The baseless assertion, backed by millions of dollars from wealthy individuals, is reverberating across this alternative media ecosphere five months after Trump and many of his backers were pushed off Facebook and Twitter for spreading disinformation that inspired a mob to attack the U.S. Capitol. While largely unnoticed by Americans who have accepted the fact of President Biden’s victory, the deluge of content has captured the attention of many who think the election was rigged, a belief that is an animating force inside the Republican Party.
In this world, ballot reviews like a Republican-commissioned recount now underway in Arizona are about to begin in other key swing states. Conspiracy theories that grow more dizzyingly complex by the day will soon be proven, showing that China or other foreign powers secretly flipped votes for Biden. Trump will be restored as president in months.
These falsehoods are now seeping into civic life, spurring citizens in multiple states to demand that local officials review the 2020 results.
Kim Wyman, the Republican secretary of state in Washington, said her staff contended with the latest barrage of email and calls just last week. “It told us something had transpired online,” she said, adding: “You can’t disprove the negatives that are being thrown out that are absolutely based on nothing.”
The echo chamber is being sustained by figures such as Byrne, who says he has spent more than $5.5 million to examine election fraud since November, and Mike Lindell, the chief executive of MyPillow, who regularly speaks with Trump and says he has plowed $16 million into the effort. Other untold sums have been donated by ordinary Americans to nonprofit groups that say they are focused on “election integrity” and tout what has been dubbed the “big lie” about the 2020 election.
Their claims have been popularized by a steady stream of attention from far-right media outlets, including a daily podcast hosted by former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon. And they are being reinforced by Trump, through a flurry of statements issued by his PAC, and at rallies around the country, including one hosted by Lindell this month in Wisconsin that featured a live video appearance by the former president.
“They have their own version of YouTube, their own message groups. They have their own whole set of publications. … You have to wonder what percent of America is even aware of this shadow reality world,” said Harri Hursti, a cyber and elections expert who in recent days has devoted his Twitter feed to debunking a stream of falsehoods about a local ballot audit in New Hampshire. “Not only is it organized, but you have to think: How much money is needed to keep it going?”
Byrne characterized the forthcoming “Deep Rig” movie as a weapon in an “information war.”
“Those who don’t understand why this movie is important do not really understand the battlespace in which we fight,” he wrote in response to skeptics on Telegram.
The constant stream of purported evidence being cited by pro-Trump allies helps keep true believers engaged, according to University of Washington associate professor Kate Starbird. Recent polls show that more than 6 in 10 Republicans think Biden won as the result of fraud, a figure that has held steady months after Election Day.
“My worry as a researcher is that this is going to continue to be a prevailing belief system about how democracy works, and that people … will continue to have doubt and grow skeptical of the validity of the elections that we have,” said Starbird, who studied the spread of disinformation after the November election.
‘An overall questioning of election integrity’
Trump won a comfortable 56 percent of the vote in Houghton County, Mich., a rural area on the northern edge of the state’s Upper Peninsula, bordering Lake Superior.
But then a film produced by Lindell called “Absolute Proof” that aired on the pro-Trump One America News cable television network in February falsely claimed that 1,143 of the roughly 18,500 presidential votes cast in Houghton County had been switched for Biden via remote manipulation — part of what the film asserted was a broad plot to hack the election.
What happened next was a vivid demonstration of the influence of those promoting the “big lie.”
Although there had been no indication of any problems with the county’s voting systems, the board of commissioners began facing pressure from local residents to launch a new audit of the 2020 vote.
In a May 19 letter to Republican state Sen. Ed McBroom, who chairs a legislative oversight committee investigating the election, county Administrator Ben Larson wrote the board “has continued to receive requests to have this matter looked at … since the Lindell documentary aired.”
“This claim has led to an overall questioning of election integrity,” Larson added.
In response, McBroom appeared by Zoom at a commissioners’ meeting earlier this month, attempting to puncture Lindell’s theories. “We are finding zero evidence to support that,” he said. “What keeps on being postulated is something that is just not possible.”
Nevertheless, as the meeting ended, a member of the audience spoke up. Would the commissioners still consider a local audit, he asked, if members of the public funded it through donations? A board member responded that although legislative input was likely to be needed, the board might consider the idea.
Houghton is one of several Michigan counties where residents continue to push for ballot reviews, citing Lindell’s claims.
“I don’t know if the November 2020 election will ever be gone,” said Houghton County Clerk Jennifer Kelly, who said she has offered to allow commissioners to examine voting machines to demonstrate they are not connected to the Internet, as Lindell has claimed, to no avail.
On Wednesday, a state Senate committee chaired by McBroom released the results of a seven-month-long investigation of Michigan’s election results, which included testimony from 90 witnesses. The report concluded there was “no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud” and warned of “those who have pushed demonstrably false theories for their own personal gain.”
