Tracking Viral Misinformation Ahead of the 2020 Election

By Kevin Roose

Workers prepared ballot applications at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections office in Charlotte, N.C., this month.
Workers prepared ballot applications at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections office in Charlotte, N.C., this month.Credit...Logan Cyrus/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Trump introduced a new element into his assault on voting by mail, twice promoting Twitter posts on Thursday that seemed to raise questions about whether members of the military could count on receiving their ballots.

In continuing his monthslong assault on mail-in ballots, he also pointed to mistakes affecting fewer than 1,000 ballots in Michigan and North Carolina as evidence of his baseless claims of a “rigged election.”

Ballot printing and mailing errors are nothing new, and have affected Republican and Democratic candidates alike. In the 2016 presidential election, for example, an Arkansas county misspelled Hillary Clinton’s name as “Hilliary,” which officials said was a typo they did not have time to correct before Election Day.

But such errors do not equate to “a rigged election,” as Mr. Trump put it, and there is no evidence that members of the military are being targeted to receive faulty ballots or that they will not receive them on time.

In Michigan, more than 400 military and overseas ballots that incorrectly listed a Libertarian candidate as Mr. Trump’s running mate were downloaded from a state database on Tuesday, The Detroit News reported. For context, Michigan has issued some 45,000 absentee ballots of more than 500,000 ballots requested.

The issue occurred for about two hours on Tuesday, and the state sent instructions to local election officials alerting them of the error and how to fix it. A spokeswoman for the Michigan secretary of state said it was unclear how many ballots were mailed out to voters, but the state would still accept any incorrect ballots that were returned.

There is no evidence that the issue was widespread or that Jocelyn Benson, the Democratic secretary of state, “purposely” listed the wrong running mate, as Mr. Trump and others have suggested on social media. Ms. Benson said on Twitter that the error occurred because of “an unintended computer glitch that was caught & quickly corrected.”

In Mecklenburg County, N.C., fewer than 500 voters accidentally received two ballots, according to The News and Observer. The county had received more than 116,000 absentee ballot requests as of Thursday, out of more than 863,000 statewide. Election officials said the mistake was unlikely to lead to double voting, as the ballots contained specific codes for each individual voter.

This week, Tucker Carlson hosted a Chinese virologist named Dr. Li-Meng Yan on his Fox News show. Dr. Yan, who has made regular appearances in conservative media outlets this year, claimed to have “solid scientific evidence” that the novel coronavirus is “not from nature,” that it was created in a lab under a Chinese military program, and that it was spread intentionally outside China as part of a biowarfare plot.

But none of Dr. Yan’s claims are justified by the scientific evidence. The vast majority of scientists who have studied the coronavirus agree that it originated naturally, and spread to humans from an animal species, such as a bat. And although scientists can’t rule out the possibility that the virus originated in a lab studying animals such as bats, it is vanishingly unlikely that it was genetically engineered and intentionally released.

Leading virologists and public health officials have disputed Dr. Yan’s claims about “suspicious” features of the virus that she claims indicate human engineering.

“The most straightforward explanation for the ‘suspicious’ genetic traits is natural recombination with other coronaviruses,” Alex Berezow, a microbiologist, wrote in an article for the American Council on Science and Health.

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Still, Dr. Yan’s explosive claims quickly went viral on social media. A video clip of her Tucker Carlson show appearance has gotten two million views on YouTube, and nearly a million views on Facebook. Conservative influencers like Dennis Prager, Mike Huckabee and David J. Harris Jr. have also shared her claims.

On Wednesday, Facebook and Instagram began flagging posts from Mr. Carlson’s show about Dr. Yan’s claims, saying that they repeated information about the coronavirus “that multiple independent fact checkers say is false.”

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Twitter suspended Dr. Yan’s account on Wednesday, which provoked another round of viral posts, including accusations by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri that Twitter was “openly on the side of Beijing.”

A Twitter spokesman declined to comment.

