WASHINGTON :___A disinformation push to subvert the election is well underway, and it is coming straight from U.S. President Donald Trump and his allies. The goal: to somehow stop a victory by former Vice President Joe Biden, or, failing that, undermine his legitimacy before he can take office.
Trump’s false declaration of victory in the small hours of Wednesday morning quickly united hyperpartisan conservative activists and the standard-bearers of the right-wing media, such as Breitbart, with internet trolls and QAnon supporters behind a singular viral message: #StopTheSteal.
But its impact has become apparent far beyond the internet, with the theme dominating conservative talk radio and the prime-time lineup on Fox News. There, Trump-aligned hosts pressed the false notion that the vote counting in the crucial, still-undecided states was illegitimate — the sort of message that was drawing flags on Twitter and Facebook but flourishing elsewhere.
“How big of a mistake is it for the Democrats to have kind of a burn-it-all-down approach,” Laura Ingraham asked on her program Wednesday night, “to destroy the integrity of our election process with this mail-in, day-of-registration efforts, counting after the election’s over — dumping batches of votes a day, two days, maybe even three days after the election?”
The messaging was far blunter from the president himself, who used a Thursday evening briefing at the White House to reel off a series of baseless attacks on an election system he described as “rigged” by Democrats trying to “steal an election.” It was the continuation of a diatribe he had started earlier in the day with a tweet reading “STOP THE FRAUD!” that Twitter quickly flagged as containing information that “might be misleading.”
Trump and his campaign aides had long indicated that they would challenge any unwelcome result with charges that the election was being stolen through “voter fraud,” which is in fact exceedingly rare.
On Thursday, senior aides to Biden portrayed the disinformation push as part of a desperate, coordinated campaign that, in tandem with the president’s legal strategy to press lawsuits against election officials across the country, was intended to halt a count that seemed likely to end Trump’s presidency.
“This is part of a broader misinformation campaign that involves some political theater,” Bob Bauer, a senior adviser to Biden, told reporters. “All of this is intended to create a large cloud that it is the hope of the Trump campaign that nobody can see through. But it is not a very thick cloud, it’s not hard to see what they’re doing — we see through it; so will the courts, and so will election officials.”
If there was little indication that the disinformation push was helping the Trump campaign in court, where it was seeking to use small instances of worker error or technical fouls to challenge Democratic ballots, it nonetheless seemed likely to do one thing: convince a large swath of American voters that any Biden presidency was being stolen through illegal and unconstitutional means.
“This country is too corrupt, I’m so angry,” said Min Liu, who drove down from New York City to join protests in Philadelphia supporting Trump. “The Democrats are cheating right now, and the people need to wake up.”
She was not alone. On Wednesday and well into Thursday, the media campaign was spilling into the real world with similar protests in Detroit, Phoenix and elsewhere. Some were led by notorious alt-right trolls, like Mike Cernovich, who rose to national prominence in 2016 pushing the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, a precursor to the QAnon movement that falsely claimed that powerful Democrats were running a child-trafficking ring out of the basement of a Washington pizza restaurant that, in reality, has no basement.
Now, Cernovich is pushing a message of widespread election fraud in lockstep with the president, his children and well-established members of his inner circle, like his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
Taken together, the media activity and the protests were emerging as a national and online version of the “Brooks Brothers riot” in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, when preppy Republican operatives, claiming fraud, stormed the Miami-Dade County canvassing board in Florida and effectively halted recount efforts that were expected to benefit the Democratic candidate, Al Gore.
A “Stop the Steal” Facebook page, created Wednesday to help organize groups to flood ballot-counting centers with “observers,” quickly amassed nearly 300,000 members before the social network stepped in and shut it down Thursday afternoon. Facebook said it saw worrying calls for violence in the group, which was “organizing around the delegitimization of the election process.”
The Facebook page was started by Republican activist Kylie Jane Kremer. It followed on a “Stop the Steal” group, with a similar playbook, created in 2016 by Roger Stone, the self-described Republican dirty trickster and Trump confidant. (Stone was convicted on charges stemming from the Russia investigation but had his sentence commuted by Trump.)
Biden’s aides said later in interviews that they did not believe that anyone beyond Trump’s most die-hard supporters would question the legitimacy of a Biden victory. They pointed to statements from prominent Republicans dismissing Trump’s unsubstantiated attacks on the voting system. And they said they were heartened by a striking split at Fox News: While its prime-time hosts have parroted elements of Trump’s unfounded missives, its decision desk has not been shy in calling states for Biden, and several of its journalists have challenged dubious claims by Trump and his supporters.