Lindell, who touts his improbable journey from crack addict to wealthy pillow entrepreneur, emerged immediately after the election as a leading disseminator of false allegations about the vote. He funded a bus tour in November and December to spread his theories, appearing frequently on pro-Trump cable networks. In January, days before Biden’s inauguration, he was photographed entering the White House with a document that referred to “martial law if necessary.” Twitter has permanently suspended him for amplifying misinformation.
Lindell’s claims have been repeatedly rejected by independent experts and investigators and by Democratic and Republican election officials in multiple states. He faces a $1.3 billion defamation suit by Dominion Voting Systems, a company that manufactures the machines at the heart of his allegations, and he was barred from attending a recent meeting of the Republican Governors Association after he vowed to confront officials there with his false claims.
But none of that has quieted him. Lindell believes that the evidence he and his experts have collected is overwhelming and will convince any reasonable person who takes the time to review it. He said in an interview that he persists “so there’s no more of this craziness going on in our country.”
He waves away those who dispute his claims, saying critics are not sufficiently knowledgeable about the data he has obtained. “The people you have asked haven’t a clue,” he told The Washington Post in a text message.
Lindell says “white hat hackers” slipped him vague information on Jan. 9 that he claims proves the election was manipulated. “People were in the twilight zone about what happened,” he said. “And then what a Godsend: people had this evidence.”
On June 3, he released a new film online called “Absolute 9-0,” which argues that soon-to-be-revealed information will be so compelling that the Supreme Court will be forced to unanimously reinstate Trump as president.
Of the $16 million that Lindell said he has spent so far, he said $10 million has gone into Frank, an online video and social network channel that got off to a glitchy start in April but that Lindell predicted would “put both Twitter and YouTube out of business.”
“I will spend every dime I have, if I have to, to get the truth out because I love this country,” he told The Post. Lindell acknowledged that he has established a legal defense fund so that “all those people who say they want to help” can put their money somewhere, but added, “I’m not looking for any money.”
He is now on a “big lie” speaking circuit of sorts, appearing at rallies and public festivals sponsored by Frank and other similar entities in swing states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. He says he will hold a major rally in July in Pennsylvania to push for an audit there. And, he says, he is planning a three-day national seminar to reveal his findings later this summer, one he hopes will be covered live by major news organizations.
Lindell said that he speaks to Trump every few weeks. “He is so much interested in Maricopa, in all the audits going on in the states,” Lindell said, referring to the recount of presidential election ballots in Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest jurisdiction.
Trump advisers confirmed that he is in regular contact with Lindell. The former president likes that Lindell is “out there fighting for him, throwing bombs and keeping hope alive,” according to a person close to him, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
Earlier this month, Trump appeared by video at a Frank-sponsored rally in New Richmond, Wis., that drew thousands to a riverside fairground where they listened to speakers excoriate the integrity of the election. Amid the booths for ice cream, hot dogs and face-painting was one for Lindell’s company MyPillow.
“The election was rigged,” the former president told the crowd. “The election was rigged like never before.”
Lori Brown, 52, whose children were volunteering at the event, said she believes the 2020 election was stolen. “I say that a little cautiously,” said Brown, who lives in Somerset, Wis. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’m not a crazy, as a lot of us are called. But I definitely am a conservative Christian and believe in standing up for our rights as Americans.”
The crowd was full of devotees decked out in Trump gear who said they had converted their media habits away from mainstream sources — including Fox News — ditching YouTube for Rumble, an alternative video site that has become popular with conservatives, and trading in Twitter for Telegram.
“We all love Mike Lindell,” said Marianne Norris, who drove six hours to the event from the western suburbs of Chicago.
She said she follows Frank, as well as One America News and sometimes Newsmax, and watched all four of Lindell’s films about the 2020 election, including the most recent, “Absolute 9-0.”
“That one will just blow your mind,” she said. “There’s nothing subjective. It’s based on irrefutable data by high levels — they call them, computer hackers.”
Experts who have reviewed the material have called it technical nonsense, featuring anonymous self-proclaimed computer experts who claim that spreadsheets of indecipherable numbers that scroll quickly on the screen prove their hacking theory — but do not detail how. (Lindell said the footage is intended as an illustration and that the data itself will be revealed later.)
“It’s the utmost hogwash,” said Hursti, a computer programmer who has worked to make voting machines more secure. “But it doesn’t have to make sense — for some people, that makes it more believable.”
On June 2, Byrne — the producer of “The Deep Rig” movie — posted a note to his 126,000 followers on the social media app Telegram revealing that Lindell would soon be filing a new lawsuit.
The suit, Byrne promised, would put forward fresh evidence of fraud in the election — part of an intentional strategy, he told followers, to keep them hopeful and engaged.
