The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Confusion and conflict stir online as Trump claims victory, questions states’ efforts to count ballots

As mainstream social media sites raced to address suspect claims, the chaotic environment showcased the fractured nature of the Internet

Early on Nov. 4, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden urged patience while votes are counted. Meanwhile, President Trump falsely claimed victory and fraud. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton, Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Trump throughout Wednesday repeated false declarations of victory, even as numerous swing states were still counting ballots, causing widespread confusion online and sparking bellicose talk on far-right forums and on mainstream platforms such as Twitter.

As most news organizations urged caution and patience, social media swelled with agitation, conflict and, in some cases, fury in response to the president’s assertions — a scenario that law enforcement officials and digital-threat analysts had warned about for months.

The furious talk would prove to be little more than chatter. But it was clear Trump’s and his allies’ use of Facebook, Twitter and text messages to press claims that the continued ballot counting was evidence of fraud resonated among some fringe actors on the Web — even though they contained no overt calls for action.

Neo-Nazis and white supremacists were among those who celebrated his messages as an invitation to conflict. On the messaging app Telegram, one anonymous poster shared an image of three rifles and a handgun, along with the words, “I’m ready.” Another poster wrote, “Get the guns and the amor ready.”

“I’ve been tracking some of the most vile chatter and outreach from terrorists for two decades, but there’s something different about what we’re seeing now," said Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online extremism. “It is in many ways more troubling, not to mention sadder. Many Americans legitimately believe they are at war with many of their fellow citizens and are willing — if not eager — to harm them.”

The tweets and other social media posts by Trump and his allies drew widespread rebukes and disciplinary action from the main social media companies, which have spent months planning for a scenario that involved premature calls of victory. Twitter quickly put a warning label on a Trump tweet claiming victory and limited its reach, an action experts said had moderate impact. Facebook also appended a label, saying the Trump post was misleading.

Trump’s early victory declarations test tech giants’ mettle in policing threats to the election

But some of the attempts by Trump and other prominent Republicans to discredit the electoral process still managed to go viral, reflecting the daunting task facing technology companies and election officials to keep a fractured nation calm, preserve democratic norms and ensure an orderly, safe end to one of the most contentious races in history.

“WHAT IS THIS ALL ABOUT?” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, sharing another user’s concern about a steady uptick in votes for Biden in the crucial battleground state of Michigan.

Twitter labeled the retweet as misleading, even as Trump’s comment attracted more than 26,000 shares on the platform. Trump later turned to his campaign’s storehouse of voters’ phone numbers, blasting out a text message urging them to donate so that Trump’s election campaign could “FIGHT BACK.”

“Pres Trump & VP Pence: It’s so urgent we BOTH texted you. Dems & the Fake News want to STEAL this Election! 1000%-MATCH to FIGHT BACK! Act NOW,” read the text, a copy of which was shared by RoboKiller, a call-and-text-blocking app.

President Trump falsely claimed victory against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Nov. 4, but key swing states are still tallying ballots. (Video: The Washington Post)

Far-right influencers lined up behind Trump, praising him for going “on offense” and lashing out at social networking services for applying labels to his posts that noted that the count was still ongoing. Some of the president’s most avid supporters baselessly suggested that the slow uptick in votes for Democratic candidate Joe Biden reflected evidence of fraud.

“This is a statistical impossibility — LOL. Time to open an investigation,” tweeted Candace Owens, a former communications director for the conservative youth organization Turning Point USA. “Democrats are trying to cheat. There is no denying that now.”

There were notable exceptions, however. Ben Shapiro, a conservative pundit with a vast online following, wrote in a tweet shortly after the president’s remarks from the White House, “No, Trump has not already won the election, and it is deeply irresponsible for him to say he has.”

On Twitter, unverified allegations that Democrats were trying usurp the vote surged under the hashtag #StopTheSteal throughout Election Day. The tone sharpened after Trump went before cameras at the White House shortly before 2:30 a.m. Wednesday to assert that “we did win this election.” He said that he would appeal to the Supreme Court to halt the counting of ballots in numerous states, though he did not say on what grounds he would make the appeal.

The information vacuum exploited by Trump was at least partly the result of the refusal by Republican-controlled state legislatures in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan to make substantial changes to rules about when mail-in ballots can be processed. Numerous states modified their guidelines to authorize the earlier handling of these ballots, but the three critical battlegrounds did not, with Michigan allowing just an extra day.

Efforts by technology giants to slow the spread of the baseless allegations were hampered by their endorsement from prominent users, including a congresswoman-elect, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has expressed support for the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory. Twitter obscured her posts amplifying the conspiratorial #StopTheSteal narrative behind warning labels, while Facebook merely appended a link to additional voting information.

Michigan kidnapping plot, like so many other extremist crimes, foreshadowed on social media

SITE reported a Twitter account saying, “Trump won [and] any attempts to alter the outcome should be treated as acts of treason.”

The monitoring group found a different user on Twitter taking a more belligerent tone, “And so the boogaloo begins” — a reference to a far-right movement that contends the United States will soon descend into civil war. The movement, which is virulently anti-government, has been linked to numerous cases of real-world violence, including the fatal shooting of a security guard at a federal court in Oakland, Calif., in May.

