The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans set to quiz tech CEOs on election misinformation tweeted #StopTheSteal themselves

Seven GOP House members whose Twitter feeds spread baseless claims of election fraud will participate in Thursday’s hearing

A man holds up a D.C. police shield Jan. 6 during the attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg News)
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House Democrats seeking to drill down on the spread of election fraud falsehoods on social media in advance of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot need to look no further than some of their Republican colleagues.

A Washington Post analysis found that seven Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who are scheduled to grill the chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter about election misinformation on Thursday sent tweets that advanced baseless narratives of election fraud, or otherwise supported President Donald Trump’s efforts to challenge the results of the presidential election. They were among 15 of the 26 Republican members of the committee who voted to overturn President Biden’s election victory.

Three Republican members of the committee, Reps. Markwayne Mullin (Okla.), Billy Long (Mo.) and Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (Ga.), tweeted or retweeted posts with the phrase “Stop the Steal” in the chaotic aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. Stop the Steal was an online movement that researchers studying disinformation say led to the violence that overtook the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

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Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said the online Stop the Steal movement was “the coordinating function” for the Capitol riots. He said the lawmakers’ involvement in amplifying it undermined the committee’s efforts to scrutinize the tech companies’ handling of disinformation.

“It would be very difficult to call what will happen tomorrow oversight, given that any number of those involved in oversight were actively spreading disinformation and misinformation on the platforms they’re theoretically overseeing,” Brookie said in an interview, referring to Thursday’s hearing.

These lawmakers’ posts remain available on Twitter, despite promises from the tech companies to crack down on posts that challenge the integrity of the election.

Mullin posted three #StopTheSteal tweets, including one on Nov. 6 with a video in which he baselessly claimed that the “Democrat machine is stealing this election from the American people.” Carter called on his supporters to “Chip in to stop the steal” in a Dec. 10 tweet that included a video of him calling on the Supreme Court to take up a challenge to the election result. A day later, the Supreme Court dismissed a Texas lawsuit that sought to challenge results in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, ruling that Texas had no standing to challenge those states’ election procedures.

Long retweeted two tweets with the hashtag #StopTheSteal. One, from Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), remains online, while the other is from an account, @seahippy29, that is now suspended.

Other Republicans on the committee voiced their support for Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) tweeted on Nov. 5 that he stood with Trump as “he battles these elements that try to steal an election.” Rep. John Joyce (R-Pa.) pushed his followers to visit a Trump website to report instances they saw of alleged voter fraud. Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) tweeted on Nov. 10 that he supported Trump’s efforts to “make sure every legal vote is counted,” as Trump sought to undermine the election results after Biden was projected the winner of the election. Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) tweeted that she backed legislation that would “support @realDonaldTrump’s effort to count every legal vote.”

The Post worked with Darren L. Linvill, an associate professor at Clemson University, to analyze the tweets of the 15 Republican members of the House committee who voted to overturn the House election results. The Post reviewed tweets from these members between Nov. 1 and March 22 that included key words related to claims of election fraud. The analysis detected at least one tweet from a suspended account, but it was unclear whether it captured all tweets that had been deleted or retweeted from accounts that have been banned, such as @RealDonaldTrump.

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The tweets highlight how challenging it will be for Democrats to follow through on their long-running promises to crack down on online political disinformation with only a narrow majority in Congress. It could prove difficult for them to keep Thursday’s hearing — the first since the tech companies suspended Trump’s accounts — focused on the proliferation of falsehoods on social media, and not long-running accusations from conservatives that Silicon Valley companies are biased against them. Those accusations have not been supported by data-driven evidence.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), the Democrat who chairs the committee, said any member of Congress using social media to spread falsehoods about election fraud was “wrong,” but he remained optimistic that he could find bipartisan momentum with Republicans who don’t agree with that rhetoric.

“There’s many that came out and said after Jan. 6 that they regretted what happened and they don’t want to be part of it at all,” Pallone said in an interview. “You have to hope that there’s enough members on both sides of the aisle that see the need for some kind of legislative reform here because they don’t want social media to allow extremism and disinformation to spread in the real world and encourage that.”

Democrats and Republicans have been sharply divided over the committee’s efforts to address political disinformation in the fallout of the Capitol riot. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), the committee’s top Republican, who voted to certify Biden’s electoral victory, recently criticized her Democratic colleagues at a committee hearing focused on political disinformation on cable news for attempting to “censor” political views with which they did not agree.

“In all my time on this committee, there has never been a more obvious direct attack on the First Amendment,” she said.

Those remarks could foreshadow a similar strategy from Republicans at Thursday’s hearing. Some conservative members of the committee turned to Twitter in recent months to blast YouTube’s decision to ban election fraud content starting in December, after a key deadline for states to certify their election results. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the minority whip and a member of the committee, accused the company in a tweet at the time of silencing talk that might “hurt their Democrat friends.”

Brookie said it’s unlikely that lawmakers will be able to have a coherent discussion about social media issues because the broader debate is caught up in a “culture war.”

“That’s much to the advantage of any of the social media platforms,” Brookie said. “As the political debate plays out, it’s highly unlikely that it will lead to policy that governs platforms and will drive toward a shared set of facts that democracy depends on on the Internet.”