“Mike Lindell and I agreed a month ago that I would keep you folks in a state of informed anticipation, and as information gets released I would amplify and provide color,” he wrote. “So I have tried to do that, letting people know that they should not give up hope, the things were in progress, but without overstating or giving too much away.”
After the November election, dozens of judges — appointed by both Republicans and Democrats — rejected legal suits around the country claiming fraud had tainted the vote.
But Byrne and his allies note that some courts did not engage the substance of the fraud claims. And they point to what they say are suspicious patterns — such as spikes for Biden as ballots were being tallied in key states. Elections experts say such patterns can be easily explained, but Byrne called such dismissals “facile bromides” that are not reassuring to him or millions of other Americans.
“Let’s just open the boxes and find out,” Byrne said, adding that there should be more ballot reviews like the one in Arizona.
Even more pivotal evidence is just around the corner, he has promised.
In text messages to The Post, the former Overstock.com CEO pledged “all the cyber evidence we need to prove the entire matter” is “literally sitting right next to me right now in a case as I lay on my futon in my safe house answering this question.”
Told on June 9 that The Post would be interested in seeing that evidence, Byrne replied: “Stay tuned.”
In response to a follow-up inquiry from a reporter on June 21, Byrne said that it would be “included in a lawsuit that is being prepared by someone else,” and that some of it had already been incorporated in an exhibit filed as part of the suit Lindell filed against Dominion earlier this month, which argues the company has tried to silence his election claims through its defamation claims.
Byrne, a self-described libertarian who says he did not vote for Trump, nevertheless became a key player in challenging the legitimacy of the election before Trump left office. Joined by former national security adviser Michael Flynn and pro-Trump attorney Sidney Powell, he attended a raucous Dec. 18 meeting at the White House, where the group tried to persuade Trump to appoint Powell as special counsel to investigate voting machines in key counties across the country, as The Post previously reported.
Since Trump left office, Byrne has recounted that meeting and his views about the election in blog posts and a book published by his company Deep Capture. Byrne, who describes himself as a journalist, provides a steady stream of commentary on Telegram and has become a regular guest on far-right podcasts and streaming video shows.
Byrne said he believes the 2020 election was a “soft coup” and part of a project by the political “far left” to bring fascism to America.
Some of Byrne’s blog content on the website Locals.com is available only to “members” who pay a fee of $5 per month or $55 per year. He now has more than 28,000 members, which translates into payments of more than $125,000 per month or $1.5 million per year, minus the website’s 10 percent fee. Byrne says he believes he has earned about $250,000 so far from his book and subscriptions through the site.
The movie trailer for “The Deep Rig” features figures who are familiar to those who believe that the presidency was stolen, including Flynn and his brother Joseph. It also spotlights two lawyers who filed suits challenging the election results and some people described as cybersecurity experts whose voices were distorted to shield their identities.
Other figures who make appearances include retired Army Col. Phil Waldron, who told state legislators about purported evidence of vote manipulation during hearings in various states in December, and Jovan Hutton Pulitzer, an inventor and treasure hunter who has devised what he says is a way to identify counterfeit ballots by examining the paper on which they are printed. A spokesman for the Arizona audit has said that Pulitzer has served as a consultant for that effort, which has involved UV lights and microscopes to scrutinize the paper on which the ballots were printed.
“It’s not over, and we have not lost,” Pulitzer declares in the trailer.
Byrne told The Post by text that he plans to release the movie on Saturday via a paid live-stream event. “Entrepreneurial Patriots” will pay a licensing fee for the right to show the film in venues ranging from living rooms to bars and churches to rented theaters, he said — and they, in turn, will be able to charge as much or as little as they want for tickets.
“As far as the distribution goes, we architected a system that cannot be canceled by the fascists,” Byrne wrote.
Tickets are also being sold for $25 apiece on a website associated with the movie for a formal in-person premiere event. It will be held in Phoenix on Saturday — around the same time the Republican-backed review of Arizona ballots is scheduled to conclude at a former basketball arena nearby.
A key touchstone
Officially, the recount in Maricopa County is not about overturning Biden’s narrow win in the state. Senate President Karen Fann (R), who commissioned the review that began in late April, has said it is aimed at identifying weaknesses in the state’s elections system.
The process has been widely pilloried by election experts as sloppy, insecure and biased.
But across the “big lie” ecosphere, the Arizona audit has become a key touchstone — a development that has persuaded many Trump supporters that there will soon be a reassessment of the election results across the country.
Bannon’s daily “War Room” podcast — an increasingly important stopping point for Republicans who want to lay claim to Trump’s base — keeps an image from the live stream of events at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix in the corner of the screen throughout its daily broadcast.
“Every day it’s going to continue — as we pound through Georgia, as we pound through Arizona. We’re going to start pounding through Pennsylvania,” Bannon said as he opened Tuesday’s show, arguing that the continued focus on the election and the origins of the coronavirus have dented Biden’s approval ratings in a way that will hamper his ability to enact his agenda. “We can stop the program by focusing on 3 November. … Get to the bottom of 3 November.”
