By Garrett Ferrara
With the beginning of the 118th United States Congress, the long 2022 election season has now finally come to an end–but the 2024 election has already begun. Elections and disinformation have continued to evolve since adversarial state actors attempted to influence the 2016 election. With our team having worked to counter disinformation each election since then, we’ve observed major shifts in how the threat manifests to impact our election institutions—acknowledging these trends leads to better mitigation, which leads to safer and more secure elections.
Part of our mission at Alethea is to identify and expose instances of disinformation that threaten our democracy and democratic institutions. Alethea continuously observed narratives and social media manipulation in online communities—with content claiming that U.S. elections are stolen, unfair, or corrupt; seeking to undermine public trust in U.S. democratic or election institutions; or threatening or intimidating election administrators, workers, or voters themselves. Most of these narratives were a direct continuation of those observed in previous election cycles, and they remained salient even though discussion of these subjects in mainstream media coverage eased between elections.
The good news is that during the midterm elections, the vast majority of races concluded without controversy, and the wave of candidates who pledged to subvert democratic processes or norms generally underperformed. However, due to the largest elections being statewide, this election cycle did see the rise of a more fragmented, more locally focused election disinformation ecosystem compared to the presidential race of 2020. What 2022 has shown us is that election narratives fueled by disinformation are likely here to stay, and that the nature of the threat has shifted from preventing belief to preventing action.
Alethea worked to detect narratives that could damage trust in democracy and democratic institutions from primaries through the final runoffs and recounts. Alethea assesses that the result of two years of consistent false, misleading, and conspiratorial narratives has led to more instances of offline action. Here is what we saw:
Election Fraud Claims
Unsubstantiated election fraud allegations were consistent throughout the 2022 election season, but they varied greatly in their specificity and in who or what they implicated. Alethea observed election fraud claims against nearly all parts of the election process, from who was conducting or participating in elections to the infrastructure used to collect votes, especially voting machines and absentee or mail-in voting methods. Most fraud claims originated from one or both of two, often overlapping communities: the “Stop the Steal” community, which formed around claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, and QAnon adherents, who believe in a wide-ranging conspiracy concerning a shadowy cabal of elites who their anonymous leader, Q, is supposedly fighting against.
Individuals Engaged in Election Fraud
Various state election officials and Secretaries of State were scrutinized as part of these election fraud narratives, especially in contested states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. For example, Arizona Governor-elect Katie Hobbs was named in election fraud narratives due to her previous position as Arizona Secretary of State and for her complaints questioning the credibility of a 2021 Arizona election audit. Hobbs’ opponent, Kari Lake, who regularly cast doubt on the election outcome, has not at the time of this publication conceded the election to now-Governor Katie Hobbs. Other narratives accusing individuals of election fraud were less specific, usually focusing on Democratic Party leaders or business leaders and their construed ties to foreign entities, such as the Chinese Communist Party, or the “deep state”, a supposed shadowy, entrenched group of powerful US individuals that are accused of working against what’s best for the American people.
Voting Machines Rigging Elections
Narratives that voting machines were used to rig elections continued from the 2020 election cycle into 2022, particularly narratives implicating Dominion Voting Systems. Election fraud narratives across mainstream and fringe social media platforms claimed that Democratic Party and business elites control electronic voting machines or that Dominion themselves implemented or ignored malicious code that allowed actors to alter election results. Dominion announced they are pursuing legal action against publications and influencers for defamation for amplifying these claims. These narratives frequently tried to connect voting machines to nefarious entities, both foreign and domestic.
Immediately, the spread of narratives concerning voting machines poses a risk to elections by providing another avenue to cast doubt on the legitimacy of a given election. Additionally, the public debate and legal proceedings over voting machines could delay the purchase of new or replacement voting machines with the newest, most up-to-date and secure software, similar to what happened in Ohio in 2021. A decline in trust in voting machines could also lead individuals to overvoting—the marking of extra candidates on a ballot–and other efforts to force a lengthy hand count of ballots where the time it takes to declare a winner is used as evidence of supposed election interference. While the latter two scenarios have only happened in isolated cases, any interruption or discrepancy with voting machines will likely be taken by election deniers and their supporters as further evidence of the insecurity of the machines.