Public health authorities, including the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have also noted that while the exact source of the virus is still unknown, the evidence strongly suggests a natural origin. “The sequences from U.S. patients are similar to the one that China initially posted, suggesting a likely single, recent emergence of this virus from an animal reservoir,” explained a post on the C.D.C.’s website.

In addition, a closer look at Dr. Yan’s study — which appeared on the open-access site Zenodo, and was not peer-reviewed — raises questions about her political motivations.

The study’s first page lists support from the “Rule of Law Society & Rule of Law Foundation,” a pair of anti-China organizations spearheaded by Guo Wengui, the exiled Chinese billionaire, and Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, who was arrested last month on unrelated fraud charges. Neither organization has a history of sponsoring scientific research, and Mr. Guo and Mr. Bannon have spent months advancing baseless theories about the coronavirus’s origins.

The unproven theory that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab has become a popular talking point on the right. Mr. Trump and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, have advanced the theory, though U.S. intelligence agencies have not reached a conclusion on the issue.

Dr. Yan has become an increasingly popular guest on right-wing shows, and has made several appearances on Mr. Bannon’s “War Room” podcast this year, in which she echoed the points she made on Mr. Carlson’s show this week. In one July appearance, she claimed, without evidence, that the virus was engineered in a lab, and was “not from nature.”

Two tweets from President Trump Thursday morning erroneously sought to blame states that are automatically mailing out ballots to registered voters for the likely delays and baselessly stated that the results “may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED,” an assertion dismissed by elections experts.

Facebook and Instagram flagged posts from the Fox News show “Tucker Carlson Tonight” as false information on Wednesday, saying that they repeated information about Covid-19 “that multiple independent fact checkers say is false.”

One of the earliest Twitter accounts to circulate false online rumors that the wildfires in Oregon had been started by activists was one that began as a parody, according to research by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

The account, called @ScarsdaleAntifa and purporting to represent an anti-fascist group from Scarsdale, N.Y., was started in 2017 by a user of the message board 4chan and tried to “troll or confuse” antifa supporters, according to the lab, which investigates misinformation.

The account staged and promoted a fake protest in 2017, using images from other protests. But this month, the account started deleting all of its previous posts. Once its history of trolling was erased, it posted a new claim: that members of its group had set wildfires to raise awareness about climate change.

The message was amplified by other inauthentic accounts and shared hundreds of times, the researchers found. Although Twitter appeared to suspend the account on Sept. 12, screenshots of its claims continued to be shared in conservative Facebook groups. Claims that anti-fascist groups had started the wildfires were also shared by Paul J. Romero, a former Republican candidate for Senate in Oregon, and boosted by followers of the conspiracy theory Qanon.

There is no evidence that antifa has played a role in starting the fires.

The rumors overwhelmed local law enforcement agencies, leading them to plead with the public to verify information before sharing it. Some residents defied evacuation orders because of the misinformation.

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More than a week after wildfires began blazing in Oregon, Washington and California, false and exaggerated claims about the fires’ origins are still spreading like, well, wildfire.

The latest, most viral rumor involves Domingo Lopez Jr., a 45-year-old man who was arrested in Portland, Ore., on Sunday, and again on Monday, on suspicion of starting a series of small fires. During one of these arrests, the police photographed a bottle with a wick attached, a Molotov cocktail they said Mr. Lopez had used to start one of the fires.

Local news reports noted at the time that all of the fires Mr. Lopez was suspected of setting were quickly extinguished, and that no people or buildings were harmed. They also noted that Mr. Lopez was taken for a mental health examination after his arrests.

Credit...Portland Police Bureau

Still, right-wing websites and conservative media influencers ran with the story about Mr. Lopez and his Molotov cocktail — often omitting from their headlines the fact that none of those fires caused any damage, or were related to the larger blazes that have driven thousands of people from their homes.

“Man Arrested for Starting Oregon Fire Gets Released Without Bail, Sets 6 More Fires,” read one headline, by the pro-police news outlet Blue Lives Matter. The article was shared roughly 40,000 times on Facebook. Breitbart, the far-right news site, also shared the story, getting more than 27,000 Facebook shares on a post whose headline also left out the details of the fires.

