A burst of disinformation to undermine the elections is well underway and comes straight from President Trump and his allies. The goal: to somehow stop a victory for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., or, if not, to undermine his legitimacy before he can take office.
Mr. Trump’s false declaration of victory in the early hours of Wednesday morning quickly united bipartisan conservative activists and the standard-bearers of the right-wing media like Breitbart with internet trolls and QAnon supporters behind a unique viral message: #StopTheSteal.
But its impact has become evident far beyond the Internet. The topic dominates the conservative talk radio and prime-time cast of Fox News. There, Trump-oriented hosts pushed for the misconception that vote counting was inadmissible in the crucial, as yet undecided states – a kind of message that drew flags on Twitter and Facebook but flourished elsewhere.
“How big is the mistake that the Democrats pursue a burn-it-all-down approach,” asked Laura Ingraham on Wednesday evening in her program, “in order to destroy the integrity of our electoral process with this mail-in.” Efforts to get the day of registration counted after the election ends – votes, two days, maybe even three days after the election? “
The messaging was far more blunt than that of the President himself, who used a Thursday night meeting at the White House to fend off a series of baseless attacks on an electoral system he described as “rigged” by Democrats trying to “steal an election” . It was a continuation of a shame he had started earlier in the day with a tweet that said, “STOP THE SCAM!” that Twitter was quickly flagged as containing information that “could be misleading”.
Mr Trump and his election officials had long indicated that they would challenge any undesirable outcome on charges that the election was stolen by “election fraud,” which is extremely rare indeed.
On Thursday, senior advisors to Mr Biden portrayed the spurt of disinformation as part of a desperate, coordinated campaign that, along with the president’s legal strategy to bring lawsuits against election officials across the country, was to stop a count that was likely to end Mr Trump’s presidency .
“This is part of a wider misinformation campaign involving political theater,” Bob Bauer, senior advisor to Mr Biden, told reporters. “All of this is supposed to create a big cloud that is the hope of the Trump campaign that no one can see through. But it’s not a very thick cloud, it’s not hard to see what they’re doing – we see through; So will the courts and electoral officials. “
If there was little evidence that the disinformation surge helped the Trump campaign in court, which attempted to use small cases of worker error or technical fouls to challenge Democratic ballots, it still seemed likely to do one thing: a large part convince American voters that every Biden presidency has been stolen by illegal and unconstitutional means.
“This country is too corrupt, I’m so angry,” said Min Liu, who had traveled from New York City to join protests in Philadelphia and support Mr. Trump. “The Democrats are cheating right now and people need to wake up.”
She wasn’t alone. On Wednesday and well into Thursday, the media campaign was broadcast into the real world with similar protests in Detroit, Phoenix and elsewhere. Some have been led by notorious alt-right trolls, like Mike Cernovich, who rose to national prominence in 2016 and promoted the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, a forerunner of the QAnon movement, which falsely claimed powerful Democrats ran a child trafficking ring out of the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington, which actually has no basement.
Now, in lockstep with the president, his children and established members of his inner circle, such as his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Cernovich is pushing a message of widespread electoral fraud.
Taken together, the post-2000 presidential election media activity and protests became a national and online version of the Brooks Brothers uprising, as preppy Republican activists claiming fraud, the Miami-Dade County’s advertising commission, stormed Florida and effectively halted recount efforts, which were expected to benefit the Democratic candidate Al Gore.
A Stop the Steal Facebook page created on Wednesday to help groups flood polling centers with “observers” quickly garnered nearly 300,000 members before the social network stepped in and closed on Thursday afternoon. Facebook said it saw worrying calls for violence in the group “organized around the delegitimization of the electoral process”.
The Facebook page was started by a Republican activist named Kylie Jane Kremer. A “Stop the Steal” group followed with a similar playbook created in 2016 by Roger J. Stone Jr., the self-described Republican dirty trickster and Trump confidante. (Mr. Stone was convicted of charges arising from the Russia investigation, but his sentence was commuted by Mr. Trump.)
Mr. Biden’s aides later said in interviews that they did not believe that anyone outside of Mr. Trump’s die-hard supporters would question the legitimacy of a Biden victory. They pointed to statements made by prominent Republicans who rejected Mr Trump’s unfounded attacks on the electoral system. And they said they were encouraged by a conspicuous split on Fox News: while the prime-time hosts mimicked elements of Mr. Trump’s unfounded missives, his decision-making desk wasn’t shy about calling states for Mr. Biden and several of his journalists challenged dubious allegations by Mr Trump and his supporters.
