Extremism
Terrorism

A Year After the Insurrection, 2020 Election Lies Continue to Animate the Right

  • January 4, 2022
Election Conspiracies

Photo Credit: Business Insider

“We will never give up, we will never concede. It doesn't happen. You don't concede when there's theft involved…Today I will lay out just some of the evidence proving that we won this election and we won it by a landslide… You’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength…If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

President Donald Trump, January 6, 2021

One year ago, on January 6, 2021, Americans watched in horror as pro-Trump and other right-wing extremists stormed the Capitol to stop the certification of then-President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. Their overriding goal: to overturn the legitimate results of a U.S. presidential election and hand a last-ditch “victory” to then-President Trump.

According to Center on Extremism investigators, of the 727 people who have been arrested for their actions on January 6, 155 (21%) have ties to a wide range of right-wing extremist groups and ideologies, including the far right Proud Boys, anti-government Oath Keepers, QAnon and white supremacy. While that number certainly highlights the extent to which far-right extremists coalesced around Trump and his “stolen election” narrative, it’s perhaps even more alarming that 79% of the individuals arrested have no overt ties to extremist movements. This suggests that a significant number of seemingly ordinary Americans apparently decided that mob violence was an appropriate means of achieving their political objectives.

The lie that motivated the mob – namely that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Trump – had been percolating in far right and conservative spaces for months. Trump himself warned supporters in May 2020 that mail-in ballots would be used to perpetrate fraud and that the vote in November “will be a rigged election.” He reiterated this sentiment at an August campaign rally in Oshkosh, WI, telling the crowd, “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if this election is rigged.” He returned to this theme multiple times in the weeks leading up to the election. Since the insurrection, this thoroughly debunked notion has been dubbed the “Big Lie”. It is important to note that this term has historically been used to describe the Nazi lie that the Jewish people were responsible for the German defeat in World War I, and that this meaning is unrelated to its current use.

While it is important to understand the role that extremists played in the deadly January 6 insurrection, it is perhaps just as critical to explore the extent to which lies about a “stolen” or “rigged” election are animating non-extremists, and how a feedback loop of falsehoods — amplified almost daily by the former President — has created a highly combustible environment that is ripe for additional political violence.

This ongoing, active effort to delegitimize our democratic process is dangerous on several levels. It undermines Americans’ faith in the electoral process, while seeding conspiracy theories about “Deep State” actors and other nefarious figures plotting to take over the country. This effect can already be measured: a poll conducted September 16–29, 2021, by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and released on November 1, 2021, found that 68 percent of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, versus 31 percent of respondents across the board.

Those who are spreading this lie are explicit when it comes to naming their true enemy: the Democratic party. As Trump said during his speech on January 6, “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats, which is what they’re doing.” This rhetoric – which frames Democrats as radical leftists, socialists or communists – serves to demonize Democrats and portrays them as an illegitimate party. This is a profoundly dangerous development in a system that can only function when the primary political parties are mutually accepted as legitimate political actors.

The lies that animate these accusations and abject mischaracterizations don’t appear out of nowhere. There’s a pipeline in action – a pathway from the inception of a lie to full public engagement. This report examines three streams of messaging that are currently flooding the right-wing ecosystem with abject falsehoods about the 2020 election: news media, politicians and social media. These streams are often synergistic, and each tends to amplify the other two.

News Media

In the weeks between the election and the Capitol insurrection, right-wing media companies – most notably, but not exclusively, Fox News, One America News Network and Newsmax – regularly boosted the lie that the election was stolen, helping to enable a narrative that had an undeniable impact on the deadly events of January 6. Even after witnessing the violent power of these conspiracy theories, media entities have continued to cast doubt on the election and spread false information.

