Over the last four years President Donald Trump has seeded the narrative that the 2020 election would be rigged. Those efforts look set to pay off.
A sizable online network built around the president is poised to amplify any claims from Trump about a rigged election, adding reach and enthusiasm that could lend a veneer of legitimacy to otherwise evidence-free allegations.
Multiple social media analyses, including one conducted by a group of nonprofit researchers on behalf of NBC News, have detailed how a collection of the president's relatives and members of his inner circle, along with far-right media manipulators and an online army of disciples, has created or spread false or misleading content that supports his "rigged" narrative, while his campaign is urging supporters to join an "army" and "defend their vote."
This network is not waiting for Election Day to spring into action. The research is among the first to show how misleading or outright false claims about discarded ballots have already become rallying cries.
"The narrative is priming the base, and the base is feeding the narrative," said Kate Starbird, an associate professor with the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public and one of the researchers at the Election Integrity Partnership, a nonpartisan collaboration dedicated to identifying disinformation related to the campaign.
While election officials try to debunk Trump's false claims and restore faith in the integrity of the vote, disinformation researchers are calling the "rigged" narrative a gift to Russia and other foreign countries seeking to influence the election, and they are warning that online chatter could turn to real-world violence on Election Day.
As an example, Starbird, who with her colleagues has tracked 300 million tweets related to voting and ballots, said rare or old local news articles about improperly thrown-away mail were being exaggerated and reframed in misleading ways by hyperpartisan right-wing news websites, amplified by Twitter influencers and eventually promoted by the White House as proof of some inevitable election fraud.
These kinds of "pre-emptive disinformation narratives" seed distrust in mail-in voting, Starbird said. And with a month left until the election, there's no sign of its slowing.
"We're experiencing an acceleration in disinformation," Starbird said. "And I don't think we're even just looking at Election Day but possibly for days and even weeks after, depending on how things go."
In April, as cases of and deaths from the coronavirus climbed, voting rights advocates and Democrats were pressuring states to make voting by mail more widely available to reduce crowds at polling stations where the virus could be easily transmitted.
Trump responded to their efforts with a warning. "Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they're cheaters," he said during a White House briefing. ‘"'RIPE for FRAUD,’' and shouldn't be allowed!" he tweeted the next day.
Since then, Trump has posted online at least 40 times and retweeted dozens of messages about what he claims will be a fraudulent election, "rigged" by a rotating cast of enemies: foreign state actors, corrupt politicians, cheating election officials, shifty poll workers, mail deliverers, Democratic voters and more.
More recently, his campaign has begun to float another extreme idea: that Trump is far ahead in the polls. Corey Lewandowski, a senior adviser to the president's campaign, said Monday that the campaign’s internal polling shows that it is "mathematically impossible for Joe Biden to win this campaign," although he did not disclose any of the campaign's data. The NBC News National Polling Average, which averages the 10 most recent reliable public polls, showed Biden with a lead of almost 11 points Monday.
Although it is not based in reality, according to the army of fact-checkers who have debunked Trump's various election claims in recent months, the message has resonated with his most active supporters.
The idea of a rigged election has already taken hold in Trump's fervent online base, a horde of digital activists who dutifully share links from right-wing blogs and junk news sites and turn the president's message into memes.
Trump's message has spread in two distinct echo chambers with little or no contact from outsiders, according to an analysis of tweets about a "rigged" election using RAND's social media and text analytics platform, RAND-Lex, conducted for NBC News.
The bulk of the explicit conversation — nearly 2 million tweets from April to September — originates with Trump. His top five tweets reached an estimated 425 million views, according to an analysis metric from the social intelligence company Brandwatch.
Following a Trump tweet, the "rigged" claims move through a conservative, pro-Trump meta-community, whose members rally around several shared narratives: a dislike of former President Barack Obama, a belief that Covid-19 is being used as an excuse to suppress in-person voter turnout and enable mail-in ballot fraud, and an overwhelming support for the QAnon conspiracy theory, according to the analysis.
A progressive online community has responded by attacking Trump and claiming that he and his Republican allies will "rig the election" by discrediting mail-in ballots and other subterfuge.
