The Most Dominant Toxic Election Narratives Online

Ballot mules. Poll watch parties. Groomers.

These topics are now among the most dominant divisive and misleading narratives online about November’s midterm elections, according to researchers and data analytics companies. On Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Truth Social and other social media sites, some of these narratives have surged in recent months, often accompanied by angry and threatening rhetoric.

The effects of these inflammatory online discussions are being felt in the real world, election officials and voting rights groups said. Voters have flooded some local election offices with misinformed questions about supposedly rigged voting machines, while some people appear befuddled about what pens to use on ballots and whether mail-in ballots are still legal, they said.

“Our voters are angry and confused,” Lisa Marra, elections director in Cochise County, Ariz., told a House committee last month. “They simply don’t know what to believe.”

The most prevalent of these narratives fall into three main categories: continued falsehoods about rampant election fraud; threats of violence and citizen policing of elections; and divisive posts on health and social policies that have become central to political campaigns. Here’s what to know about them.

Misinformation about the 2020 election, left, has fueled the “Stop the Steal” movement, center, and continues to be raised at campaign events for the midterms, right.Credit…From left, Amir Hamja for The New York Times, Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times, Ash Ponders for The New York Times

Election Fraud

False claims of election fraud are commanding conversation online, with former President Donald J. Trump continuing to protest that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.

Voter fraud is rare, but that falsehood about the 2020 election has become a central campaign issue for dozens of candidates around the country, causing misinformation and toxic content about the issue to spread widely online.

“Stolen election” was mentioned 325,589 times on Twitter from June 19 to July 19, a number that has been fairly steady throughout the year and that was up nearly 900 percent from the same period in 2020, according to Zignal Labs, a media research firm.

On the video-sharing site Rumble, videos with the term “stop the steal” or “stolen election” and other claims of election fraud have been among the most popular. In May, such posts attracted 2.5 million viewers, more than triple the total from a year earlier, according to Similarweb, a digital analytics firm.

More recently, misinformation around the integrity of voting has metastasized. More conspiracy theories are circulating online about individuals submitting fraudulent ballots, about voting machines being rigged to favor Democrats and about election officials switching the kinds of pens that voters must use to mark ballots in order to confuse them.

The State of the 2022 Midterm Elections

With the primaries over, both parties are shifting their focus to the general election on Nov. 8.

  • Inflation Concerns Persist: In the six-month primary season that has just ended, several issues have risen and fallen, but nothing has dislodged inflation and the economy from the top of voters’ minds.
  • Herschel Walker: The Republican Senate candidate in Georgia claimed his business donated 15 percent of its profits to charities. Three of the four groups named as recipients say they didn’t receive money.
  • North Carolina Senate Race: Are Democrats about to get their hearts broken again? The contest between Cheri Beasley, a Democrat, and her G.O.P. opponent, Representative Ted Budd, seems close enough to raise their hopes.
  • Echoing Trump: Six G.O.P. nominees for governor and the Senate in critical midterm states, all backed by former President Donald J. Trump, would not commit to accepting this year’s election results.

These conspiracy theories have in turn spawned new terms, such as “ballot trafficking” and “ballot mules,” which is used to describe people who are paid to cast fake ballots. The terms were popularized by the May release of the film “2000 Mules,” a discredited movie claiming widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. From June 19 to July 19, “ballot mules” was mentioned 17,592 times on Twitter; it was not used before the 2020 election, according to Zignal.

In April, the conservative talk show host Charlie Kirk interviewed the stars of the film, including Catherine Engelbrecht of the nonprofit voting group True the Vote. Mr. Kirk’s interview has garnered more than two million views online.

“A sense of grievance is already in place,” said Kyle Weiss, a senior analyst at Graphika, a research firm that studies misinformation and fake social media accounts. The 2020 election “primed the public on a set of core narratives, which are reconstituting and evolving in 2022.”

The security of ballot drop boxes, left; the search for documents at Mar-a-Lago, center; and the role of the F.B.I., right, are being widely discussed online in the context of the midterm elections. Credit…From left, Marco Garcia for The New York Times, Saul Martinez for The New York Times, Kenny Holston for The New York Times

Calls to Action

Online conversations about the midterm elections have also been dominated by calls for voters to act against apparent election fraud. In response, some people have organized citizen policing of voting, with stakeouts of polling stations and demands for information about voter rolls in their counties. Civil rights groups widely criticize poll watching, which they say can intimidate voters, particularly immigrants and at sites in communities of color.

From July 27 to Aug. 3, the second-most-shared tweet about the midterms was a photo of people staking out a ballot box, with the message that “residents are determined to safeguard the drop boxes,” according to Zignal. Among those who shared it was Dinesh D’Souza, the creator of “2000 Mules,” who has 2.4 million followers on Twitter.

In July, Seth Keshel, a retired Army captain who has challenged the result of the 2020 presidential election, shared a message on Telegram calling for “all-night patriot tailgate parties for EVERY DROP BOX IN AMERICA.” The post was viewed more than 70,000 times.

Anger toward the F.B.I. is also reflected in midterm-related conversations, with a rise in calls to shut down or defund the agency after last month’s raid of Mr. Trump’s Florida residence, Mar-a-Lago.

“Abolish FBI” became a trending hashtag across social media, mentioned 122,915 times on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and news sites from July 1 to Aug. 30, up 1,990 percent from about 5,882 mentions in the two months before the 2020 election, according to Zignal.

In a video posted on Twitter on Sept. 20, Representative Andrew Clyde, Republican of Georgia, implied that he and others would take action against the F.B.I. if Republicans won control of Congress in November.

“You wait till we take the House back. You watch what happens to the F.B.I.,” he said in a video captured by a left-leaning online show, “The Undercurrent,” and shared more than 1,000 times on Twitter within a few hours. Mr. Clyde did not respond to a request for comment.

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, center, is among the politicians who have spread misinformation about gay and transgender people, a report said.Credit…From left: Todd Heisler/The New York Times, Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times, Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Hot-Button Issues

Some online conversations about the midterms are not directly related to voting. Instead, the discussions are centered on highly partisan issues — such as transgender rights — that candidates are campaigning on and that are widely regarded as motivating voters, leading to a surge of falsehoods.

A month after Florida passed legislation that prohibits classroom discussion or instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity, which the Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed into law in March, the volume of tweets falsely linking gay and transgender individuals to pedophilia soared, for example.

Language claiming that gay people and transgender people were “grooming” children for abuse increased 406 percent on Twitter in April, according to a study by the Human Rights Campaign and the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

The narrative was spread most widely by 10 far-right figures, including midterm candidates such as Representatives Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, according to the report. Their tweets on “grooming” misinformation were viewed an estimated 48 million times, the report said.

In May, Ms. Boebert tweeted: “A North Carolina preschool is using LGBT flag flashcards with a pregnant man to teach kids colors. We went from Reading Rainbow to Randy Rainbow in a few decades, but don’t dare say the Left is grooming our kids!” The tweet was shared nearly 2,000 times and liked nearly 10,000 times.

Ms. Boebert and Ms. Taylor Greene did not respond to requests for comment.

On Facebook and Instagram, 59 ads also promoted the narrative that the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community and allies were “grooming” children, the report found. Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, accepted up to $24,987 for the ads, which were served to users over 2.1 million times, according to the report.

Meta said it had removed several of the ads mentioned in the report.

“The repeated pushing of ‘groomer’ narratives has resulted in a wider anti-L.G.B.T. moral panic that has been influencing state and federal legislation and is likely to be a significant midterm issue,” said David Thiel, the chief technical officer at the Stanford Internet Observatory, which studies online extremism and disinformation.

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