Nonetheless, the president and his allies have relied heavily on the broader conservative media ecosystem to level allegations against election officials and are quick to reinforce them.
On Wednesday, the president shared two articles by Breitbart on Twitter. It was falsely alleged that Detroit officials excluded observers from voting, even though both campaigns did so the maximum number of observers allowed in the building. Another Breitbart post from the president summed up criticism from conservative influencers on social media of Josh Shapiro, Democratic attorney general for the still-debated state of Pennsylvania, as evidence that he was told to “step aside.”
According to Zignal Labs, a company that monitors disinformation, searches related to the keywords “steal” or “steal” in the elections from Tuesday at 11 a.m. to Thursday at 11 a.m. received more than 1.2 million social mentions. Media platforms carried out. Michigan led the way with more than 96,000 mentions, followed by Pennsylvania with around 80,000 mentions, and Arizona with just over 46,000.
Supporters of QAnon, the tangled pro-Trump conspiracy theory that falsely claims the president is fighting a cabal of democratic satanist pedophiles in the deep state, eagerly joined in allegations of electoral fraud. It matched her imaginary narrative perfectly – only a widespread deep state fraud could defeat Mr. Trump, a man many QAnon followers revere as something divine.
There was evidence that at least some parts of the campaign were planned before Election Day.
A young Conservative activist, John Doyle, who owns a YouTube channel called Heck Off, Commie! Operates, distributed a Google Doc encouraging people to stave off alleged fraud in Pennsylvania and get state lawmakers to “cast their Republican votes!” The document, which lists the names and numbers of all state legislatures, was drawn up Tuesday, before the president or his allies claimed the Pennsylvania election was being stolen.
Mr Doyle didn’t respond to a request for comment and his Twitter account @ComradeDoyIe was banned Thursday for violating the platform’s Terms of Service. Mark Levin, a popular conservative radio host and ardent Trump supporter, reiterated Mr Doyle’s call for Republican lawmakers to ignore the result of the vote. In a tweet on Thursday, he wrote: “REMEMBER THE REPUBLICAN STATE LAWS, YOU HAVE THE FINAL SAY ABOUT THE ELECTION OF ELECTIONS, NOT EVERY ELECTORAL COUNCIL, SECRETARY OF STATE, GOVERNOR OR EVEN JUDGMENT. YOU HAVE THE FINAL SAY. “
Dozens of other Twitter accounts with the hashtag #StopTheSteal were created in October and the first few days of November. Using newly 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 Mr. Giuliani, and urging them to prepare to “deliver #StopTheSteal and Pennsylvania”.
Eric Trump went even further. He posted a tweet with the hashtag on Thursday and then quickly deleted it and asked without evidence why the F.B.I. and the Justice Department did not step forward to stop the election fraud. Jeanine F. Pirro, the popular Fox News personality, tweeted a similar thought.
The day before, Eric Trump had posted a video showing ballot papers that were burned for his father in Virginia Beach, Virginia. City officials later said the ballot papers were clearly samples and not real. But even before that, the questionable origin of the video should probably have been an indication that it was a fake: It came from a Twitter user who uses the handle @Ninja_StuntZ and is connected to the troll-infested message board 8kun.
Mr. Ninja – or is it Mr. StuntZ? – seems to be spending his days selling 8kun branded coffee. His Twitter account was blocked until Thursday morning and the video was no longer available.
The relentless messaging and noise seemed to drive the campaign’s legal strategy. On Thursday morning Pam Bondi, the former Florida attorney general, and Corey Lewandowski, a close political adviser, held a press conference at which the president’s protests in the key state of Pennsylvania grew lean. the main location of the city for voting.
Dozens of protesters stood on 12th Street, backed by Black Lives Matter and the Democratic call to “count every vote”. On the opposite corner along Arch Street, about two dozen Trump supporters stood singing back to “count every legal vote.”
Ms. Bondi entered through a barricade and stood in the midst of Trump supporters. She held up a printed court order that allowed election observers for the Trump campaign to get closer to the ballot count.
But her speech was drowned out by protesters across the street talking to a D.J. and a full P.A. System explosion “Party” by Beyoncé. The D.J., who repeatedly counted to 10 in rhythm, was the only audible voice during Ms. Bondi’s remarks. As she continued, he broke into a chant: “Graf, Philly, Graf.”
Ben Decker contributed to the coverage.