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After fuelling Capitol riot, disinformation stalks US politics

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The storming of the United States (US) Capitol pushed social media platforms to crack down on those who peddled the “stolen election” claim that drove it, but the narrative has survived and flourished online, in right-wing media and among Republican politicians.

Donald Trump’s supporters acted on the baseless allegation that widespread vote-rigging robbed him of victory in the 2020 presidential election, with the January 6, 2021 violence ultimately leading Twitter and Facebook to suspend his accounts.

His claims were rejected by election officials and dozens of courts, but polling shows many Americans still believe the “big lie” that he defeated Joe Biden – a falsehood that has damaging consequences far beyond the riot.

“These persistent claims pose a threat to the sanctity and trust in our democratic system writ large,” said global fellow at the Wilson Center Nina Jankowicz.

False information about elections is not new – Trump made similar claims in 2016 before he defeated Hillary Clinton – but social media, which thrives on polarisation, offers a place for it to spread, and for people who believe it to organise and wreak havoc.

Trump – then Twitter’s most powerful user – warned his millions of followers of potential cheating before election day in 2020, told them the race was being stolen as ballots were counted, and repeated the accusation in tweets and in a speech before the tumult at the Capitol.

Trump supporters clashing with police and security forces. PHOTO: AFP

“The January 6 attack was a product of social media,” said resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab Emerson Brooking.

“The ‘Stop the Steal’ movement captured millions of people in an alternative reality and funnelled them from mass delusion to hysteria to collective violence against the US Congress.”

The movement, he said, “became the most important thing in the world for tens of thousands of Americans.”

Social media companies have taken steps to halt the spread of false information and conspiracy theories about Biden’s victory over Trump.

Facebook has removed content mentioning the phrase ‘stop the steal’, and Twitter suspended tens of thousands of accounts linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory, adherents of which played a prominent role in the unrest one year ago.

The companies have “generally been effective in their ban on election-related falsehoods”, Brooking said.

But people who believe the election was stolen are still active on both websites, and “election denialism relies more heavily on coded language and closed communities”.

Trump still has an online presence including a mailing list that has many subscribers, and has repeatedly released statements saying the election was “rigged”.

Echoing Trump, more than 100 Republican lawmakers voted against certifying Biden’s win, and members of the party at both the state and national level – eager for political and financial backing – continue to give credence to the former president’s unfounded claims.

He also has help from prominent pundits who amplify such messages.

“Trump is still generating a lot of noise, not through Twitter or Facebook anymore but through various right-wing media personalities such as Dan Bongino, Bill O’Reilly, and Candace Owens,” said post-doctoral fellow at George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics Yunkang Yang.

Distrust in traditional media outlets means that people who think the election was stolen do not believe those reporting on evidence that it was not.

“Even though most mainstream media organisations have spent significant time debunking false claims about election fraud, their messages can no longer reach Republican voters to the extent they did,” Yang said.

“Many right-wing media organisations have spread doubt about the 2020 election – some blatantly claimed that it was stolen,” providing “an alternative space for Republican voters who turned away from mainstream media”, he added.

Fox News faces a USD1.6 billion defamation suit by Dominion Voting Systems, which said the cable channel helped fuel false claims that votes were changed in favour of Biden.

A judge last month allowed the voting machine company’s action to proceed, ruling that it could be inferred that Fox “intended to avoid the truth”.

And despite Biden being in the White House, those who continue to believe Trump won in 2020 find ample affirmation for their views on independent websites as well as on social media platforms that thrive on the US’ political divisions.

With midterm congressional elections this year and presidential polls in 2024, when Trump may run again, there is no indication the problem will disappear.

“The disinformation and election denialism that struck 2020 nearly succeeded in its goal of overturning a democratic election,” said Brooking. “There is no reason to change a winning strategy.”

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