The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Social media was a cesspool of toxic Iowa conspiracy theories last night. It’s only going to get worse.

A caucus begins at Drake Fieldhouse in Des Moines on Monday night. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Nature abhors a vacuum. And so does Twitter. 

As it became obvious late Monday night that a technical glitch would dramatically hold up the results of the long-anticipated Iowa caucuses, social media exploded with dark ideas about what had happened.

The hashtag “MayorCheat” was trending, a nasty shot at Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg promoted by Mike Cernovich, the rabble-rousing pro-Trump media personality, who tweeted out his conspiracy theory in the early hours Tuesday about connections between the former South Bend, Ind., mayor and the technology company behind the app at the center of the electoral meltdown.

If that was too subtle, another of his tweets simply repeated “RIGGED!” 35 times.

President Trump wasn’t far behind. Though he didn’t immediately suggest malfeasance, he claimed it as a personal victory: “The Democrat Caucus is an unmitigated disaster. Nothing works.” His 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, used the episode to sow doubt: “Democrats are stewing in a caucus mess of their own creation with the sloppiest train wreck in history. It would be natural for people to doubt the fairness of the process,” he told The Washington Post’s Anne Rumsey Gearan.

Meanwhile, memes featuring Hillary Clinton hunched over a keyboard circulated with the hashtag #IowaCaucusDisaster.

All credible reporting seemed to confirm the explanation that a technical snag, not a dirty trick, was to blame. But it didn’t matter. Iowa conspiracy theorists were already working overtime long before voters headed to their caucus sites Monday evening, thanks to another technical glitch that prompted the Des Moines Register to cancel the release of its vaunted Iowa Poll on Saturday night.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang circulated the hashtag “#ReleaseThePoll,” claiming without evidence that it had been killed because their respective candidates did better than expected.

Calmer voices could be heard amid the shouting, but you had to listen carefully.

“People should get a grip,” wrote Sam Stein of the Daily Beast. “There are paper ballots. The caucuses happen OUT IN THE OPEN FOR EVERYONE TO SEE. . . . There isn’t a wizard behind the curtain here.”

But the murkiness was only deepened by legitimate concerns about the security of the new method for tabulating Iowa caucus votes, as a Wall Street Journal article warned last week. While Democratic Party leaders claimed a new mobile app would make it more efficient to report results from the caucus sites, others worried about susceptibility to hacking.

Douglas Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa who has studied election security, told the Journal that the app was a “security nightmare,” and that it’s hard to protect individual cellphones against the range of possible cyberthreats.

Add to that, of course, the established facts about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and the whole picture becomes a muddle of things that might be true, things that might sound true but are in fact false or exaggerated, and flat-out preposterous lies.

And this mess isn’t about to stop with Iowa.

The circulating falsehoods “could so erode faith in the election that a losing candidate’s supporters may refuse to accept the results, either for the nomination or the White House,” warned David Becker, founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research.

“The thing that keeps me up at night,” Becker told the Associated Press, is that even if the 2020 election is fair and well-managed, “the losing party’s supporters won’t accept that democracy worked.”

You could see that ugly reality taking shape in the early hours of Tuesday morning, as hashtags flew and political opportunists rubbed their hands in glee.

Legitimate media has a huge responsibility here: to quickly identify what’s false, to relentlessly explain how disinformation flows and to get accurate information out quickly — but never before fully vetting it.

But even if executed perfectly — and it won’t be — much of this will be in vain.

The vacuum already will have been filled to the brim.

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