10th December 2020
By David Patrikarakos, Senior Research Fellow
The 2020 US Presidential election was among the most intensely contested, scrutinised and controversial political events of the 21st century. Its aftermath continues to dominate both news and politics. Donald Trump’s use of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric as a means through which to govern and campaign is longstanding, but it arguably reached its apex with his 2020 re-election bid – and the consequences are both severe and growing.
For the past ten months, ISD’s researchers have been monitoring daily discussion around the election on a range of mainstream, extremist and fringe social media channels. The purpose of this work is essential: if the President’s outbursts and lies are plain to see, less obvious has been their substantive role in further radicalising some of the most extreme elements of an already divided US society.
Over a series of 40 briefing papers, we found that three subjects have emerged as key trends in online discourse around the election: disinformation narratives about voter fraud, calls for protest, and calls for violence. According to Jacob Davey, a Senior Research Manager at ISD, “these three trends have built throughout the run-up to the election and its aftermath and now form a feedback loop creating a febrile environment conducive to wide scale violence.”
Trump (and other GOP officials) began promulgating the voter fraud narrative long before 3 November, and only intensified their rhetoric as the election approached. On 28 October, at a rally in Phoenix, Trump refused to say he would accept any election result because of his fears of possible voter fraud. “The biggest problem we have is if they cheat with the ballots. That’s my biggest problem,” he said. “That’s my only thing — that’s the only thing I worry about.”
The effects of such comments online were plain to see – especially in spaces where extremist rhetoric is rife. In the run up to the election, the /pol/ board of the site 4chan, an anonymous image board with a “no rules” policy and a venue of choice for those posting extremist, hateful and conspiratorial content, began hosting a series of threads discussing the potential for voter fraud. These centred on a thread made on 18/10/2020 where a user leaked voter information from Oregon to the platform, driving speculation that this information could be used to change the address where a ballot was sent, to change absentee votes, or even to cast illegal votes for a particular candidate.
Tweets, posts and shared content on voter fraud against Donald Trump began to spread across social media, including onto the most prominent platforms. On 3 November, users in the Facebook group Voter and Poll Fraud Watch shared a post with an article claiming that 40,000 mail-in ballots had gone missing in Pennsylvania. It was now a disinformation cascade. As Davey observes, “the days preceding the election in particular show how the increase in disinforming content contesting the voting process reinforced the voter fraud narrative which had been seeded for months by users online and senior Republican officials.”
Post-election, voter fraud narratives have only increased. The far-right One America News Network, now promulgates the conspiracy that a server with the “real” results of the 2020 election has been found in Frankfurt, Germany, giving Trump 410 electoral college votes. These claims were subsequently included in a number of top threads on 4Chan and also gained significant interaction on Twitter.
Calls for protest and violence
It was only a matter of time before online anger at perceived voter fraud turned to protest on the ground. Since the election, Trump supporters, as well as the overt far-right, have gathered in towns and cities across the US. On 14 November, thousands turned out in Washington DC for the Million MAGA March to back the President’s unsubstantiated claims. The event was more reminiscent of the far-right 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville than a march in support of a mainstream political candidate.
Talk of election-inspired “civil war” is now common on key online extremist spaces. Critically, some of the more violent communities now discuss their intentions to attend upcoming protests at the same time as they are increasing calls to mobilise militarily.
While the situation is alarming, Davey notes that what we’re seeing does not conform to the worst-case scenarios around violent mobilisation. Equally, however, he cautions against complacency: “there has been a steady increase in violent rhetoric throughout the last few weeks and, critically, this moved from more generalised ‘civil war’ rhetoric into more specific calls to violence”. More worrying is that whilst the more extreme and actionable calls for violence are on alt-tech not on mainstream social media, they are still seeing generalised ‘civil war’ discussion on closed Facebook groups.
The situation is now clear: as the post-election fallout continues, and as the President and his supporters continue to allege that he was cheated, calls for violence and protest will almost certainly increase. Now these messages are permeating beyond merely fringe or niche sites into the mainstream, this is a trend that must concern us all.
David Patrikarakos is a journalist and writer. He is the author of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century and a Senior Research Fellow at ISD.Growing Narratives of Violence around the 2020 Presidential Election