An emerging, alternative world of social media is fuelling US election conspiracy theories

Trump supporters are flocking to rivals to the biggest social networks

Credit: Telegraph

Last week, for six nights in a row, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the vote-counting centre in Phoenix, Arizona, to demand an explanation for alleged voting irregularities and glitches that they claimed were evidence of a rigged election.

Alongside the group prayers, the pro-police "thin blue line" flags and the heavily armed militiamen in combat gear, one other sight was notable: live streamers wandering to and fro, their phones held out before them on special grips or on selfie sticks, passionately addressing distant audiences.

In the days following America’s tumultuous election, streamers like these racked up hundreds of thousands and probably millions of viewers across the US. Broadcasting in real time to social networks or to their own sites, they offered up-to-the-minute news and commentary with no editing, no filter and no delay.

The problem was that much of what they put out was wholly, flagrantly untrue. One showed footage of a man pulling a wagon into a counting centre in Detroit, suggesting it showed fraud. It was in fact a local TV camera with its gear. Others streamed their shouting matches with poll workers, or framed ambiguous footage of unfamiliar counting procedures as newly-discovered scandals. A few streamed entirely confected election results.  

Meanwhile, outside the Arizona tally building, protesters supporting President Donald Trump surrounded mainstream TV news crews, yelling in their faces and often accusing them of deliberate dishonesty. Some of the demonstrators spotted a news van parked behind a protective fence and became convinced that it was bringing in fake ballots. Again, it was full of camera equipment. 

Watch how fast a conspiracy is born during a protest at the Maricopa county election center. Some people are convinced news vans parked in media spots are sneaking in ballots. We tried to explain its just camera equipment. They weren’t having it. @NBCNews @MSNBC

— Gadi Schwartz (@GadiNBC) November 6, 2020

This emerging dynamic, and the ubiquity of the live streamers, underscores why these conspiracy theories will persist long after the election. These are not isolated claims spreading organically through social networks’ algorithms but the product of a powerful and densely-connected alternative media industry that is marching in lockstep with the sitting President in the White House.

"The the greatest danger right now is what’s playing out through US politicians who have huge platforms," said Emerson Brooking, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab, on a conference call last week. 

"Extremists are looking for an excuse to act, but they’re not yet acting much on their own…. we have come a long way in content moderation, but sticking [on] a label that says ‘the election results are not final’ on these sorts of videos that are essentially calls to arms? That’s not going to cut it much longer."

The conference call was organised by the Election Integrity Partnership, a group of academic and private disinformation researchers that gave regular debunking briefings during the week of the election. 

Each call emphasised that many of the hoaxes that are now circulating come from the same cluster of news sites, social media influencers and politicians, who all feed each other "organically" – as opposed to the coordinated, "inauthentic" amplification carried out by bot networks and troll farms.

"It doesn’t have to be planned anymore," said Kate Starbird, an expert in conspiracy theories and digital activism at the University of Washington, on an earlier call. 

"There might be bots there, [but] I don’t think those are causing the content spread we’re seeing… over time we see this consistent activity by a network of folks that are densely connected and just wired to spread this stuff."

Protests erupted in Michigan over its ballot count

Credit: AFP

Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, said that much of the disinformation now spreading about the election comes from "elite influencers who have large followings, who are verified, who we see over and over again".

Said influencers, of course, can take their cues from the Trump campaign itself, which is now wholly devoted to grand claims of a vote-rigging conspiracy that have been rejected by numerous Republican state leaders, scorned by judges and abandoned by Trump’s own lawyers when pressed in open court. 

On Wednesday, the President tweeted out a video showing authorised Los Angeles poll workers, complete with identity badges removing postal ballots from a locked drop-box the day after the election. This was a normal and legal procedure under the city’s election rules, which Trump suggested was somehow evidence of fraud. 

You are looking at BALLOTS! Is this what our Country has come to?

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 11, 2020

All of which makes Trump and his loyal followers the overwhelming primary force in American disinformation. There is no delicate way to say that the vast majority of their claims about mass voter fraud are misinterpreted, flatly untrue or lacking any sound evidence.

Increasingly, Trump has even turned against his once-favourite news network Fox, after it called the election in Arizona for the Biden campaign. Axios reported that Trump is even mulling setting up his own online news channel to challenge Fox.

This reliance on alternative networks is exacerbated by the fact that both Facebook and Google have banned political advertising, which Trump used often to spread dubious claims in the run-up to election day. Since May 2018, Joe Biden has spent $84m (£64m) and Trump $83m on Google adverts. Their Facebook totals for this year were $103m and $95m respectively.

Both companies have extended their bans into the coming months, despite the election being called five days ago. Google has warned advertisers that it is unlikely to lift the ban this year, according to the Wall Street Journal. A spokesman confirmed that Google had yet to lift the suspension, but had nothing to share on when this will end.

Advertisers were notified in September that Google would halt all advertising from politicians or official state parties when the polls shut to avoid premature claims that one candidate had won given that a large number of votes would be counted after election day.

The policy prohibits advertisements that are explicitly election related or reference the outcome, or that are tied to election-related search queries. This applies on YouTube as well as its search engine.

Facebook, too, is understood to be keeping its ban, as well as its "break glass" measures – emergency changes to its algorithms that have dampened the spread of political content – for potentially weeks yet.

And while big social networks have acted aggressively against election-related disinformation, Trump’s network is rapidly moving to new venues. Having already shifted into private Facebook groups, supporters are now flocking to Parler, a "free speech" social network partly owned by Dan Bongino, a key pro-Trump influencer. 

Download Parler Social Media!

Free speech and expression.

Unbiased algorithms.

We will never sell or share your data!

We are a community of real people with a real message. #Parler #censorship #freespeech #Parley #howdoyouparley #SafetyFirst

— Parler (@parler_app) February 7, 2020

Private Trump-supporting Facebook groups are full of people asking for and giving recommendations for "trustworthy" news sources and censorship-free social networks, with many posting their new handles on Parler or other sites.

As for the live streamers and influencers, they are not only feeding the protests but gaining from them. At a rally outside Arizona’s state capitol on Nov 7, the megaphone was at one point taken by a YouTuber who told of years of Big Tech censorship.

He had lost his crowd-funding account, he told the audience, which was his only source of income “because [he’d] been de-monetised into YouTube for four years for speaking the truth". Then he lost another video channel on a different service.

But, he said, the tech barons could not silence him. He concluded by reading out the web address of his own site – to considerable applause.