The extent of the first fire.Credit...Portland Police Bureau

Dinesh D’Souza, the right-wing filmmaker, posted a meme with Mr. Lopez’s mug shot, in which he cast doubt on the scientific claims that the wildfires were caused by global warming.

As The New York Times’s Michael Grynbaum and Tiffany Hsu reported on Tuesday, many conservative media figures, including Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson, have aligned themselves with President Trump in an effort “to generate a deep skepticism of the notion that climate change is a factor in the fires devastating the West Coast.” Some of these figures have been pushing the unfounded narrative that arsonists and antifa sympathizers are responsible for setting the wildfires.

Law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have dispelled that rumor, and scientists say that climate change is the primary factor behind the blazes.

President Trump on Wednesday shared a doctored video from his Twitter account of Joe Biden, his Democratic opponent, playing a song from the stage of a campaign event in Florida. The original video showed Mr. Biden playing “Despacito.” In the doctored version, Mr. Biden instead played N.W.A.’s anti-police anthem “____ tha Police.” Twitter has labeled the video “manipulated media,” but allowed it to stay up.

Several months ago, Seane Corn, a yoga teacher and Instagram influencer in Los Angeles with more than 100,000 followers, started noticing something odd happening on her social media feeds. Many of her peers in the online wellness community were sharing posts that seemed aligned with QAnon, the vast pro-Trump conspiracy theory that falsely alleges that a cabal of satanic pedophiles and cannibals runs the world.

Not all of these posts mentioned QAnon explicitly. Some were making milder appeals to stop child sex trafficking. Others were advocating against mask-wearing or pushing baseless conspiracy theories about Covid-19. Most were wrapped in the same Instagram-friendly pastel-colored aesthetics that you might use to advertise a crystal healing workshop or a book of Rumi poems.

“Every 5 posts, there would be a pink square with a pretty font, and it would say ‘Covid is a hoax,’” Ms. Corn said in an interview.

Eventually, Ms. Corn and other concerned wellness influencers decided to fight back. On Sunday, they posted a “wellness community statement” accusing QAnon of “taking advantage of our conscious community with videos and social media steeped with bizarre theories, mind control and misinformation.”

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For years, QAnon was seen as a fringe right-wing phenomenon, populated by President Trump’s most hard-core supporters. But in recent months, it has made inroads with groups outside Mr. Trump’s base, including vaccine skeptics, natural health fans and concerned suburban moms. Its followers have hijacked the online #SaveTheChildren movement, and inserted QAnon messaging into claims about child exploitation and human trafficking.

These moves appear to have broadened the movement’s appeal. In a New York Times Op-Ed this month, Annie Kelly, a researcher who studies digital extremism, noted that QAnon’s “ranks are populated by a noticeably high percentage of women.” Conspirituality, a podcast about the intersection of New Age spirituality and far-right extremism, has compiled a list of roughly two dozen wellness influencers who have posted QAnon-related content.

Ms. Corn said that the wellness community’s emphasis on truth-seeking and self-improvement makes it particularly vulnerable to a conspiracy theory like QAnon, which is all about sowing distrust in mainstream authorities under the guise of “doing your own research.” She said that QAnon’s motto — “where we go one, we go all” — was classic “yoga-speak,” and that many of the QAnon-related posts she had seen, like a YouTube video that called President Trump a “light healer,” seemed to have been carefully made to appeal to New Age sensibilities.

“They’re using the same music we might use in meditation classes,” Ms. Corn said. “It does things to the body, it makes you more available and open.”

Ms. Corn said that she had lost some followers after her anti-QAnon post, but gained others who were grateful that she spoke out. And she said she worried that the conspiracy theory might still be gaining steam among wellness fans.

“I’m afraid that well-meaning folks who don’t understand the complexity of this misinformation will be seduced” by QAnon, she said. “They’re rolling out the yoga mat right now, and it scares me.”