At Fox News, several prominent figures have continued to cast doubt on the 2020 election, repeatedly providing Trump with airtime he has used to promote baseless claims that the election was rigged or stolen. Several network hosts have also promoted stories intended to undermine the 2020 election results:

  • On December 15, 2021, Tucker Carlson said the insurrectionists came to Washington D.C. because “they believed the presidential election was unfair, and they have a right to believe that. And by the way, in many ways, they were correct. The presidential election was unfair. And you don’t have to get into anything about voting machines to believe that.” This sentiment was echoed in a November 2021 documentary produced by and featuring Tucker Carlson, in which a journalist frames the insurrectionists as “just, you know, mom and dad who were mad about what they saw to be an election that they thought was unfair, rigged, fortified, stolen.” In July 2021, Carlson told viewers, “It now appears there actually was meaningful voter fraud in Fulton County, Georgia, last November. That is not a conspiracy theory, it’s true.” In fact, this is not true. Carlson’s “evidence” consisted of "false, misleading, or unsubstantiated" information, and a full hand audit and machine recount confirmed Biden’s victory, according to PolitiFact. Previously, Carlson raised doubts about the 2020 election results while introducing a guest who wrote a book titled Rigged: How the Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized Our Elections and by spreading voter-machine conspiracy theories in the aftermath of the election.
  • During a July interview with Trump, Maria Bartiromo referenced an article published by right-wing news outlet The Federalist, claiming that 35,000 votes in Georgia may have been illegal, a questionable assertion given that the audit and recount both confirmed Biden’s victory. Bartiromo, along with other Fox News hosts, is being sued by Smartmatic, which accused the host – among others – of spreading false information that the company was part of the effort to “steal” the presidency.
  • In July, Sean Hannity used his platform to discuss the alleged discrepancies in Fulton County, Georgia, saying, "At best what we are seeing out of Fulton county is incompetence running rampant at a high level, and at worst, serious fraud and potential abuse is going on pretty much in plain sight."

The latest PRRI poll found that this message is resonating with viewers; 82% of Republican viewers who most trust Fox News believe that the election was stolen.

While Fox News has been the most prominent face of election disinformation thanks to its significant viewership, it is far from the only right-wing media entity perpetuating falsehoods and misleading information regarding the results. One America News Network (OANN) has also continued to perpetuate these myths:

  • On November 23, 2021, OANN aired two interviews with 2020 election volunteers who alleged improper conduct by Democrats. One interview was with a Michigan voter and volunteer who claimed that thousands of falsified ballots were dropped off in the early hours after election night, and the other was with a Republican poll worker who claimed that Republicans were excluded from ballot processing.
  • On September 23, OANN posted a video including video footage from an episode of “The Lindell Report” that featured MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and General Michael Flynn spreading conspiracies surrounding the 2020 election and sowing doubt in the American electoral system.
  • OANN has aired three documentaries from MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell featuring election conspiracy theories, and on August 10, the company broadcast Lindell’s “cyber symposium,” which featured a five minute clip alleging that Dominion Voting Systems is part of a plot by “foreign adversaries” to steal the 2020 election and conquer the world. That same day, Dominion filed a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit accusing OANN of creating “an alternate reality where up is down, pigs have wings, and Dominion engaged in a colossal fraud to steal the presidency from Donald Trump by rigging the vote.” This suit did little to deter OANN, and in the days afterwards, it continued to give airtime to election conspiracies.
  • In June, OANN host Pearson Sharp called for mass executions of “radical Democrats” for being “traitors who meddled with our sacred democratic process and tried to steal power by taking away the voices of the American people.”
  • In April, OANN host Christina Bobb declared that President Biden is not legitimate, adding “The so-called Biden administration is a group of radicals that nobody wanted in power…and they devised an evil scheme to steal our election.”

Other media outlets have similarly perpetuated these lies. Newsmax has published numerous articles and segments undermining the legitimacy of the election and amplifying Trump's message of election fraud. The company aired advertisements for Mike Lindell’s symposium more than 170 times in one week. Meanwhile, the Gateway Pundit has repeatedly published articles asserting there was mass voter fraud during the 2020 election, and this continued into December 2021. On October 17, they published an article arguing that Democrats “manufactured votes from low income voters to steal the battleground states” in an article that PolitiFact noted conflates voter outreach with voter fraud. In August, they published an article alleging that there were 8.1 million excess votes cast for Joe Biden and that Trump won the major swing states. According to USA Today, the entirely false article was shared nearly 13,000 times in four days and the original Telegram post was viewed more than 170,000 times in five days. In December, two Georgia election workers sued the website for publishing articles that accused them of trying to “steal the presidential election in Georgia.” Once again, PRRI reported in its latest poll results an alarming finding: of Republicans who most trust far-right news, 97% believe that the 2020 election was stolen. This is particularly striking when compared to Republicans who most trust mainstream news sources, of whom only 44% agree that the election was stolen.

