The pregame conspiracy theorizing made it easy for right-wing rumormongers to throw all sorts of falsehoods at the wall on Election Day. Now, we’re starting to see which of these fictitious narratives have stuck: that Sharpies were handed to some voters instead of pens to invalidate their choices; that watermarks appended to ballots are part of a Department of Homeland Security sting operation that will root out massive fraud; that votes from dead people swung the election away from the incumbent in battleground states. The recent surge in this last lie coincides with matching claims by the Trump reelection campaign, plus a plan from the defeated candidate to brandish obituaries at upcoming rallies.
The rumormongers, it is clear, receive their marching orders from the very top. The deceit trickles down from Mr. Trump to his direct surrogates to the self-appointed foot soldiers who roam the fever swamps of hyperpartisan news outlets and social media. Their deliberate disinformation turns into credulous followers’ misinformation, which in turn only breeds more misinformation. Researchers at the Election Integrity Partnership have noted that the fabrications with the furthest reach on social media sites have come from elite influencers, whose audiences are so faithful in their resharing that bad actors don’t even have to plan their coordination anymore.
These consolidated narratives of a stolen election probably aren’t going anywhere — not in the next few weeks, as legal challenges get fought out, and perhaps not even in the next few years. The question is whether these narratives are relegated to the country’s fringes or occupy a more prominent place in our national conversation. Part of this depends on the major social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as well as traditional media’s readiness to keep the record clean and correct. Yet the future depends even more on how many Americans in positions of power are willing to be complicit in a sustained assault on democracy — and how many will stand up for the truth.