poll workers forced voters to use Sharpies instead of pens to mark their ballots, suggesting that would disqualify them. It turns out, Sharpies work just fine on scanners in Maricopa County. The campaign has been dubbed #SharpieGate.

In Michigan, Biden was accused of receiving a boost in polls because of a typo in results coming from Shiawassee County that added an extra 100,000 votes to his total. The error was swiftly corrected, but users on social media are citing it as proof of a fix to steal the election.

And in Wisconsin, Trump supporters claim the mail-in ballots that propelled Biden to victory early Wednesday were all fraudulent. Some social media users alleged that more votes were cast in the presidential race in Wisconsin than there are registered voters.

The false claims are part of a larger effort to undermine the legitimacy of the vote, a battle stoked by Trump’s brazen early morning claim of victory and his demand that the vote counting stop. It’s likely to drag out in courts for weeks and on social media far longer, said Alex Stamos, a former Facebook Inc. chief security officer who is now director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, which is leading a multiparty coalition tracking election-related disinformation.

As the electoral map shifts to these handful of swing states, “so does the reach of disinformation now tied to specific scenarios in those places,” Stamos said. These campaigns will likely evolve even further as the Trump administration begins challenging electoral results in court, giving operators on social media yet another opportunity to “recycle their bag of disinformation,” he said.

Despite the efforts in swing states, election-related misinformation was surprisingly light on Election Day and the hours immediately following it. In the 24 hours starting at 9 a.m. on Nov. 3, there were 1.4 million mentions of misinformation -- either false claims or tweets, articles or other drivers of the narrative -- spread across social and traditional media, broadcast and online sites, according to the media intelligence platform Zignal Labs Inc. That compares with 2.2 million mentions in the same period a week earlier and 2.3 million two weeks before.

Still, some of the president’s supporters tried to stir up doubt about the vote as counting continues in swing states. For instance, Steve Deace, a conservative activist and radio talk show host, tweeted Wednesday morning, “When you went to bed Trump was ahead and the counting miraculously stopped. When you woke up it resumed, with Biden garnering Chavez-like totals in the dead of night. This is a coup.” It is an apparent reference to late Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chavez.

The idea that Democrats would somehow steal the election has been fostered by Trump for months, but it appears to be gaining traction as the race comes down to a few states.

Beginning at 8 p.m. on election night and continuing over the next 13 hours, there were more than 415,000 mentions of “steal” or “stealing” in relation to the election on popular social media platforms, according to Zignal Labs. The mentions were highest in relation to the swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, according to the company.

Many posts claiming electoral fraud have included reference to a now popular hashtage “#StopTheSteal” and “The Fix Is In,” according to the Election Integrity Partnership, the disinformation coalition that includes researchers at Stanford, the University of Washington, the Atlantic Research Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab and Graphika Inc., a company that analyzes social media. The hashtag #StopTheSteal was first adopted as polls opened on Election Day and received more than 25,000 retweets when it was shared alongside a video of an alleged poll watcher wrongly barred from a Pennsylvania polling station.

“Given the growing popularity and malleability of both phrases, we expect them to continue to bolster delegitimizing narratives by tying together various disconnected and unfounded claims of fraud until official results are announced,” the Election Integrity Partership wrote in a blog on Wednesday.

An analysis on Wednesday evening of how the “Stop the Steal” hashtag spread shows that Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, was a primary driver. He used the hashtag in a post reiterating the story about Sharpies in Arizona, and his account was a central part of a cluster of accounts amplifying the hashtag, according to data from Indiana University’s social media mapping tool Hoaxy. Schlapp didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Twitter began monitoring the hashtag #StopTheSteal and related tweets early on Tuesday and have continued to do so. If they find violations of Twitter’s rules, they will take enforcement action accordingly, according to a company spokesman.

Trump doubled-down on his attack early Wednesday morning in speech from the East Room of the White House, when he claimed he was on the cusp of winning Michigan and falsely declared victory in the presidential election. At the same time, he said the election was being stolen as part of a conspiracy to keep him out of office, even as millions of ballots were still being counted in battleground states.

On Twitter, the comedian Cristela Alonzo questioned the idea of Democrats stealing the vote. “People think Dems are rigging the election but didn’t bother to take over the Senate?”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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