Politicians

In the aftermath of the election, several elected officials and former politicians – including U.S. Sen Josh Hawley (MO), White House Chief of Staff and former Congressman Mark Meadows, Arizona GOP Chair Kelli Ward and Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert, among others – followed President Trump’s lead and reiterated the thoroughly debunked notion that the 2020 election was marred by fraud or was otherwise illegitimate. Others used silence to feed the delegitimization effort; a month after the election, fewer than a quarter of Senate Republicans had acknowledged that Biden had won, a total that rose to slightly less than half in the days before the certification.

One year after the 2020 election, it’s clear that anyone who thought the violence at the Capitol would mean the end of the election fraud lie (or an immediate reckoning for those who promoted that lie) was in for a rude awakening. The Big Lie has persisted for the past year, thanks in part to prominent Republican officials, whose stature lent the fiction a veneer of legitimacy. Mere hours after witnessing firsthand the violence that false narratives of election fraud could inspire, Senator Hawley stood on the Senate floor and told his colleagues while objecting to the certification of election results in Pennsylvania, “What we are doing here tonight is actually very important because for those who have concerns about the integrity of our elections, those who have concerns about what happened in November, this is the appropriate means, this is the lawful place where those objections and concerns should be raised.” He added, “We do need an investigation into irregularities, fraud. We do need a way forward together. We need election security reforms.”

Hawley was joined in his vote against certification of the election results by six other Senators, including Ted Cruz (TX), who said in a debate over Arizona’s Electoral College results, shortly before the rioters breached the Capitol, “I urge you to pause and think, what does it say to the nearly half the country that believes this election was rigged if we vote not even to consider the claims of illegality and fraud in this election?”

The seven Republican senators and 138 Republican members of the U.S. House of the Representatives who voted against certifying the election results were the first major figures to give credence to the Big Lie post-insurrection, but they were far from the last:

