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Social media posts about election fraud still prevalent, study finds

Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump's personal attorney, scans the room during a Michigan House Oversight Committee hearing for suspicion of voter fraud within the state at the House Office Building in Lansing, Mich., on Dec. 2, 2020.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Cristiano Lima Washington Post

As President Donald Trump stoked baseless claims of widespread voter fraud leading up to the 2020 election, technology companies rolled out a bevy of rules to clamp down on falsehoods.

But nearly two years after the 2020 vote, social media posts mentioning false claims that the tally was rigged or stolen are still widespread across major platforms including Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, according to a report shared exclusively with the Washington Post.

The findings underscore that technology companies are still grappling with a flood of baseless claims about voter fraud in 2020, even as the 2022 midterm elections rapidly approach.

A report by Advance Democracy, a nonprofit organization that studies misinformation, found that candidates endorsed by Trump and those associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory have posted about election fraud hundreds of times on Facebook and Twitter, drawing hundreds of thousands of interactions and retweets.

On TikTok, six hashtags promoting conspiracy theories about the 2020 tally being rigged or stolen have garnered more than 38 million views as of July. Two of the most popular, researchers found, make references to a documentary by conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza that fact-checkers have found makes misleading and unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.

“Our democracy is based on accepting legitimate election outcomes and honoring the peaceful transition of power,” said Daniel Jones, president of Advance Democracy. “But months before the midterms, and years before the next presidential election, the trend lines are clear.”

In response to the report, TikTok said it blocked users from searching for several of the hashtags, including ones referring to the D’Souza documentary.

“TikTok prohibits election misinformation, including claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent, and works with independent fact-checking organizations who help assess content so that violations of our Community Guidelines can be promptly removed,” TikTok spokesperson Ben Rathe said in a statement.

Twitter spokesperson Madeline Broas said in a statement that the company’s priority remains “ensuring people on Twitter have access to reliable, credible information about elections and civic processes” and that it is “taking steps to limit the spread and visibility of misleading information.”

Facebook spokesperson Erin McPike responded to a request for comment by referring to the company’s community guidelines. Facebook deploys third-party fact-checkers to vet for misleading content but exempts politicians and has said that it bans accounts “representing” QAnon.

Researchers say the findings highlight how the baseless claims have become an integral part of the online messaging for many conservative and far-right candidates.

According to the report, several key narratives emerged alongside those claims. “Republicans in name only” were “consistently criticized for allowing the 2020 election to be stolen,” according to researchers, and some users used “violent speech” and suggested Republican officials are “treasonous criminals” that “belong in jail.” Candidates have also promoted narratives that the 2022 midterm elections and 2024 presidential election “would be fraudulent.”

“A significant percentage of political leaders on the right, as well as key figures on right-leaning television networks and social media platforms, continue to promote baseless election narratives that undermine faith in our democracy,” Jones said.

The trend poses a massive test for social media platforms, many of which have policies that allow posts by politicians and candidates for public offices that would otherwise break their rules to stay up to allow the public to still see their comments. It will also test whether companies enforce rules against baseless voter claims about past and future elections, which they have at times declined to do.

The report found that more than 1 in 8 posts on Twitter and about 1 in 12 posts on public Facebook pages about elections in the United States referenced election fraud.

For the study, researchers reviewed public posts on Facebook and Twitter referencing American elections for mentions of terms including “rigged” or “stolen.” It is not clear how many of the posts expressed support for claims of fraud, and how many merely referenced them, such as a news report discussing efforts by officials to overturn the elections.

But several of the posts that received the highest number of interactions on Facebook and retweets on Twitter perpetuated baseless claims of election rigging, including one tweet alleging there were “multiple crimes surrounding widespread ballot trafficking” committed in 2020. That post, by conservative activist Charlie Kirk, has more than 56,000 likes and 20,000 retweets.

Many of the election posts by Trump-endorsed candidates and those who have voiced support for or invoked the QAnon conspiracy theory perpetuated claims of fraud, researchers found. The report reviewed Twitter and Facebook posts in May and June of this year, while the TikTok analysis looked at views through July 15.