The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A meme about blue pens shows 2020 false claims still warp voting in 2022

In an echo of the ‘Sharpiegate’ conspiracy theory, right-wing influencers are calling on voters to use only blue ballpoint pens in Tuesday’s midterms

An employee tests voting equipment at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department on Oct. 19 in Miami in advance of the 2022 midterm elections. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

The infographic spreading across the internet in the final days before Tuesday’s midterm elections is adorned with an American flag and resembles a public service announcement reminding people to vote.

But the message is not merely to cast a ballot, but how: “Use a blue ballpoint pen only when you vote!”

The meme, plastered across online platforms such as Twitter and the fast-growing messaging app Telegram, may be unintelligible to anyone not steeped in the misinformation and fearmongering fueled by reports of smeared ballots in Arizona’s Maricopa County during the state’s August primary.

But it illustrates how misinformation is operating in 2022, priming voters to distrust the democratic process. The message recycles key myths from 2020, when President Donald Trump refused to concede and his allies spread baseless claims about election manipulation, including that the use of Sharpies to mark ballots caused them to be thrown out. The claims, though easily debunked, have proved remarkably durable, according to researchers and election officials.

“2020 disinformation has never left,” said Jesse Littlewood, vice president for campaigns at Common Cause, a watchdog group conducting nonpartisan voter protection that includes monitoring and combating online disinformation. “It’s somewhat strategic because it’s easier to re-up an existing conspiracy theory and say, ‘They’re doing it again,’ than it is to manufacture a new one.”

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But even if the claims feel familiar, the online ecosystem that facilitates the spread of conspiracy theories has new features this election season.

The false narratives take shape via a feedback loop between mainstream services, such as Twitter or Facebook, and platforms that perform less content moderation, such as Telegram. Talking points bubble up out of view of most users, but the popular ones then find wider audiences in the form of links or screenshots.

David Clements, an attorney and former business school professor who has been traveling the country spreading discredited claims of election fraud, recently took to Telegram, where he has more than 100,000 followers, to liken “Using a blue ballpoint pen” to the struggle for freedom in the epic film “Braveheart.”

Clements’s comparison then spread on Facebook, including by a user who wrote that anything but a blue pen can be “overridden by the Dominion computer machines.” Clements did not respond to questions for this article.

There is also new uncertainty driven by cuts to Twitter’s workforce following billionaire Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of the company. An employee with a key role in fending off threats to the platform said the cuts to a division focused on trust and safety were only about 15 percent, compared with the nearly half of all employees who were dismissed across the company.

Since the takeover, there have been signs of increased suspicious activity on the platform. Cyabra, the data analysis company commissioned by Musk to study spam and bot activity on Twitter during the legal battle that preceded his takeover, found that 14 percent of accounts discussing the term “stolen elections” in the past week were fake accounts, according to analysis shared with The Washington Post. That marked an increase of four percentage points from the previous month.

Most of the inauthentic profiles were sharing pro-Republican content, said Rafi Mendelsohn, a Cyabra spokesman. And some were invoking words like “consequences” and “catastrophic,” he said, raising the possibility that they were anticipating or even planning real-world ramifications.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

This year, GOP election deniers got a free pass from Twitter and Facebook

The heightened focus on what type of ink to use when voting owes to isolated reports of smeared ballots in Arizona’s August primary, causing voters — already on high alert because of unfounded yet sustained claims of fraud — to worry that their ballots would be spoiled or illegible to vote-counting machines.

Officials in Maricopa County ask voters to use the felt-tip pen provided in voting booths because the ink dries quickest, they say, and is best suited to the county’s optical scanners.

Smearing incidents were not widespread in August, the officials said, and did not prevent anyone from voting. Still, they ignited conspiracy theories that caused people to pilfer the county-issued pens — and prompted officials to switch out the brand for the general election.

Now, in the final, fraught days of the high-stakes contest for control of Congress and other key offices, the claims are resurfacing as part of efforts to sow distrust in the democratic process.

Tweets this weekend disseminating the infographic used verbatim language to warn of “Disinformation Agents spreading false information on social media claiming you should use other colors.” On Telegram, channels devoted to the paranoid, pro-Trump extremist group QAnon featured the fantastical claim that, “Blue makes it hard for the machines to spoof.”

Users trumpeted the call to use blue ballpoint pens in response to news items on social media from battleground states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. They proclaimed the pen guidance as they retweeted polling about races in Nevada and a clip from “War Room,” the right-wing radio show hosted by former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon.

Election officials nationwide said writing instruments loom large in the recurring conspiracy theories repeated to them by voters.

Paul Lux, the supervisor of elections in Florida’s Okaloosa County, said he recently sought to allay suspicions by showing residents that he could push the point of a pen deep into a ballot without the bleed affecting the other choices he had marked. And George Christenson, the Milwaukee County clerk, said his office recently received a records request for photocopies of every ballot from the 2020 election, with the requester stressing that the images must be in color — apparently an effort to determine the hue of ink.

“It’s a classic scare tactic,” said Christenson, a Democrat. “The election deniers are trying to scare people and shake confidence and say, ‘Your vote won’t count.’ ”

Concerns about whether machines can properly read ballots are also among those fielded in the final days of voting by Sara LaVere, the elections director in North Carolina’s Brunswick County. She is just as mystified by residents telling her they plan to wait until 3 p.m. on Election Day to vote to leave less time for their ballots to be “stolen,” she said. Others have raised alarm about people seizing voter registration rolls and submitting false military or overseas ballot requests, she said, which is not feasible.

The false election-related claims come primarily from domestic influencers with large online followings, rather than foreign actors, according to researchers and analysts inside technology companies.

“Americans do a good enough job of undermining our own democracy,” said one analyst at a social media service, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. Prominent people who deny unfavorable election outcomes have grown more overt in their rhetoric, this analyst said, pointing to recent comments from Ali Alexander, an organizer of “Stop the Steal” rallies after the 2020 election, that, “Any election I don’t like is stolen.”

A consortium of researchers formed in 2020 to track misinformation about the election observed in a memo issued over the weekend that “most of the voter fraud influencers from 2020 are still active on social media today.”

Some influencers have even expanded their audiences, the memo found, noting that 18 of the 34 influencers tracked by the consortium in 2020 now host podcasts in which their claims emanate out to listeners unfiltered. Many have also opened accounts on alternatives to Facebook and Twitter that place their hands-off approach to moderation at the center of their business pitch.

There have been signs of foreign activity targeting the midterms, but with limited reach. Accounts previously linked to Russia that went dormant in January resumed posting right-wing news stories and screenshots of social media posts toward the end of the summer, according to the social media analysis firm Graphika.

A recent burst of incendiary cartoons was explicitly linked to the midterms. The cartoons denigrate Democrats in key races, such as Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) and John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania. But they received very low engagement, Graphika reported. More sophisticated Russian efforts have focused on the war in Ukraine, according to the details of a recent Facebook takedown of an online network impersonating European news websites that spread criticism of the Ukrainian government and the West’s sanctions on Moscow.

Beyond social media, misleading information about voting was reaching people via text. Officials in numerous states have warned in recent days that text messages from a group called Voting Futures alerting recipients to their polling location may include inaccurate information. The left-leaning technology platform behind the texts, California-based Movement Labs, issued a statement saying the inaccuracies were the result of a mistake.

Jeremy Merrill and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez contributed to this report.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

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