A neo-Nazi group on Telegram, a messaging app with little moderation, predicted “actual civil war” could be weeks away, according to SITE.

Trump’s early victory declarations test tech giants’ mettle in policing threats to the election

On TheDonald, a pro-Trump message board previously banned from Reddit, roughly 6,000 accounts boosted an early-morning thread saying that “they are trying to STEAL the election. We will never let them do it.”

Dozens of users called for “war.” “Lock and load,” one responded. “I’m ready,” another said. One account, named “America1stAndOnly,” said they were “standing by and keeping my rifle by my side.”

Long before the polls closed, researchers tracking disinformation on social media had grown alarmed about the prospect of calls for violence in the case of a close, hotly contested election in which results were not immediately known. Numerous analysts and state officials had warned of the potential for late shifts toward the Democrats, who disproportionately voted through mail ballots, which in several states were counted later than others.

Misleading images showing piles of bricks, for example, were used Tuesday to bolster claims that left-wing activists were preparing for dangerous street brawls. University of Washington professor Kate Starbird, in a Zoom call with reporters for a disinformation-research consortium, warned that social media posts might amount to “a match thrown into a pile of dry leaves.”

But while anger played out in isolated and predictably partisan corners of the Internet, fears of widespread Election Day unrest did not unfold.

Facebook and Twitter, enforcing new policies governing premature claims of victory, applied labels to the president’s posts Wednesday morning accusing Democrats of “trying to STEAL the Election.”

A Trump tweet claiming victory was quickly hidden with a warning by the company. Facebook appended a notice advising, “Final results may be different from initial vote counts, as ballot counting will continue for days or weeks.”

Reaction to the president’s premature claims of victory and baseless assertions of fraud showed how he has advanced and exploited the fracturing of the country’s information ecosystem, with more and more Americans self-selecting to get their information from partisan echo chambers.

Many conservatives directed their ire at Facebook, Google and other big tech companies, echoing Trump’s months of assertions that they sought to censor the president and tip the election in Democrats’ favor — charges for which they offer no credible evidence and that the industry strongly denies.

On fringe platforms that have picked up new users because of heightened moderation on the major social networking services, Trump’s most hard-line supporters urged one another off cable networks that cautioned against the president’s claims, even longtime conservative favorite Fox News.

“Go to OAN,” one wrote on the MeWe service, in a channel devoted to Pennsylvania, recommending the adamantly pro-Trump One America News.

As Trump warns of leftist violence, a dangerous threat emerges from the right-wing boogaloo movement

“You have to get buy-in from the mainstream to have big cultural impact,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. As the results arrived on Tuesday, she said, “most people are watching the networks, not social media streams.” But as the count drags on in the ensuing days, more and more voters may search online for confirmation of their existing biases.

The harsh tone followed months of allegations by Trump, leading Republicans and popular online conservative figures that Democrats were planning to commit widespread fraud, especially in urban areas in swing states. Accounts of an Election Day incident in Philadelphia, when a Republican poll watcher was temporarily prevented from entering a polling place, garnered 287 million likes, retweets and views across Twitter, according to researchers who tracked the incident, which was recounted in misleading ways online.

The Trump campaign on Wednesday morning attempted to capitalize on anger over false allegations of a stolen election, sending fundraising emails saying Democrats will “do whatever it takes to manipulate the results.” We “ask for you to step up ONE LAST TIME and DEFEND YOUR PRESIDENT!” one email said just before soliciting donations. “Everything we’ve worked for is on the line.”

Some far-right users online said the social media sites’ increased levels of fact-checking and content moderation, such as marking certifiably false claims as “disputed,” were election-skewing attempts to censor the president and tantamount to “treason.” The companies said the rules applied to all posts across the political divide, and data shows Trump has had no issues getting his message across: On Twitter alone, he has gained more than 270,000 followers since Election Day began.

In stoking claims about the authenticity of the count, Trump touched off a wave of skepticism about the integrity of the system among his supporters online. They quickly blasted the election as fraudulent, sharing posts, photos and videos online questioning the veracity of mail-in ballots despite a long documented history of such voting being safe and secure. Some pointed to news organizations’ incomplete electoral maps — still being updated as states continue their counts — as a sign votes are being suppressed.

“Trump was winning in Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, North Carolina with only a few percent of votes remaining, when they stopped counting votes and all news channels went offline,” tweeted one user. “And suddenly Biden is apparently winning in all of these states?”

“They stopped counting votes because the Republicans were winning,” tweeted Brigitte Gabriel, the founder of ACT for America, which styles itself as a “grass-roots national security organization.”

Her post was shared nearly 5,000 times.

Russian and Iranian news services avidly tracked the unfolding drama in the United States, as did social media accounts previously identified as being operated by Russian operatives, including the infamous Internet Research Agency that aggressively interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

“A handful of covert Russian accounts tied to the IRA pushed stories overnight, with very limited traction,” said Camille Francois, chief innovation officer for Graphika, which tracks online influence operations. “One focused on the claim that the U.S. Postal Service had failed to deliver 300,000 ballots, and another piece, borrowed from American sources, described Trump as a sacrificial hero and divine figure.”

Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.