Conversations about voting methods are increasing, online and off, according to the media intelligence platform Zignal Labs, which is analyzing social media, broadcast, traditional media and online conversations around the presidential election. Those conversations are also heavily misinformed, particularly around topics involving absentee voting, voter fraud, voter identification, foreign interference and ballot harvesting, with an average of 22 percent of vote-by-mail mentions across all media including misinformation, according to Zignal Labs' analysis.
On Facebook, Trump's posts attacking the integrity of the election have racked up millions of views, comments and shares. In his most popular "rigged" post, he said, "We voted during World War One & World War Two with no problem, but now they are using Covid in order to cheat by using Mail-Ins!" Trump followed the next month with the post "IF YOU CAN PROTEST IN PERSON, YOU CAN VOTE IN PERSON!" The post attracted 1 million interactions on Facebook alone, and supporters took the framing and made their own memes, which in turn garnered millions of views and shares on Instagram and TikTok.
One popular meme format asked a false hypothetical: "If you won the lottery, would you mail in your winning ticket? Why not?"
"Memes are incredibly effective at spreading misinformation, because they are bite-sized, hard to track and sent to you by a friend," said Mitch Chaiet, who heads Memetic Influence, a company that analyzes misinformation spread through memes. "You can't fact-check a meme like you can an article. You can't criticize the author. You can't criticize where you got it. You can only react."
Trump's claims have provided an opportunity for foreign governments that seek to influence the vote, especially Russia's, said Clint Watts, who studies disinformation at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Citing articles on the state-controlled Russian news network RT that included "Donald Trump is completely right about mail-in ballots — they are the easiest route to a RIGGED ELECTION," Watts said: "They just can't believe this is happening. It's the greatest thing ever for disinformation from afar."
Beyond just influencing the vote for their preferred candidate or creating further division between political sides, amplifying Trump's claims fulfills a greater goal, Watts, who is also an NBC News national security analyst, said.
"This aligns with the longer-term goal, to make Americans believe that democracy is a fraud, all elections are rigged, you can't trust elected officials, you don't even know if they won." Watts said. "It's leading to people essentially subverting their own democracy and not believing in the entire system."
Many of the president's online supporters have pointed to protests against disputed election results in authoritarian states like Belarus as an example of what's at stake for this election, a comparison rejected by Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "How to Lose the Information War."
"We aren't an authoritarian state," Jankowicz said. "This is the diametric opposite of what actually happened in places where there are color revolutions, where there was a pre-existing distrust of the government, and people rose up spontaneously and peacefully in order to counteract that."
Republican officials hold that the goal of the army is to record photos and videos that will prove the so-called theft of the election, in court or in public opinion. But more militant members of the president's base have taken the warnings of a rigged vote as a rallying cry for action on Election Day.
"Here we have the opposite. The right is seeding this 'rigged' narrative to prime people to want to defend the election in a way that our election does not need to be defended," Jankowicz said. "No candidate needs an army in the United States of America."
Nevertheless, Trump is building just that. Sparked by his comments at the first debate that he expected "a fraudulent election" and was "urging my supporters to go in to the polls and watch very carefully," the campaign released a Facebook video with Donald Trump Jr. calling for "every able-bodied man and woman" to join an "army" of volunteers to stop the "radical left," who have been "laying the groundwork to steal the election from my father."
"We need you to help us watch them," he said.
Facebook has since updated its rules to ban "militarized" calls for poll watching.
The enforcement is just one of a series of policy changes in recent months from Facebook and Twitter meant to stop the spread of false or misleading claims about the election and prevent candidates from prematurely claiming victory.
Whether those measures will slow the firehose of disinformation that experts are bracing for remains to be seen. But with Trump's internet base primed to amplify any sign of voting irregularities, the scene is set for claims of a rigged election to spread far and wide.
"When there's a lot of uncertainty, we're particularly vulnerable," Starbird said. "If the election results aren't certain, then this is going to be a time where it doesn't matter what your political affiliation is, you're going to be susceptible to disinformation that can have an effect on how you feel about the validity of those results."