Over the past 72 hours, it’s become increasingly clear that there are two different elections: the actual 2020 presidential election; and the one living in the heads of Trump supporters. The actual 2020 presidential election is a slow-moving beast, the arduous process of vote-counting (and, possibly, recounting) in crucial swing states. Then there’s the election as experienced by Trump supporters, which is characterized by dastardly Democrats, rabidly violent far-left protesters, and hyper-calculating poll workers with a predilection for permanent markers.
In the very early hours of the election, Trump’s supporters attempted to sow fear and panic by spreading completely unfounded rumors of antifa and Back Lives Matter protesters taking to the streets and committing violence; when it became clear that wasn’t happening, they switched tack, pushing unfounded narratives of voter fraud and general malfeasance in crucial swing states. “There’s just an avalanche of stuff. Frankly our team can’t keep up,” says Aimee Rinehart, deputy director for First Draft, an organization that tracks harmful misinformation.
Jen Grygiel, assistant professor of communication at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, puts it another way: over the past few days, the information ecosystem on social media has been a “hot mess.” “The platforms had to look like they were doing something going into this election, because we had broad knowledge of the negative impact of misinformation. But that doesn’t mean they were effective,” Grygiel says. As the president himself started taking to social media to erroneously declare victory and spread propaganda, platforms such as Facebook’s failure to curb misinformation has come into increasingly sharp relief. “We needed them to step up and make sure he wasn’t able to interfere,” they say. “They’ve done it sloppily.”
It certainly doesn’t help that, in his own address to the nation, President Trump regurgitated many of these talking points, further stoking tensions and emboldening his supporters. During his speech, he ranted at length about the supposed illegitimacy of mail-in votes (a claim that has been debunked repeatedly for months) and made reference to online rumors about vote-counting stations’ windows being covered up to obstruct observers’ view into the process (an action that was only taken by poll workers in Detroit because observers were violating rules against taking photos of the process, according to the New York Times.) All of these claims were made without proof and seemingly only with the intention of undermining the democratic process.
The long-term dangers of his conspiracy theorizing cannot be overestimated. “This stuff doesn’t have to be accepted wholly by the mainstream for it to be effective. All it has to do is insinuate doubt, so you can never quite trust things,” says Rinehart. “This doubt about institutions, that groundwork was laid in March around the pandemic: ‘You can’t trust Fauci, you can’t trust the mainstream media.’ It’s brick by brick this stuff is built.”
As the votes in crucial swing states come in and the odds increasingly favor Biden, Trump supporters — from the fringes of the internet to the highest echelons of power — are growing desperate, throwing different threadbare narratives aimed at delegitimizing the election against the wall in an effort to see which ones stick. Big tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been struggling to keep up, and many disinformation and misinformation experts are concerned about their ability to do so as national tensions mount. “Unlike in 2016 when we were like, ‘I’m pretty sure it’s Russia [spreading misinformation], you get into 2020 and it’s like, I’m pretty sure it’s us,” says Rinehart. “We’re against each other in a way we haven’t been.”
Perhaps the first conspiracy theory to gain real mainstream traction was Sharpiegate, or the idea that voters in Maricopa County, Arizona were being handed Sharpies by poll workers in order to invalidate their ballots and render them illegible. The claim initially took root following a viral Facebook video posted on Election Night featuring a woman who claimed to have been given a Sharpie by poll workers, suggesting in the video that votes written in Sharpie didn’t scan on the ballot machine. The official Twitter account for Pima County debunked such reports, claiming they were “false” and that ballot machines can indeed tabulate votes cast in Sharpie; Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs also confirmed this. But that didn’t stop the claim from quickly spreading across social media, such as the now-defunct #StopTheSteal Facebook group, which amassed more than 350,000 followers before it was shut down by Facebook for featuring violence-inciting rhetoric. Despite being repeatedly debunked, Sharpiegate memes continue to be shared by MAGA accounts and have prompted an onslaught of threats to election officials.
The felt-tip pen ballot controversy burning through social media is false. Don't get caught up in it. Arizona ballot tabulating machines can read ballots marked with a felt tip pen. Felt pens are discouraged because the ink can bleed through. 1/3
— Official Pima County (@pimaarizona) November 4, 2020
2. Dead voters
On November 4th, an anonymous poster on 4chan’s /pol/ board, a bastion of racism and anti-Semitism, posted an image supposedly from a vote-counting location in Michigan that showed the birth dates of various voters as 1/1/1900, making them at least 120 years old. This claim was quickly boosted by a prominent QAnon influencer on Twitter, then making the rounds on other social media platforms before it was retweeted by Trump 2020 propagandist Boris Epshteyn and Donald Trump Jr. (echoing the trajectory of other types of misinformation, which originated on fringe message boards before being signal-boosted by government elite figures with millions of followers.) Similar claims also immediately started spreading about dead voters rising up and casting ballots for Biden in Texas and Pennsylvania. The Michigan Department of State quickly refuted this claim, calling it “misinformation” and saying that ballots from deceased voters are rejected on sight, and the image was likely a result of a records error. But that didn’t stop it from gaining tens of thousands of retweets on Twitter and continuing to circulate as of Friday morning.
3. Burnt ballots
One of the primary vectors of disinformation has been none other than Eric Trump, who on November 4th tweeted a video initially posted by a QAnon account purporting to show burning ballots cast for his father. Local officials in Virginia Beach, Virginia said the ballots in question were not official ballots but sample ballots, pointing to the lack of official barcodes on the ballots in the video. Yet the claim continued to circulate on Facebook, even after Twitter suspended the original account behind the video.
4. A secret sting operation
One of the more elaborate claims circulating on social media has been the QAnon-pushed allegation that President Trump is working with the Department of Homeland Security to watermark official ballots in an effort to entrap Democrats to catch them committing voter fraud, and that many mail-in ballots counted as votes for Biden did not contain this watermark. The phrase “watch the water,” which was used in a nearly-two-year-old Q “drop,” or post, was cited as “evidence” for this claim. This claim particularly gained traction on Facebook and on TikTok, a platform that has not been scrutinized as heavily as a potential vector for misinformation but has nonetheless played its own prominent role in pushing conspiracy theories, as Rolling Stone previously reported. Of course, the federal government does not produce ballots — state and local governments do — but the narrative successfully fits with President Trump’s months-long effort to undermine the process of mail-in voting, despite ample evidence suggesting there is little risk of mail-in voter fraud.
5. The claims of observers being blocked from watching the vote-counting process
One of the primary claims pushed by President Trump has been the narrative that poll workers in swing states are going out of their way to obstruct the vote-counting process by physically blocking people from observing. One viral video by a man who identified himself as a Democratic Philadelphia canvas watcher stoked the fires of this allegation. In the video, the man says he was removed by poll workers from observing the vote count, a claim that was retweeted by Trump supporter stalwart Sen. Ted Cruz. BuzzFeed News later reported, based on witness accounts from others in the room, that the man was expelled from the room because he had violated a law against taking photos of the proceedings.
On Thursday, pro-Trump outlets like Breitbart also propagated the claim that in Detroit, poll workers had taped up the windows to hide fraudulent activity from the public, which went viral on Facebook. Lawrence Garcia, an attorney for the city, said the windows were taped up because poll workers complained that onlookers were violating the law by filming them. “Hundreds of challengers from both parties were inside the central counting board all afternoon and all evening; dozens of reporters were in the room too,” Garcia told CNN. “At all times, people outside the center could see in through windows that were further away from counting board work spaces.”