  • On December 17, former Ohio state treasurer and current candidate for U.S. Senate, Josh Mandel, said on a radio show, “I do not believe [Biden] won. I think Trump won,” and claimed that there was fraud in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia. This echoes a clip posted on November 30 in which Mandel says to applause, “I believe this election was stolen from Donald J. Trump…because the Democrats cheat to win elections.”
  • During a December 15 debate, none of the five leading candidates for Minnesota governor would say that President Biden definitively won the 2020 election. Instead, candidates repeated debunked election myths, claimed there was mass voter fraud, and asserted the election was not fair. When asked whether Biden won, Minnesota State Senator Michelle Benson deflected by saying, “He was certified by Congress as having won the electoral college.”
  • On December 14, Trump announced he will hold a press conference at his Mar-a-Lago resort on January 6, 2022, the one-year anniversary of the insurrection. In his statement, Trump reiterated his doubt in the election results in some states and wondered why the House committee investigating the insurrection was not looking into the “rigged Presidential Election of 2020.” He added, “Remember, the insurrection took place on November 3rd, it was the completely unarmed protest of the rigged election that took place on January 6th.” Trump has actively pushed these lies for months; in May 2021 he adopted the phrase “The Big Lie” to refer to a so-called conspiracy to “steal” the 2020 election.
  • On November 27, U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson (TX) tweeted in reference to the omicron variant of the coronavirus: “Here comes the MEV – the Midterm Election Variant! They NEED a reason to push unsolicited nationwide mail-in ballots. Democrats will do anything to CHEAT during an election – but we’re not going to let them!”
  • On November 16, Arizona State Senator Wendy Rogers responded to a tweet regarding Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs by saying, “We have been taking her down because she should be arrested for the rigged 2020 election.” Rogers has tweeted frequently regarding her belief that the 2020 election was stolen. On October 18 she tweeted, “I am so scary because I like Civil War. History, I am trying to fix a rigged election and because I don’t like that our country is being invaded. [sic] The real loony tunes are the godless commies who are destroying our country not the ones like me trying to save it.” In July, she tweeted, “The election fraud will either be exposed and stopped and many people will go to jail or they will keep doing it ushering in a new era of 1776…Keep pushing until we have our country back.”
  • On October 10, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (LA) was given three opportunities to say the election was not stolen on Fox News Sunday and he declined to do so. As he said, “I’ve been very clear from the beginning. If you look at a number of states, they didn’t follow their state-passed laws that govern the election for president.” He added: “It’s not just irregularities. It’s states that did not follow the laws set which the Constitution says they’re supposed to follow.”
  • On September 29, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar (AZ) tweeted a link promoting the Maricopa County Audit of the 2020 election and wrote, “Listen to these accounts of election fraud uncovered by the audit. Don’t listen to the Big Lie—'BeSt EVeR eLeCTIon’” [sic].
  • On August 29, U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (NC) said at an event at the Macon County Republican Headquarters, “The things that we are wanting to fight for, it doesn’t matter if our votes don’t count. Because, you know, if our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place – and it’s bloodshed.”
  • In June, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks (AL) filed an affidavit in federal court in which he repeated the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, writing, “In my judgment, the evidence is overwhelming and compelling that the Dec. 3, 2020 [sic] elections were the most voter fraud and election theft riddled of any election in United States history.” Brooks was the first Congressman to announce his intention to object to the election certification, and he has consistently maintained his belief that the election was stolen.
  • Also in June, U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (PA), who voted against certification in January, falsely claimed that there were 100,000 more votes cast in Pennsylvania than voters. Perry made more news a couple of weeks later, when he gave a speech that compared Democrats to Nazis and said, “They [Democrats] are not the loyal opposition. They are the opposition to everything you love and believe in. Go fight them… They want to destroy the country that the founders made. That is their plan…That’s why they’re doing these things.”
  • In May, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (NY) responded to a question as to whether she stood by her assertion, made on January 6, that in one Georgia county more than 140,000 votes came from underage, deceased, or “unauthorized” voters, saying, “I stand by my statement on the House floor in January, and I stand by my statement that there are serious issues related to election irregularities in the state of Georgia, as well as Pennsylvania, Michigan [and] Wisconsin.”
  • In March, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice (GA), who is running for Georgia’s Secretary of State (the state’s highest ranking election related position) went on Newsmax and repeated several lies about the election, including that an estimated 700,000 illegal voters in Georgia received an application to receive a ballot, that Georgia voter drop boxes were not monitored, that ballot harvesting occurred in the state and that Republican poll watchers were sent home after a fake water main burst.
  • In February, U.S. Rep Louie Gohmert (TX) released a statement in which he wrongfully asserted that there is evidence of voter fraud: “One of the left’s continuing myths is that every court that considered election improprieties found them all bogus. The truth is that not a single federal or state court had an evidentiary hearing to listen to and view the evidence of potential wrongdoing before the final votes were certified. Each court cited some procedural reason to avoid having an evidentiary hearing. That is indeed a tragedy.” Gohmert also accused the secretaries of state in Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania – all states where Trump lost by narrow margins – of engaging in “blatantly unconstitutional actions.”

Social Media: Twitter

Since they emerged more than a decade ago, mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become integral in how people consume news and process global events. These platforms also have enormous power when it comes to normalizing fringe concepts and ideas. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, social media platforms were inundated with content alleging that the election had been stolen. To better understand the extent of this content and its prevalence today, the Center on Extremism looked at Twitter and collected tweets from between November 3, 2020, (the date of the 2020 election) and December 13, 2021, that mentioned the phrase “stop the steal” or used #stopthesteal, which were the slogans used by those seeking to overturn the 2020 election, as well as tweets that linked Democrats or President Biden with either the phrases “rigged election” or “stolen election.” Using machine learning, we trained text classification models to remove tweets that either were not relevant or used these phrases facetiously and subsequently created a dataset that shows the extent of this messaging on Twitter.

There are two important notes regarding the resulting information. First, in the wake of the insurrection, Twitter suspended more than 150,000 accounts linked with QAnon, a conspiracy whose followers believe that President Trump was battling a cabal of pedophiles that control global events and whose proponents have helped to spread the idea that the election was stolen. This has had two effects on the data. First, it means that we likely do not have the full picture of the activity on Twitter in the lead up to the insurrection and Biden’s inauguration. While the numbers we have collected are striking, it is likely that there was even more content at the time that has since been removed. Second, as Twitter banned these accounts, QAnon supporters navigated to other social media platforms. Again, given QAnon supporters’ support for the Stop the Steal campaign and persistent belief that the election was stolen, their absence likely means that what we have collected is only part of the story.