The president and his allies have nonetheless relied heavily on the broader conservative media ecosystem to lob accusations against election officials, and then quickly moved to amplify them.
On Wednesday, the president shared two articles from Breitbart on Twitter. One falsely claimed that officials in Detroit had barred ballot-counting observers, even though both campaigns had the maximum number of observers allowed inside the building. Another Breitbart post shared by the president rounded up criticism from conservative influencers on social media of Josh Shapiro, the Democratic attorney general of the still-contested state of Pennsylvania, as evidence of calls for him to “step aside.”
Searches related to the keywords “steal” or “stealing” in the context of the election had more than 1.2 million mentions across social media platforms from 11 a.m. Tuesday to 11 a.m. Thursday, according to Zignal Labs, a firm that monitors disinformation. Michigan was leading the way with more than 96,000 mentions, followed by Pennsylvania at roughly 80,000 mentions and Arizona at just over 46,000.
Followers of QAnon, the convoluted pro-Trump conspiracy theory that falsely claims that the president is fighting a deep-state cabal of Democratic satanist pedophiles, were eagerly joining in with claims of election fraud. It fit their imagined narrative perfectly — only widespread fraud by the deep state could defeat Trump, a man whom many QAnon followers venerate as something akin to divine.
There were indications that at least some parts of the campaign were planned in advance of Election Day.
A young conservative activist, John Doyle, who runs a YouTube channel called Heck Off, Commie!, was circulating a Google doc that encouraged people to head off the purported fraud in Pennsylvania and lobby state legislators “to cast their electoral votes as Republican!” The document, which listed the names and numbers of all the state’s legislators, was created Tuesday — that is, before the president or his allies were claiming the election was being stolen in Pennsylvania.
Doyle did not respond to a request for comment, and his Twitter account, @ComradeDoyIe, was suspended Thursday for violating the platform’s terms of service. Mark Levin, a popular conservative radio host and ardent Trump supporter, echoed Doyle’s call for Republican state legislators to disregard the outcome of the voting. In a tweet Thursday, he wrote: “REMINDER TO THE REPUBLICAN STATE LEGISLATURES, YOU HAVE THE FINAL SAY OVER THE CHOOSING OF ELECTORS, NOT ANY BOARD OF ELECTIONS, SECRETARY OF STATE, GOVERNOR, OR EVEN COURT. YOU HAVE THE FINAL SAY.”
Dozens of other Twitter accounts pushing the hashtag #StopTheSteal were created in October and the first few days of November. The use of freshly created social media accounts to amplify a message is a common feature of disinformation campaigns.
By Wednesday, the hashtag had quickly jumped from the hard-right of the internet to mainstream Republicans. The Philadelphia Republican Party picked up the hashtag in a tweet, tagging Eric Trump, the president’s son, and Giuliani, and urging them to “get ready to #StopTheSteal and deliver Pennsylvania” to the president.
Eric Trump went even further. He posted and then quickly deleted a tweet using the hashtag Thursday and asking, without evidence, why the FBI and the Justice Department were not stepping in to stop election fraud. Jeanine Pirro, a popular Fox News personality, tweeted a similar thought.
A day earlier, Eric Trump had posted a video purporting to show ballots that had been cast for his father in Virginia Beach, Virginia, being burned. City officials later said that the ballots were clearly samples and not real. But even before that, the video’s questionable provenance probably should have been a tipoff that it was fake: It came from a Twitter user who goes by the handle @Ninja_StuntZ and is connected to the troll-infested message board 8kun.
Ninja — or is it StuntZ? — appears to spend his days selling 8kun-branded coffee. By Thursday morning, his Twitter account had been suspended and the video was no longer available.
The relentless messaging and noise appeared to drive the campaign’s legal strategy. On Thursday morning, with the president’s slim lead in the key state of Pennsylvania growing slimmer, Pam Bondi, the former attorney general of Florida, and Corey Lewandowski, a close political adviser, held a news conference amid dueling protests outside the Philadelphia convention center, the city’s main ballot-processing site.
Lining 12th Street and protected by police barricades were dozens of protesters supporting Black Lives Matter and Democrats’ call to “count every vote.” On the opposite corner along Arch Street were roughly two dozen Trump supporters, chanting back to “count every legal vote.”
Bondi entered through the back of a barricade and stood in the middle of the Trump supporters, holding up a printed-out court order permitting the Trump campaign poll watchers to get closer to observe the ballot counting.
But her speech was drowned out by protesters across the street, who were armed with a DJ and a full PA system blasting “Party” by Beyoncé. The DJ, counting to 10 repeatedly, in rhythm, was the only audible voice during Bondi’s remarks. As she continued, he broke into a chant: “Count, Philly, Count.”