U.S. President Donald Trump and his allies have spent weeks now attempting to subvert the results of the 2020 election in increasingly desperate ways, relying primarily on conspiracy theories to spread the myth that Trump has won a second term, despite President-Elect Joe Biden’s confirmed Electoral College lead and lack of any evidence of voter fraud or other issues.
Trump, of course, knows he has lost the election. But by creating doubt around the results, he is not only trying to undermine both the eventual Biden administration, but also to position himself as a winner to his base in an effort to subsequently make money on speeches, rallies, and books. “This isn’t about winning the presidency,” former Trump publicist Alan Marcus told Politico. “It’s his exit strategy.” And conceding to Biden was never going to be part of Trump’s overarching personal narrative for his supporters.
His supporters are eating up that narrative, puzzling many with their willingness to believe conspiracy theories and stories that are demonstrably untrue. Seven in 10 Republicans, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, believe the election was stolen from Trump. According to a recent Monmouth University poll, 44% of Americans, including 88% of Republicans, believe “we need to wait for more information on the count before we know for sure” who won the election.
Other than from Trump himself, where is all this false information coming from? Facebook, mostly. This despite the fact that both Facebook and TikTok have blocked hashtags that were being used to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories about the election. On Facebook, this included #stopthesteal and #sharpiegate, which alleged that the use of Sharpies caused votes to go uncounted in Arizona. Facebook also shut down a group of 300,000 people called “Stop the Steal,” saying it “saw worrying calls for violence from members of the group.” Twitter has added warning labels to some tweets, including the president’s, saying that they may contain inaccurate information, and tagged other tweets with a message encouraging readers to learn more about election security efforts.
But these efforts are not having a significant effect, as can be seen by the conspiracy theories still proliferating on social media. Below are just a few that have popped up recently, as well as explanations as to why they are all, you know, fake news.
One of the most consistent, and often repeated, claims on social media is that of voter fraud, which Trump has helped spread through his own Twitter account. There is zero evidence, in any state, to support that widespread voter fraud actually exists, despite the Trump team’s multiple (failed and embarrassing) lawsuits. Election officials from both parties, international observers, and professional fact-checkers have stated publicly that there have been no serious irregularities. However, according to the Monmouth University poll, three-quarters of Republicans said Biden only won because of voter fraud. YouTube videos from right-wing networks like BlazeTV, Newsmax, and OANN have helped propagate these claims; videos endorsing the idea of widespread election fraud were viewed more than 138 million times on the week of November 3, according to Transparency.Tube.
In one particularly messy voter fraud story, a Pennsylvania USPS worker claimed that a supervisor directed staff to backdate late-arriving ballots, but then recanted his claim once he was visited by postal service investigators. In Arizona, Trump supporters filed a lawsuit claiming that votes were thrown out because they had used Sharpies to fill out their ballots (hence #sharpiegate), but it ended up being dismissed after state officials repeatedly assured voters were not disenfranchised due to Sharpie use. In Detroit, Trump supporters claimed a now-viral video showed someone bringing late-arriving mail-in ballots into a vote-counting centre, but it was actually just a local cameraman wheeling in his equipment. Eric Trump claimed one video showed 80 Trump ballots being set on fire — but they ended up being sample ballots.
On Twitter, Trump falsely claimed that Dominion, an election technology firm, “deleted” large numbers of his votes or “switched” them for Biden. “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised,” according to a statement by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which oversees U.S. election security. “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.” Dominion Voting Systems said in a statement that it “denies claims about any vote switching or alleged software issues with our voting systems.”
This is another favorite for Trump and his supporters. Too bad it’s also not true. CNN examined records for 50 Michigan voters who Trump supporters claimed were dead. They found 37 had died (and thus, had not voted), five were alive and had voted, and eight were alive and didn’t vote. Michigan election officials said they “are not aware of a single confirmed case showing that a ballot was actually cast on behalf of a deceased individual,” the secretary of state wrote on its website. A similar scenario occurred in Pennsylvania.
There are a few reasons for confusion here, including that even though election officials regularly purge dead people from voter rolls, they occasionally miss some. Sometimes a worker accidentally enters a vote by a living person as being cast by a dead person with a similar name. In Michigan, the voting software requires a birthday for each voter, and if the clerk doesn’t have it, 1/1/1901 is used as a placeholder. Conspiracy theorists have pointed to examples of people with that birthday voting.
But they are very much alive. Donna Brydges, 75, for example, confirmed to the Associated Press that she’s alive and then passed the phone to her husband, who said, “She’s actually beat me in a game of Cribbage.”
