Going into Election2020, researchers w/ the @2020partnership rapidly analyzed social media data to identify false & misleading claims meant to sow distrust in the election — now known collectively as “the Big Lie”. This is the story of one (of hundreds) of those claims. Thread.
@2020Partnership This story is from late Sept, more than a month before the election. At the time, the American public was experiencing what Benkler and colleagues referred to as a “disinformation campaign” — designed to create a false expectation of massive voter fraud. cyber.harvard.edu/publication/20…
@2020Partnership For months, Pres Trump & his supporters had been pushing a range of false, misleading, and exaggerated claims meant to sow distrust in the mail-in voting process specifically and the election results more generally. Here’s a tweet from June:
@2020Partnership With the frame of “voter fraud” and a “rigged” election set, an army of supporters worked to identify and amplify evidence that fit their frame.
@2020Partnership On Sept 25, Elijah Schaffer, a reporter from right-wing media outlet The Blaze, sent the following tweet — with a photo of ballots in a trashcan and speculative comment designed for virality: "Big if true."
@2020Partnership Except it wasn’t true. Sure, there were ballots in a dumpster, but they weren’t related to Election2020. They were ballots from 2018 being destroyed according to local protocols. Certainly it was neither “Big” nor “SHOCKING.” But it was definitely useful, and it fit the frame.
@2020Partnership It was quickly picked up, retweeted and quote tweeted, and eventually the claim spread widely — often with specific comments about how this was another example of how the mail-in voting process couldn’t be trusted. Our team collected nearly 45000 tweets related to this claim.
@2020Partnership Here’s a temporal graph of tweets related to this misleading claim of ballots being found in a dumpster in Sonoma. The black line is the overall volume. The red line are tweets, retweets, and quote tweets + retweets of Elijah Schaffer’s original tweet.
@2020Partnership Interestingly for how it connects another thread of the Big Lie to Jan 6, the author of this tweet falsely claiming voter fraud — Elijah Schaffer — was in DC for the “protests" on Jan 6 and appeared to be “reporting” from Nancy Pelosi’s office during violent attack on the Capitol
Schaffer & The Blaze weren’t the only right-wing media to promote this claim. Soon, Gateway Pundit published an article featuring the photo and claiming that it had been sent to them by a “reader in California.” Their article also includes the speculative comment, “Big if true.”
The Gateway Pundit was one of the most prolific and influential spreaders of false and misleading claims about voter fraud around the 2020 Election. Here’s a graph plotting the volume of tweets linking to the Gateway Pundit’s article about Ballots in a Dumpster in CA in blue.
We collected 34460 tweets related (via RT or quote) to Schaffer’s original or linking to the Gateway Pundit’s article (featuring the same photo and similar language). In other words, about 75% of the propagation of this false claim on Twitter can be tied to those two sources.
Another interesting aspect here is how the claim gained traction & spread. Here’s a snapshot highlighting some of the high-follower counts that amplified this story. (Donald Trump Jr. repeatedly played this role amplifying false/misleading claims of voter fraud).
More recently, we’ve mapped where now-suspended accounts (in black) played a role in amplifying this false claim (about ballots being discarded in a dumpster). Here's an interactive graph where you can zoom into accounts and see how this viral claim spread faculty.washington.edu/kstarbi/Sonoma…
One thing that becomes all too clear when studying these cascades, one after another, is the impact of SO many false claims, piling on top of each other — echoing back and forth as folks eagerly amplified everything that they could find that might fit their frame.

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More from @katestarbird

14 May
Per a researcher request, we’ve assembled a list of the top most-retweeted tweets in the # StopTheSteal conversation between Nov 3, 2020 and Jan 7, 2021. Some highlights below.
Most retweeted StopTheSteal tweet was authored by @realDonaldTrump on January 3. It’s a quote tweet about the January 6 protest, to which he adds: "I will be there. Historic day!” It was retweeted 51,137 times (according to our data).
@realDonaldTrump 2nd on list, ~45,000 RTs, realDonaldTrump (Jan 3): 'Georgia election data, just revealed, shows that over 17,000 votes illegally flipped from Trump to Biden.” @OANN This alone (there are many other irregularities) is enough to easily “swing Georgia to Trump”. #StopTheSteal...'
Read 14 tweets
6 May
Working on some visuals to help explain the dynamics of “participatory disinformation” and how that motivated the January 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol. Image
Let’s start from the beginning. We have “elites”, including elected political leaders, political pundits and partisan media outlets, as well as social media influencers who have used disinformation and other tactics to gain reputation and grow large audiences online. Image
We also have their audiences — the social media users and cable news watchers who tune into — and engage with — their content.
Read 22 tweets
30 Apr
Sharing a draft of a conceptual model I’m working on to explain how online social networks, algorithms, and human action are all mutually shaping. Yes, people choose who to follow and that shapes what they see, but those choices are shaped by the algorithms.
This builds from a “structuration” approach to understanding the mutual shaping of social structures, human action, & technology. I was inspired by @sinanaral’s comments last week at the Social Media summit discussing this relationship b/w structure and agency in online ads.
@sinanaral And it emerges from a conversation w/ @alexstamos about the role of our social networks in shaping what we see (and what we do) online. It’s not networks OR algorithms. It’s BOTH. And they work in interaction with each other, and human behavior.
Read 6 tweets
28 Apr
This domain (SouthFront) shows up a lot when we look at Russia’s activity w/in disinformation campaigns outside the US context — e.g. the campaign targeting the “White Helmets” in Syria. It’s one of an array of small propaganda sites they use to spread strategic narratives.
Southfront shows up as a (low-medium frequency) tweeted domain in Twitter conversations around the downing of MH17, criticism of NATO (~2017), and discourse around Syria (2017-2018). It also appears in early Qanon discourse (as a tweeted domain in tweets w/ #QAnon in them).
There are many similar websites that consistently pump out Russia’s strategic narratives. Here’s an OLD snapshot of domain co-sharing network (domains that were shared by the same user are linked) from MH17. Not all shared disinfo, but many did. Shows some now-familiar patterns:
Read 4 tweets
26 Apr
We (researchers) have been stressing the integration of coordinated & organic activity in the spread of online disinformation for a few years now. Facebook’s internal report (on platform use going into Jan 6) highlights the need for policy to address this: buzzfeednews.com/article/ryanma…
"A policy of coordinated authentic harm needs a broader definition of coordination to handle network or movement level harms and the interplay between organic and inorganic growth.” Coordination can be explicit (you do this, I do that) or implicit (like a flock of birds).
A lot of online organizing involves a small amount of explicit coordination that structures a large amount of implicit coordination. Here’s a 2012 paper, describing how groups of volunteers organize (largely through implicit coordination) during disasters: faculty.washington.edu/kstarbi/CHI201…
Read 4 tweets
9 Apr
Re-posting this for the morning crowd. My former PhD student, Tom Wilson, published his dissertation documenting the online disinformation campaign targeting the White Helmets (a humanitarian response organization) in Syria.
In addition to their rescue/response activities, the White Helmets provided documentation of war crimes (including chemical weapons attacks) by Assad and his Russian allies. The campaign against them sought to confuse Western audiences & delegitimize evidence of war crimes.
Dr Wilson’s work carefully documented several of the online dimensions of that campaign — including the network structure of online influencers and grey propaganda websites that consistently spread anti-White Helmets propaganda.
Read 5 tweets

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