Mail In Ballots
In the 2020 election cycle, narratives claiming that mail-in ballots enable election fraud expanded in 2022 to also focus on ballot drop-boxes. One of the most impactful pieces of media to affect election fraud claims this election cycle was 2000 Mules, a documentary-style film by conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza and vote monitoring organization True the Vote. The film’s debunked claims included allegations that cellular data revealed the presence of “mules”—individuals supposedly stuffing ballot boxes with fraudulent ballots—operating during the 2020 election. The individuals who researched the film released their information to the public during an event referred to as “pulling the ripcord”, where they encouraged the public to conduct their own investigations into supposed ballot drop-off “mules”. No evidence of widespread voter fraud using absentee ballots has been accepted by any court that heard cases on the subject.
It is impossible to discuss the trend of election denial conspiracies without discussing QAnon on its own. QAnon and QAnon-adjacent communities frequently discussed election conspiracies, with an emphasis on offline action to police what they saw as another upcoming stolen election. After an 18-month silence, this summer, a user using the same unique identifier as Q began posting several drops, cryptic messages attempting to guide followers to what QAnon adherents refer to as “the plan”, on 8kun. The supposed return of Q sparked discussions among the QAnon community, which had started to fragment into clusters following different influencers on fringe social media platforms. As discussed above, there was significant overlap between narratives found in Stop the Steal and QAnon communities, with the latter frequently incorporating antisemitic rhetoric into their explanations of who is behind the supposed election fraud.
These narratives, which began in the 2020 elections and took hold in the years after, have motivated individuals to move from online conversation to offline action. Alethea observed the following during the 2022 midterm elections:
Crowdsourced Election Monitoring & Poll Watching
During the 2022 election cycle, Alethea observed an increased focus from 2020 on independent or crowdsourced election monitoring by individuals and groups who have espoused or otherwise been influenced by election fraud narratives. “Stop the Steal” and self-described “election integrity” groups and influencers encouraged individuals to investigate election fraud on their own and organized events to guard or observe polling locations and ballot drop boxes across the country. In some cases, groups planned their events in private social media communities or email lists.
This decentralized, less public approach to organizing events can make it difficult for law enforcement and others responsible for protecting free and fair elections to prepare for events that have the potential to create dangerous or unlawful situations, for example through clashes between observers and poll workers or voters or through conduct that violates voter intimidation laws.
Violence, Intimidation, Vandalism
One of the most prominent threats posed by election-related disinformation is the potential to inspire individuals to believe that violence is the most (or only) effective way to combat perceived election fraud. Alethea observed violent rhetoric throughout the 2022 election cycle, usually in the form of calls for military justice or executions or wishing harm upon individuals perceived to be involved in election fraud. Those working our elections have increasingly become the targets of violent language online; according to a Brennan Center report, one in six election workers experienced threats themselves, and 30% know an election official who resigned because of fear for their safety in recent years. Early in the 2022 election cycle, we also saw an effort to make public the identities of “mules” supposedly identified in 2000 Mules. In one case, an individual became the subject of an online doxxing campaign, to the point where the individual’s identifying information was shared online.
With ballot drop boxes being a central theme of 2022 election fraud narratives, Alethea also saw calls for the destruction or sabotage of drop boxes across multiple online spaces. Self professed “election integrity” groups monitored drop boxes in multiple states, on the look out for those supposedly delivering fraudulent ballots or otherwise tampering with those already submitted. Online “Stop the Steal” communities greatly praised these actions, while the observers themselves became the subject of lawsuits and controversy following accusations that they crossed the line into intimidating voters. In a few isolated incidents, online calls to destroy ballot boxes resulted in their destruction or damage.
Since the conclusion of the 2022 election cycle, the narratives Alethea observed have continued and we expect them to stay. As a result, we anticipate the continued risk of online activity leading to offline action. The fractionalization of online conspiratorial communities from mainstream social media platforms to disparate alternative platforms and private groups will perpetuate narratives, as algorithmic curation continues to feed algorithmic biases.
As Alethea continues to work to protect elections, we are building new solutions to meet the current reality and proactively solve for tomorrow’s threats. Our goal is to support our 501c3 partners and elections leaders so they have the insights needed to protect communities from election-related information manipulation. We will continue to do our part to protect the sanctity of our democratic process.