“Army Seized A Server Showing A Trump Landslide” Theory
In addition to voter fraud and dead voters, there are various more esoteric theories floating around on social media, many of them alleging that there are “deep-state” government efforts to subvert the election.
One of them is that the U.S. Army raided the Frankfurt, Germany, office of Scytl, a company that makes software for local election officials, and seized a computer server that had the true vote totals for the presidential election, which obviously show that Trump won in a landslide with 410 electoral votes. Both Scytl and the Army have denied the claim.
The lie seems to have originated with a November 8 Twitter post by a user who said they heard about the raid. “I haven’t been able to confirm the accuracy yet,” the account tweeted. Then, an Indian website known for spreading false information about the coronavirus pandemic picked it up. And then, people like Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert and right-wing activist Charlie Kirk picked it up, which is how it spread to the American masses. At no point during its dissemination, however, did the lie become true.
“Hammer & Scorecard” Theory
Another deep-state theory, this one claims that CIA computer programs hacked the election. One of them, called Hammer, supposedly cracked into protected networks, while another, called Scorecard, changed the vote totals. Christopher Krebs, who led DHS' Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, called this theory “nonsense.” Krebs, who was recently fired by Trump, also said the election was secure and set up a website called Rumor Control to help voters get the correct information. But that hasn’t stopped people like William Hartmann — the Michigan Republican election official who seeked to block certification of Detroit’s votes — from posting this lie on their social media.
Release The Kraken
This one is more of a catchphrase than a separate theory, but it’s indicative of how oft-repeated things spread on right-wing social media like wildfire. It all started when Sidney Powell, one of Trump’s crew of election lawyers who has since been fired for being too conspiratorial, told Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs that the team has enough evidence to overturn election results in key states.
“We are talking about hundreds of thousands of votes,” Powell said. “President Trump won this election in a landslide.” She later said that voter fraud had been “organized and conducted with the help of Silicon Valley people, the big tech companies, the social media companies, and even the media companies.” She added: “I’m going to release the Kraken.”
The phrase recently trended on Twitter, pushed mostly by conservatives and far-right personalities. It’s originally from the 1981 movie The Clash of the Titans.
Colour Revolution Theory
Another nonsensical deep-state theory claimed that Democratic operatives and government insiders were plotting to overthrow Trump with a “colour revolution.” The term refers to a popular uprising against an authoritarian regime, like those that took place in former Soviet republics Georgia and Ukraine in the early and mid-2000s (which Republicans largely supported). Despite no evidence supporting it, right-wing hosts like Tucker Carlson and Glenn Beck gleefully picked it up, and it has made rounds on Facebook groups with names like “Deplorable Warriors for President Donald J. Trump Keep America Great 2020.”
So, Why Do People Believe All This Stuff?
It might be hard to understand or accept why such a vast fraction of the population has come to believe misinformation and conspiracy theories that, to millions of us, sound like pure drivel. In general, people believe in conspiracy theories like QAnon because they provide simple explanations for the chaotic world around them, Geoff Dancy, an associate political science professor at Tulane University whose areas of interest include conspiracy theories, told Refinery29.
In the case of the election, Dancy said, “It’s a way for them to deal with the chaos of American democracy. They had no doubt that their candidate was going to win, and he didn’t, and so they’ve got to figure out some way to explain that in a way that makes sense in the way their universe is ordered. There’s a deep psychic need behind all of this.”
If you know somebody who has fallen for this type of misinformation and want to talk to them, Dancy suggests a few tips. This is something that he does in his everyday research, particularly with QAnon. First, what not to do: “You can’t just go, ‘That article is garbage. You don’t know what you’re talking about, mom.’ That is combative.”
Instead, he suggests, start the conversation with them by first saying their name (“it gives you a little endorphin hit to hear your name said by somebody else”), and then agree with them on a couple of points. For example, with a QAnon supporter, you might agree that child sex trafficking is bad and that the fact that Jeffrey Epstein got away with his crimes for so many years is bizarre. But then, he said, you should go further and start asking them how they got certain information, like that “this is all the machinations of a cabal of pedophiles that are in the U.S. government.” He said to ask for evidence, and make them question their beliefs bit by bit. Dancy said that oftentimes (though not always), he has gotten people to see that their beliefs are not rooted in real facts. “I’ve convinced a couple of people who think that the pandemic was caused by Bill Gates that that’s a weak theory.”
Perhaps the most important thing to remember with all this is that, no matter how absurd these theories and their adherents might seem to you, ignoring them or dismissing them as ridiculous isn’t going to make them go away. And so as difficult as it might seem to engage with conspiracy theorists, it’s all part of the work that must be done, one way or another, if there’s ever any hope of deprogramming the cult-like thinking of Trump’s followers.