The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The conspiracy theory-du-jour: Did The Washington Post steal Delaware votes from Bernie Sanders?

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Conspiracy theories are always more interesting than accidents. As humans, we have evolved to spot patterns, to pick out the dragon in the clouds or faces in buildings. We are great at taking disparate things and seeing in them something new. There's a psychological reward in that, a puzzle solved. When something unexpected happens, we will try to fit it into a pattern and are pleased when we encounter that little *snap* of it falling into place. It doesn't matter if the pattern we found is more complicated than it needs to be; in fact, that's part of the charm.

And so: Conspiracy theories.

One thing that's happened recently which was unexpected by a large group of people is that Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders in five out of six of the last Democratic primary contests. And as we saw earlier this week, that prompted some conspiratorial pattern-seeking.

The actor Tim Robbins tweeted a hopelessly weird analysis of exit poll data cobbled together by a professional comedian named Lee Camp. (The tweet has since been deleted, but here's Camp's version.) It was part of a broader theme, that Sanders lost in New York as another step in a grand conspiracy against him and his supporters. After all, Sanders himself said he'd win, and this was after he gained "momentum" by winning seven of the previous eight contests. But nonetheless: Clinton won by 16 percent. Hmmmmm. Let's find patterns.

(One possible pattern: One-fifth of the New York electorate was black and supported Clinton 3-to-1. As in other states in which a lot of black Democrats voted, Clinton won.)

Exitpollgate was followed by another conspiracy in short order. A number of Facebook pages for pro-Sanders groups went down, and news outlets sympathetic to his candidacy quickly pointed fingers at Clinton supporters. The Daily Beast and Gawker dug into it, and the mystery was solved. "A number of groups were inaccessible for a brief period after one of our automated policies was applied incorrectly," a Facebook spokesperson told Gawker. A simpler explanation (which also explained why thousands of other pages went dark) -- but a less satisfying one.

On Tuesday, as election results were coming in, The Washington Post suddenly became part of the conspiracy, too. A website called Election Fraud 2016 posted an article titled, "Election Live Results Observers Catch Sanders Votes Going DOWN." It included this screen shot, showing a change in the vote totals for Bernie Sanders in one county in Delaware. First he led by 5,000 votes -- and then he trailed by 1,200.

It's useful to spend a bit of time explaining how our live results update works. The Associated Press releases data as the night progresses and results come in. Every 30 seconds, a script automatically pulls the AP’s data and saves it, which then populates our maps.

We never touch the numbers themselves; they simply appear through the power of Internet magic. What happened was not that The Post changed the numbers on our website. What happened is that the AP changed the numbers on its end -- and ours changed as a result. (It's also why the Guardian's numbers changed in the same way, as that same blog post points out.)

So what happened? "It was a vote-entry error," AP Director of Elections Services Brian Scanlon told The Post. "We quickly caught it and corrected within two minutes." In other words, the spike in support for Sanders (which would have constituted a sixth of his total support in the state) was a glitch like the Facebook outage. It is not the case that a cabal of conspirators for some reason posted real vote totals only to then change them, which would be a pretty stupid way to go about committing election fraud.

But its existence fit into the they're-out-to-get-us pattern. The trick to conspiracy theories is that they can never be rebutted fully; any contrary evidence will simply be pattern-sorted back into the big-picture belief. So it doesn't do much good to point out that violating the law in a conspiracy to give Clinton big wins like she saw on Tuesday wouldn't have mattered for the delegate math at all. That even those extra 3,000 votes wouldn't have won Sanders Delaware. Or that the early exit polls leaked before polls closed on Twitter -- the source of those conspiracy theories the day prior -- lined up neatly with the final results.

For people who want to see a pattern of conspiracy, motivated reasoning kicks in, and unhelpful information is set aside.

What happened with The Post's election returns on Tuesday night was not a conspiracy. It was a data glitch that wasn't even our fault. And the two reactions to that statement will be either "obviously" or "YOU ARE LYING."

Or, at least, that's the pattern I've come to recognize.