Whether or not the election denialists win, they’re not going to accept any Democratic victories

Bannon’s closing message to his acolytes on his podcast, in fact, was all about sowing distrust in election outcomes, particularly if Democrats—who he repeatedly called “professional thieves”—win any races at all in the midterms. Bannon told an interview subject that Democrats are “going to pull every trick in the book” in order to “steal” the elections, adding: “They will not lose graciously. This is going to be very nasty and it’s going to be very tough and we’re going to be gentlemen and gentlewomen about it but steely resolve. There’s no chance they’re going to steal any of this.”

“Misinformation is going to be central to this midterm election and central to the 2024 election,” Bhaskar Chakravorti of Tufts University told the Associated Press. “The single galvanizing narrative is that the 2020 election was stolen.”

The AP reports that baseless rumors about noncitizens voting, along with claims about the security of mail-in ballots, have been circulating in the past two weeks with greater intensity. There also have been claims about dead people casting ballots, ballot drop boxes being moved, or more fantastic claims about voting machines.

Some Republicans have said they’re hanging onto their mail ballots until Election Day in response, while others have vowed to monitor polling stations and ballot drop boxes. MAGA activists have been organizing an army of “poll watchers” since the summer, and have deployed a menu of strategies aimed at promoting election denialism.

In response to this planned onslaught, most social media companies have simply shut down their oft-touted efforts to weed out election disinformation from their platforms. The Washington Post found that, in stark contrast to the 2018 and 2020 elections, neither Facebook nor Twitter have tagged posts with false or dubious information about the integrity of the election system. It found that at least 26 candidates “have posted inaccurate election claims since April, but the platforms have done virtually nothing to refute them.”

Previously, both platforms added labels to posts spreading false claims about the 2020 election, but this year, such labels “have been nonexistent.” Facebook claimed it had received feedback from users that the labels were overused, so the company decided that any labels this year would be used in a more “targeted and strategic way.” Late last year, Twitter started experimenting with newly designed misinformation labels that the company says led to decreases in replies, retweets and likes of falsehoods and an increase in people clicking through to the debunking content.

The Post found 17 candidates posting on Facebook or Twitter who claimed the 2022 election or aspects of the voting system are being rigged. It counted 40 such posts, and found that they all went unchallenged. Similarly, some 18 election denialists running for office claimed the 2020 election was fraudulent some 52 times, again without any challenge on the part of Facebook or Twitter.

The problem appears to be deepening at Twitter due to Elon Musk’s takeover of the company. Last week, he responded to two election denialists—onetime Trump legal team member Jenna Ellis, who posted a plea from Arizona’s Mark Finchem, a notorious denialist currently running for Arizona Secretary of State, begging to be allowed back onto Twitter, after he was suspended—warmly, telling them: “Looking into it.”

Later that evening, Finchem’s account had been restored. He thanked Musk on Twitter “for stopping the commie who suspended me from Twitter a week before the election.” The account restoration was widely celebrated among his fellow election denialists, and Finchem was invited onto One America News to talk about it. He proceeded to unleash a deluge of posts making various denialist claims, as well as suggesting he would seek the prosecution of journalists who ask him tough questions.

“This is no longer a new problem,” Jon Lloyd, senior adviser at the nonprofit Global Witness, told the Post. Global Witness recently released a report showing that, like Facebook and Twitter, the video platform TikTok also failed to remove many advertisements containing election misinformation. Big social media platforms, he said, “are still simply not doing enough to stop threats to democracy.”

Some election misinformation originates on liberal or left-wing accounts as well—notably posts claiming that voting machines are switching early Texas voters’ choices from Democratic to Republican candidates. Investigations of those cases, however, have largely shown that these have been instances of voter error, and there has been no substantiated evidence of vote-switching by machines.

However, these instances have been relatively few in number and emanate from accounts with limited reach. Right-wing disinformation, in contrast, is amplified not just by a massive network of likeminded denialists on social media, but by an entire framework of right-wing social media that blasts it out to an even larger audience.

Take 2000 Mules, the fraudulent pseudo-documentary by MAGA provocateur Dinesh D’Souza that purports to reveal a massive voter-fraud operation by left-wing “mules” who stuff ballot boxes with manufactured ballots. It has been promoted by multiple Republicans, and on Facebook alone, mentions of the film have had over 4 million interactions.

In fact, D’Souza’s documentary has been repeatedly demonstrated to be utterly groundless garbage. It has been debunked by Reuters, the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, FactCheck.org, Politifact, and NPR, to name only a few of the outlets where its phony “facts” and false premises have been eviscerated.  

One of the accused “mules” shown in the film is currently suing D’Souza and his cohorts for defamation after a Georgia state investigation demonstrated he was legally depositing ballots for himself and his family members.

Facts, however, are both meaningless to election denialists, and appear to be fruitless in combating the spread of their lies and its underlying attack on American democracy. So the denialists will be out at the polls on Election Day—encouraged by Republican officials.

“I have been so pleased to hear about all you vigilantes out there that want to camp out at these drop boxes,” Arizona State Sen. Kelly Townsend told a legislative hearing earlier this year at which denialists had held forth.

Then, she warned would-be “mules”: “We’re going to be out there, we’re going to have hidden trail cameras, we’re going to have people parked out there watching you, and they’re going to follow you to your car and get your license plate.”

What their rhetoric makes clear, moreover, is that these denialists will not accept any Democratic victories. “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander—one of the central figures in the Jan. 6 rallies that preceded the insurrection at the Capitol, and a Bannon protegé—recently made all of this explicit: “Any election I don’t like is stolen,” he told his podcast audience. “If I don’t like it, it’s stolen. If I like it, it’s not stolen. If you win, it’s stolen.”

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