Ten days before the US election, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tweeted a short video of Joe Biden with the caption: “BIDEN ADMITS TO VOTER FRAUD!”
In the clip, the Democratic presidential candidate said that his campaign had “put together the most extensive and inclusive voter fraud organisation in the history of American politics”.
It was, in fact, an absent-minded slip of the tongue. Mr Biden was talking about his campaign’s voter protection project — an initiative designed to combat voter suppression. But the clip was carefully edited to imply otherwise and swiftly exploded on social media.
The video garnered some 20m views on Twitter in the US in its first few days, quickly becoming one strand in a thriving conspiracy theory that rampant fraud means the 2020 election has been “stolen” from US president Donald Trump.
The allegation, routinely amplified by the president and a loyal group of rightwing online influencers, is supported by dozens of related rumours that have proliferated across internet platforms and some rightwing media outlets since the vote — in many cases presented with doctored or out-of-context videos and charts.
In reality, Mr Biden has won the election — receiving 5m more votes as of Friday’s count and commanding a majority of the Electoral College. US election security officials said on Thursday that the vote was “the most secure in American history”. But the conspiracies continue to proliferate in a sign, researchers warn, that the fundamental principles of political campaigning may have shifted permanently.
“From 2016 onwards, the political state of play has changed — disinformation narratives are how you play elections,” said Joe Ondrak, senior researcher at Logically, a group set up to counter misinformation. “This was always going to be the election of conspiracy theories.”
In 2016, much of the disinformation that sought to influence the vote originated from Russia, US intelligence agencies have alleged — part of a so-called information war for which government agencies and social media platforms tried to prepare ahead of November 3.
But in 2020, so far no significant foreign influence campaigns have been uncovered. Instead, Americans themselves spread misinformation and at huge scale. Analysis from Zignal Labs, a media intelligence platform, found some 4.7m social media references to voter fraud in the week after the election, many of which focused on battleground states.
Posts argued that Democrats had been destroying Trump ballots, voting using the identities of dead people, voting twice by using their maiden names, or voting with fake ballots altogether. Some said voting machines and software were rigged or glitchy. The most conspiratorial suggested the entire election was a “sting” operation to shine a light on how Democrats were manipulating the vote.
“In 2020, [we have seen] domestic claims can be very effective and very damaging,” said Gideon Blocq, chief executive at VineSight, which monitors misinformation networks.
But the various conspiracy theories have not emerged in a vacuum. Researchers at New York University found that Republican candidates or groups have spent around $210,000 since July running nearly 350 adverts on Facebook that used the words “rig”, “fraud” or “steal”, gaining as many as 9.4m impressions and suggesting the Republican party had prepared for an election stand-off.
“What we completely failed to do is take seriously five months of messages from the president and those around him setting up this moment, priming the audience to say whatever happened, there was fraud,” said Claire Wardle, head of strategy and research at First Draft.
Mr Trump’s arguments have also been pushed by a web of high-profile rightwing pundits and allies, including secretary of state Mike Pompeo, helping to amplify the message. After several rightwing Twitter personalities directed users to join a “Stop the Steal” Facebook group, it began adding 1,000 members every 10 seconds until the social media company shut it down.
“You have a relatively small number of people with very large followings who have the ability to go and find . . . some kind of little idea, one tweet, one photo, one video . . . pick it out of obscurity and then harden it into these narratives,” said Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief information security officer and a professor at Stanford university.
In a sign of even more co-ordinated action, Facebook last week culled a network of pages all linked to Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s former chief strategist, that masked their identity and used tools to appear more popular than they really were.
Many argue that it is the responsibility of mainstream social media platforms — namely Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube — to root out misleading content. In response, the platforms have begun to put cautionary labels on baseless claims and to restrict the circulation of viral misinformation, provoking allegations of censorship from Republicans and threats of future regulation.
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But there has also been a rise in alternative “free speech” social media apps, which have little content moderation, and alternative news providers such as One America News Network and Newsmax. In particular, the Trump campaign has promoted the social networking site Parler, which shot to the top of the US download charts for both Android and iOS this week, nearly doubling its user base.
Some observers cast 2020 as a momentary blip. “It’s not good when politicians, no matter their ideology, lie. But I have a broader faith in the strength of American institutions,” said Jesse Blumenthal, vice-president of technology and innovation policy at Stand Together, a libertarian group affiliated with billionaire Charles Koch. Overstressing the dangers these narratives pose to society represented “virtue signalling rather than a sincere belief”, he said.
But others warn that undermining faith in electoral processes will have disastrous long-term effects on democracy.
“The Republican establishment are doing it for their own short-term gain but they are destroying trust in elections on the part of their voters,” said Laura Edelson, who works on The Online Political Transparency Project at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. “It is not in their own long term interest.”