Second, the language surrounding voter fraud and the 2020 election continues to evolve and take different forms. While this report focuses on stop the steal and the notion of a rigged or stolen election, the underlying sentiments can manifest in other ways, through other expressions such as “mass voter fraud” or a focus on “election integrity” that at times does not align with the reality of the American electoral system. As such, while the following data is illustrative of the resilience of the election fraud conspiracies a year after the 2020 election, it is only a piece of a much larger story.

Despite these gaps, between November 3, 2020, and December 13, 2021, ADL’s Center on Extremism identified 200,270 tweets that mentioned the phrases “stop the steal,” “rigged election,” or “stolen election,” or used #stopthesteal in reference to the 2020 presidential election. The ramifications of this movement were seen in the leadup to President Biden’s inauguration, most notably during the January 6 insurrection, and unsurprisingly most of the collected content was shared between November 3 and January 20, with an average of 1,845 posts per day and a peak of 7,147 posts on January 6. Following Biden’s inauguration, there was a drop off in activity referencing these terms, but rather than disappearing – as one might have expected given the fact that the election was certified and Biden was installed in office – there were still tweets referencing the notion that the election was stolen, with an average of 170 posts per day between January 20 and December 13, 2021. Though this number is significantly lower than its peak prior to Biden’s inauguration, over time these posts accumulate and amount to 55,746 posts over the course of nearly a year. The persistence of these phrases shows that the concept of an illegitimate election is resilient, and the spikes in activity – particularly around the one-year anniversary of the 2020 election – suggest that this is a narrative some are unwilling to abandon, even a year later.

Daily Frequency of Tweets Supporting Election Lies

The persistent belief that the election was stolen or rigged isn’t just observable in the number of posts, it is reflected in the number of times these posts were retweeted or liked. Unlike replies, which can be used to express support or disagreement to the original tweet, a retweet or like typically represents a public endorsement for the content of a tweet. In addition, each like or retweet gets added to the user’s feed, expanding the original tweet’s reach and creating opportunities for new users to be exposed to the content. In order to gauge the total level of interactions for this narrative, COE elected to combine these totals with the number of daily tweets (for more, please see the “Methodology” section at the end of the report).

Again, much of this activity happened prior to Biden’s inauguration, but it is clear the fervor has not dissipated and continues today, albeit at lower levels. To that end, between January 20 and December 13, 2021, tweets using the phrases “stop the steal,” “rigged election,” or “stolen election” or using #stopthesteal recorded a total of 675,914 confirmatory interactions. The number of daily tweets plus “likes” and retweets hit a high of 143,239 on January 14, 2021, but between Biden’s inauguration on January 20 and December 13, there has been an average of 1,404 combined tweets, likes and retweets. The counts exceeded 20,000 confirmatory interactions five times in that time span.

Confirmatory Interactions for Tweets Expressing Election Lies

Notably, several prominent right-wing figures were among the most retweeted and liked users who shared messages such as these, demonstrating an alarming willingness to employ their significant platform in service of undermining the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Among the elected officials whose posts referring to an illegitimate election were liked and retweeted the most often: U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson (TX), U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar (AZ), U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks (AL), and Arizona State Sen. Wendy Rogers; pundits included Dinesh D’Souza, Candace Owens, Diamond and Silk and President Trump’s son, Eric Trump.

Impact of These Conspiracies

Uniting Disparate Groups on the Right with a Common Cause

Since the insurrection, disparate groups of Trump supporters have organized conferences and events around several issues, including the lie that the 2020 election was stolen. These events blur the line between mainstream and extremist and allow various groups and movements to find common ground around their support for Trump. For example, July’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a nominally mainstream event, featured speakers who spread election conspiracies under the guise of election integrity, and attendees – including Proud Boys and Oath Keepers – could purchase QAnon merchandise. Several of these events have also featured ostensibly mainstream speakers, whose presence lends legitimacy to the events’ more conspiratorial and extreme elements. These events offer fertile ground for conspiracies and extremist ideas to spread, and they serve to normalize ideas that are detrimental to democracy and could potentially motivate people to act violently.

