Partisan disinformation to undermine 2020’s presidential election shadowed every step of the voting process last year but took an unprecedented turn when the earliest false claims morphed into intricate conspiracies as Election Day passed and President Trump worked to subvert the results, according to two of the nation’s top experts tracking the election propaganda.
At the general election’s outset, as states wrapped up their primaries and urged voters to use mailed-out ballots in response to the pandemic, false claims began surfacing online—in tweets, social media posts, text messages, reports on websites, videos and memes—targeting the stage in the electoral process that was before voters. These attacks on the nuts and bolts of voting, from registration to the steps to obtain and cast a ballot, began as “claims of hacking and voter fraud… [that] honed [in] on specific events,” said Matt Masterson, who helped lead the Department of Homeland Security’s election security team.
“This is a lot of what we talked about with you at CISA [the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency] in the lead-up [to Election Day], anticipating that were there were problems experienced, and then in the contested elections, those would be used to blow out of proportion or lie about what was actually taking place,” Masterson said, speaking to the nation’s state election directors in early February at a winter 2021 conference.
But as November 3’s Election Day approached and the vote-counting continued afterward in presidential battleground states, Masterson and a handful of teams working inside and outside of government to trace and track disinformation, and to urge online platforms and sources to curb their false content, saw an unexpected development. The narrowly focused threads that attacked earlier steps in the process of running elections swapped out purported villains and protagonists and became a full-blown conspiratorial tapestry attacking the results.
“They all got combined into one big narrative… one large lie to try to undermine confidence in the election,” said Masterson, whose presentation at the National Association of State Election Directors‘ (NASED) meeting traced this evolution.
“Misinformation is the frontier in election security and election integrity,” said Aaron Wilson, senior director for election security at the Center for Internet Security, which tracked 209 cases of misleading or deliberately false attacks on voting, at the same NASED forum….
Masterson’s and Wilson’s presentations were some of the most detailed analyses yet tracing the evolution of propagandistic attacks on 2020’s voting process and election administration. The Stanford Internet Observatory, where Masterson is a fellow, will release a full report—including naming the biggest purveyors of 2020 election disinformation, both the platforms and their highest-volume users—later this winter.