IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Misinformation by a thousand cuts: Varied rigged election claims circulate

A dizzying array of false claims and conspiracy theories have dominated social and ultraconservative media since the early morning after Election Day.
Image: Election protest
A demonstrator stands with supporters of President Donald Trump outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center where votes are being counted, on Nov. 6, 2020, in Philadelphia.John Minchillo / AP

For Trump supporters intent on finding it, proof of the president's claims that the 2020 election was "stolen" is everywhere.

For some, it's in the videos: the one in which a Colorado man claiming to be a poll worker, dressed in a yellow vest, rips up Trump ballots (it was a TikTok prank) or the trash bag of torn ballots found by a wedding party in an Oklahoma church (they were actually "spoiled ballots") or the testimony from a Pennsylvania postal worker who claimed he was ordered to backdate ballots mailed after Election Day (he has since recanted and also denied recanting).

For others, the evidence of a so-called Democratic plot could be found in the numbers.

"Is it me, or do people not understand statistics?" asked one of the 1.3 million members in Nationwide Recount 2020, a private Facebook group, presenting an impassioned, if confusing, case for why mail-in ballots in swing states were favoring Biden.

"Benford's Law," a supporter commented, linking to an anonymous Twitter account that claimed in a series of tweets that a mathematical observation that the first digits of numbers are likely to be smaller somehow suggested widespread fraud by the Democrats.

Posts like these, discussing a dizzying array of false claims and conspiracy theories, have dominated social and ultraconservative media since the early morning after Election Day, when President Donald Trump prematurely and incorrectly declared himself the winner. As the votes continue to be counted and Joe Biden's lead has increased (Biden was up by more than 5 million votes Wednesday), so has Trump's insistence that the election was stolen from him.

And while no evidence of significant, widespread or even small-time voter fraud has been found, the years of groundwork laid by Trump and his supporters have blossomed into a flood of misleading — and importantly, fractured — claims of a rigged election.

An analysis of post-election conversations in social media, broadcast, traditional and online media by the intelligence platform Zignal Labs reported more than 4.6 million mentions of voter fraud in the week after Election Day.

The conversation centers on more than 20 distinct narratives making up an election fraud disinformation campaign, according to an analysis provided to NBC News by the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of researchers studying misinformation and the vote.

"Instead of evidence, we're assaulted with a plethora of claims seeking to undermine faith in the election, ranging from confusing to clearly fabricated," said Joe Bak-Coleman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington who is tracking post-election disinformation as part of the Election Integrity Partnership. "Individually, none of these claims could stand up to a moment's scrutiny, but collectively they're deafening, urging the average citizen to give up and accept the ambiguity."

Among the barrage of baseless or misrepresented claims of election shenanigans: that ballots were invalid, ripped, dumped, late, changed, magically found but also lost; that voters were undocumented, from out of state, using their maiden names to vote twice or dead; that the calls were rigged by both the machines and software used to count and report the votes and by the news organizations that called the race. And then there are the far-out claims made popular in QAnon communities, including one that "non-radioactive isotope watermarks" were the key to a military sting operation that would reveal how Democrats had won votes with counterfeit ballots. A video of a woman inspecting her ballot for such a watermark has been viewed 560,000 times on YouTube.

These claims are born, go viral across platforms and then, sometimes within hours, are dead and replaced by new claims. While a few have managed to break out and find new life through more traditional media, none have quite stuck. Yet.

Fact-checkers have been working overtime, too. Facebook has labeled at least a few dozen posts, and BuzzFeed's election-related running fact check has reached 44 debunks and counting. The New York Times reported Tuesday that election officials or representatives in every state reported no evidence of voter fraud or other irregularities that affected the election's outcome.

Authorities have tried to keep up. In the weeks before Election Day, the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors, which together represent the joint opinions of every state's chief election official, issued multiple statements of support for the country's election integrity.

But since the election, the groups have been quiet, offering only a single statement the day after to thank poll workers. That's in line with the groups' policy, which is not to comment on who wins or loses, just to endorse states' final certifications of elections, which for most states doesn't happen until late November or early December.

And while Chris Krebs, the head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which oversees the security and integrity of election infrastructure, has personally batted down some conspiracy theories, several states said they had no plans to make any kind of joint declaration of trust in one another's findings after the election. "Our focus is on completing the election and awarding our electoral votes," said Maggie Sheehan, press secretary for Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

Some polling suggests that the voter fraud disinformation campaign and the baseless claims that power it might be working. According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll, 7 in 10 Republicans say the election was "not free and fair."

"It's too early to say which narratives will take hold," said Joan Donovan, research director at the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. "It took months to make Trump's claim that 'mail-in voting is rigged' stick. There is a highly fractured right wing, so there may never be narrative closure, which is needed to work in a consensus."

But a consensus may not be necessary.

"The true cost of misinformation is related to how the public perceives the issue and what the government will have to do to settle it, which I don't think they can in this case," Donovan said. "People will always believe that it was rigged."

Nowhere was that clearer than in the Nationwide Recount 2020 Facebook group, where a member asked Tuesday what everyone thought about the QAnon watermark claim.

"No idea," another member replied in the comments, "but it sure feels good."