Prominent figures within the far-right ecosystem have platforms for disseminating their messages to large audiences. InfoWars, which is run by Alex Jones (who gave a speech on January 5 in Washington, D.C., and helped fund the January 6 event), frequently airs segments that allege election fraud in the 2020 election. On October 31, 2021, Jones ran a segment titled “Election Fraud Hidden in Plain Site Under Demonization of Trump” [sic] in which Jones spent ten minutes spreading election-related conspiracies. As an August report by Media Matters for America found, Jones has repeatedly promoted conspiracies about Dominion Voting Systems. Similarly, former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon continues to maintain the election was stolen and to air election conspiracies that attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Biden administration. On a December 7 YouTube stream, Bannon called President Biden an “illegitimate president” and said, referring to President Trump and the 2024 election: “He is going to win the presidency for the third time.” Meanwhile, his podcast, “War Room: Pandemic,” includes numerous segments that cast doubt on the results of the 2020 election, including a September 24 episode titled “50K Illegal Ballots in One County Alone” – referring to the 2020 election results in Arizona. Bannon has also used his podcast as a platform for Big Lie supporters such as U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, who told Bannon’s listeners, “In my judgment, if only lawful votes cast by eligible American citizens were counted, Donald Trump won the election.”

Bad Faith Audits

Rather than accept the results of the 2020 election, many Trump supporters are pushing for new audits of vote counts in several key swing states – even though many of these states have already conducted their own audits and recounts, and there is no mechanism for these audits to retroactively impact the election results. These audits’ primary purpose appears to be animating the former president’s base and further undermining faith in the electoral process. The real target is less a retroactive attempt at a “redo” than preparing the ground for claiming victory in future elections and acting upon those claims, regardless of the actual results.

The first audit in Arizona, which ultimately found no evidence of fraud, was strongly criticized at its onset by elected officials and elections experts alike, who highlighted the auditing company’s inexperience in election audits, deviations from standard practices and overtly partisan approach in their critiques. Despite these flaws, the Arizona audit had the enthusiastic support of right-wing media entities including OANN, Newsmax and The Gateway Pundit. After the audit concluded that President Biden had legitimately won, many Trump supporters refused to accept these results, arguing that the audit did not find fraud not because it did not exist but because the people running it did not do enough to uncover it. A fake report falsely asserting that Trump won circulated in QAnon communities, even getting picked up briefly by the Gateway Pundit.

Despite the Arizona audit’s obvious flaws and its ultimate failure to produce the results that Trump supporters were looking for, the concept of auditing has spread; audits are underway or are being considered in places like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, on November 24, 186 state legislators from 39 states across the country signed a letter that referred to the 2020 election as “corrupted” and called for forensic audits in all 50 states.

These audits were born out of the conspiracies generated in the wake of the November election; 11 months later, the audits and even the call for audits give life to the lies, which in turn prop up the anti-democratic anti-voter laws, not to mention partisan hijacking of positions tasked with implementing elections and counting and certifying votes. Meanwhile, voter suppression laws have been enacted in at least 19 states in 2021. Both the laws and the audits carry the very real potential to undermine the very core of our democracy and devastate trust in American elections.

Potential to Incite Violence

Conspiracies have long had the power to motivate people to violent action, especially if they designate specific people or groups of people as “villains” who must be defeated to prevent a catastrophic outcome. Pro-Trump extremists congregated at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, because they believed that Biden and the Democrats had stolen the election and were planning to use this fraudulent power to radically reshape America and target conservatives. The extremists’ actions that day demonstrated the power of the Big Lie to push Americans to violent action; the deadly insurrection was not, however, the only dangerous incident animated by the inciting rhetoric surrounding the 2020 election.

On January 21, the day after President Biden’s inauguration, Pennsylvania resident Kenelm Shirk III was arrested in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, while allegedly en route to Washington with the intention of attacking Democratic U.S. Senators. Police said they found an AR-15 rifle, two handguns and ammunition in his vehicle, alongside a “to-do” list, which read, in part, “guns, ammo, rope, tools, meds, magazine.” According to news reports, Shirk was upset about the results of the 2020 presidential election. Less than a week later, a man was arrested near the U.S. Capitol with a gun and “Stop the Steal” paperwork. He told police that he had concerns about “election integrity.”