The Arizona state Senate earmarked $150,000 to pay for the audit, but organizers have said that figure is a fraction of the full cost of the operation. So private donors are helping finance the effort through nonprofit groups that have promoted false claims about the 2020 election.
Chief among them is the America Project, which Byrne said he and Michael Flynn co-founded and now employs Flynn as a paid “special adviser.” Byrne told The Post that the nonprofit group raised $1.2 million for the recount and that he gave another $500,000 directly to the audit effort.
“I don’t have the money to stop this by myself. This is going to take tens of millions of dollars, this whole effort, maybe hundreds of millions,” he wrote on his Locals.com channel.
Byrne said any money left over after Arizona will be used to fund audits elsewhere. But because the group is not required to disclose information about its donors or spending, his assertions are impossible to corroborate.
Also raising money for the Arizona audit is Voices and Votes, a nonprofit group founded by OAN hosts Chanel Rion and Christina Bobb, whose network has been intensely covering and promoting the recount.
The group raised $250,000 within days of launching in April, Bobb has said. It secured donations from supporters such as L. Lin Wood, an attorney who pursued unsuccessful election challenges last year and said in an interview that his nonprofit #FightBack donated $50,000 to Voices and Votes for the Arizona endeavor.
In an email to The Post, Bobb declined to say how much the group has raised altogether, but she said it has largely received small-dollar donations. “There are thousands and thousands of Americans across the country that want to contribute,” she wrote.
The OAN host has used her on-air appearances to appeal for money to fund visits to Arizona by Trump-allied lawmakers and candidates from other states, who have pledged to pursue similar efforts back home.
Bobb, an attorney, has said she volunteered as part of the Trump legal team after the November election. She is now in regular contact with the former president, speaking to him by telephone to update him on progress in Arizona, according to people familiar with their conversations.
Bobb declined to comment on her conversations with Trump, telling The Post via email, “I defer to President Trump regarding any phone calls he may or may not have, and how he would characterize our relationship.”
Aides say Trump no longer confers with Powell, the conservative lawyer who made a string of increasingly wild accusations about election fraud after the election. Like Lindell, she is fighting a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems after she claimed the company intentionally rigged its machines to sway the outcome of the election.
Powell, who did not respond to requests for comment, has asked a judge to dismiss Dominion’s suit, arguing she was engaged in protected political speech.
She has continued to make unsubstantiated claims about the election; at a convention of QAnon supporters in Dallas late last month, Powell said Trump should be reinstated as president.
“It’s going to have to be dealt with it,” she told the audience. “It should be that he can simply be reinstated, that a new inauguration date is set and Biden is told to move out of the White House.”
And Trump has relentlessly promoted the idea that the 2020 results could be overturned. “If the election was determined to be a fraud — and it’s looking more and more like that is the case — I mean, people are going to have to make a determination as to what’s going to happen,” he told host David Brody on Tuesday on Real America’s Voice, an online outlet that also airs Bannon’s show.
Through his PAC — which raised millions in response to fundraising appeals to fight the election results — Trump has repeatedly issued statements claiming that reviews of ballots cast last fall will expose fraud. Fundraising pitches about the 2020 vote tend to do particularly well in drawing small-dollar donations, people familiar with the operation said. His allies, such as former White House spokesman Hogan Gidley and former Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis, have also launched their own groups that plan to focus on election and voting issues. Several advisers said Trump is annoyed by the proliferation of groups he has not sanctioned that are raising money off his rhetoric.
Organizers of the Arizona audit have said they will conclude work at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum this week. Ken Bennett, a former Arizona secretary of state serving as the audit’s spokesman, has said no interim results will be released until data is analyzed and a final report is published, probably in August.
A recent video from Bennett outlining the timeline and posted to Telegram was greeted with a flurry of concern by Trump allies. “They already have enough evidence to invalidate their election certification. Release that evidence now!” responded one person. “Losing hope,” wrote another.
Trump supporters have nevertheless breathlessly shared rumors about what the Arizona auditors might conclude. Bobb has told OAN viewers that large numbers of county ballots are “missing.” On Twitter, she explained: “If there is anything less than 2.1 million ballots in the AZ Audit, it was a fraudulent election and must be de-certified.” (Bennett called the idea of hundreds of thousands of missing ballots “crazy.”)
Flynn too has promised “bombshell” evidence out of Arizona later this month.
“The entire freedom-loving world is watching Maricopa County,” he said on the right-wing show “FlashPoint” on June 8. The findings there, he said, “are just going to shock everybody.”
Amy Gardner, Amy B Wang, Alice Crites and Scott Clement in Washington and Sheila Regan in New Richmond, Wis., contributed to this report.