On July 15, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the indictment of two California men, Ian Benjamin Rogers and Jarrod Copeland, on charges related to an alleged plot to target the Democratic party headquarters in Sacramento with incendiary devices. The two men, who had a cache of guns and explosives, were allegedly angered by Biden’s victory in the 2020 election and wanted to “hit the enemy in the mouth” by attacking Democratic targets with Molotov cocktails and gasoline.

On August 19, 2021, 49-year-old North Carolina resident Floyd Ray Roseberry was arrested outside the Library of Congress after allegedly threatening to detonate a bomb inside of his truck. Roseberry live-streamed his daylong vigil, and his rant – which covered a variety of issues including Democrats, illegal immigrants, and Afghanistan – referenced the Big Lie, saying, “I just got chose for the job. Unlike you [Biden]. This ain’t about politics. I don’t care if Donald Trump ever becomes president again. I think y’all Democrats need to step down. Y’all need to understand people don’t want you there.” A review of Roseberry’s Facebook by the Associated Press uncovered a video of Roseberry participating in a November rally where people carried Trump flags and chanted “stop the steal.” Following the August incident, Roseberry was ultimately taken into custody, but while there allegedly were “possible bomb-making materials” in his vehicle, authorities were not able to find a device.

Election officials across the country continue to be targeted with death threats from people who believe the right-wing conspiracies about the 2020 election.

On January 6, 2021, America bore witness to the power of incendiary and inciting rhetoric. The lies that animated the crowd on that day persist nationwide, and until these conspiracies are addressed by people in authority, and the public widely accepts the facts of Joe Biden’s victory, the U.S. remains at risk for another insurrection-style event — or perhaps an even a bloodier attack.

Methodology Statement

To measure the impact of stolen/rigged election claims on mainstream social media platforms, COE collected tweets from between November 3, 2020, and December 13, 2021, that matched keyword searches for variations of terms alleging that the election was “stolen” or “rigged,” or which contained variations on the phrase “stop the steal.” Our initial data collection returned 225,937 tweets for the stolen/rigged election strand, and 323,290 tweets for stop the steal strand.

To eliminate false positives from our corpus, we trained two RoBERTA-based binary text classification models using a subset of expert-annotated examples. We then ran inference on both unfiltered datasets. To measure the performance of the models we trained on the unfiltered datasets, we randomly sampled two representative samples and had experts annotate them independent of model predictions. For the stop the steal strand, model predictions overlapped with independent expert annotation in 368 out of 400 cases, an accuracy of 92%. For the rigged/stolen election strand, model predictions overlapped with independent expert annotation in 351 out of 400 cases, an accuracy of 87.75%. At this stage, we were confident the models were suitable for our use case. We applied the models to our datasets, and since the two datasets are thematically similar, we then merged them and deduplicated them. Drawing on model predictions, we identified 200,270 tweets in support of/relevant to the rigged/stolen election and stop the steal arguments.

We then plotted these corpora of tweets according to the dates they were posted to see how the number of tweets positing stolen or rigged elections changed over time. We also present aggregated confirmatory interaction counts that are calculated by summing up retweet and like counts with tweet frequency at the original date of a tweet being posted. In this case, retweet and like counts are important indicators of traction and acceptance of the narratives we were interested in. Compared to replies, which can be used to display both agreement and opposition to the original tweets, retweets and likes can be construed as confirmatory interactions on Twitter. Barring sarcastic retweeting and liking actions (e.g. retweeting an old tweet from a politician that contradicts their current position to make them look hypocritical), it is possible to claim that in majority of the cases, a Twitter user liking or retweeting a tweet displays a public endorsement for the message of the tweet. In our case, measuring this public endorsement and confirmatory interactions for the messages of interest was important. With this in mind, we summed calculated daily aggregated confirmatory interactions (adding retweet and like counts to each tweet) for the relevant subset and presented the results in a time series plot.

It must be noted that confirmatory interactions may have happened at any time between the time of posting of a tweet and the time of analysis, but they are aggregated to the original date that a tweet was posted. It must also be noted that this measure does not measure the unique number of users who retweeted and liked each tweet, as it is possible for one user to retweet and like a tweet at the same time, in which case our methodology would count two different interactions. Finally, daily tweet frequency, retweet counts and like counts were valid as of the time of analysis. It is possible for a tweet to receive more interactions after our data collection date.  

Further caveats and implications relevant to our methodology are contained in the report.

Extremism
Terrorism