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The US 2020 Briefings


First Draft’s briefings on US election disinformation. Search here for the topic you’re interested in, and subscribe to our Daily and Weekly Briefings to get these insights in your inbox every day or week.

Claims about Sidney Powell as an all-powerful ‘release the Kraken’ figure

After President Donald Trump’s team distanced itself from lawyer Sidney Powell, many backers of her false election fraud claims advanced new theories about her. The Trump team on Sunday — a day after a legal setback in Pennsylvania — released a statement that read in part, “Sidney Powell is practicing law on her own. She is not a member of the Trump Legal Team.” Reports in the Washington ExaminerThe Washington Post and The New York Times all point to Trump and his team’s frustration with Powell, who has not yet substantiated her allegations that voting machines or software were used to rig the election. While Powell became an apparent liability for Trump, she had not been operating in a vacuum: Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani spread falsehoods alongside her at a November 19 press conference; Trump recently described Powell as a member of his “team” and made numerous false or unevidenced statements in line with her theories.

The Trump team’s statement on Powell was interpreted by some of Trump’s supporters as a mere “clarification” that it never formally employed her (which Powell suggested in a statement released by former national security advisor Michael Flynn, whom she represents). But media reports described it as a disavowal. The ambiguity over what transpired has created space for new and implausible theories of Powell as an all-powerful figure poised to reveal the “Kraken” — evidence that would prove Trump’s claim the election was stolen from him. One tweet from an unverified user with over 119,000 followers suggested the lawyer was working for “someone or something much BIGGER THAN TRUMP” in the US military or government. One unverified user with over 60,000 followers tweeted, “Make no mistake, Sidney Powell is more effective working independently of Trumps legal team.”

Powell acknowledged the press release in a statement to CBS: “I will continue to represent #WeThePeople who had their votes for Trump and other Republicans stolen by massive fraud through Dominion and Smartmatic, and we will be filing suit soon. The chips will fall where they may, and we will defend the foundations of this great Republic.” — Chris Looft

False US election claim draws on decontextualized 2018 New York Times video

A viral Facebook post resurfacing a 2018 New York Times video on election security is a reminder of how conspiracy theories often make misleading use of facts and analysis by stripping them of context. In the original Times video, University of Michigan computer science professor J. Alex Halderman hacks a mock election held on electronic voting machines, something Elizabeth Vaughn suggested in an article on Dan Bongino’s website demonstrated that Dominion Voting Systems’ machines are not secure. “I bet The New York Times rues the day they published this video,” she wrote. A Facebook post by Bongino linking to the article was publicly shared over 24,000 times. Vaughn’s piece also credits a Western Journal article that resurfaced the Times video, and received over 15,600 public shares on Facebook.

First Draft reached out to Halderman, who said that while voting machines are indeed vulnerable, more states than ever make use of paper trails to aid in audits. Halderman was among the election experts who signed a public letter rebuking claims of systemic election fraud. “That paper trail and how it’s audited are a practical way to mitigate vulnerabilities in the voting infrastructure,” he said. Even in a well-coordinated attack, the paper trail would reveal irregularities. “The paper trail and audits are the final failsafe.”

The fact that much of the electronic voting infrastructure is supported by paper trails has not stopped unevidenced claims that the machines, particularly those made by Dominion, were used to switch or delete millions of votes, including in states undergoing audits. Such claims were seen in Georgia, where more than 2,600 votes went uncounted in Floyd County before being discovered in an audit. US Representative-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, who will represent a district that includes the county, blamed a Dominion software error in Facebook and Twitter posts, but officials said the discrepancy was because of human error.

“We do have a lot of work to do to improve election security,” Halderman said. Election security is more than getting the correct tally of votes. It requires the infrastructure to do it in a way that can reassure the public. “We need to be able to shift the burden of proof,” he added.

Efforts to reassure the public took a hit yesterday when President Donald Trump announced the firing of Chris Krebs, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Under Krebs’s leadership, the agency had debunked several pieces of electoral misinformation, including conspiracy theories about voting machines. — Jaime Longoria 

nti-mask groups fueling rise of alternative video platform ‘Odysee’ in Francophone spheres

While the move toward alternative, uncensored social media platforms has experienced a notable uptick in North America in recent weeks, the same trend has been noticeable in French social media for months as seen with the growing popularity of Odysee. First Draft’s preliminary analysis suggests that anti-mask groups are driving the rise in the platform’s popularity with Francophone online audiences. These communities play an outsize role in the proliferation of links to the social platform’s videos.

Around November 9, Odysee-hosted versions of “Hold Up,” a French video promoting conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic — with total viewership estimated at more than two million — began to be shared on Facebook. By analyzing the 1,992 French-language Facebook Group posts published since then containing a mention or link to and receiving at least one share, First Draft found that anti-mask Groups generated almost a third of the total combined shares that these posts received. This is despite the fact that their audience constitutes less than two per cent of the total combined membership of the 600-plus Groups in which these posts were published. Moreover, the Group that hosted the highest number of shares of the “Hold Up” video — more than a quarter total — was the largest anti-mask Francophone Facebook Group identified through First Draft’s ongoing global monitoring projects.

The data suggests a disproportionate influence that certain small but highly active communities can bear on alternative platforms, and highlights some of the unintended consequences that might stem from tightening content moderation and deplatforming policies on Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, many highly followed anti-government communities have equally played a significant role in the rise of Odysee and other alternative social media. The platforms’ typically more extreme content is not only harder to monitor and report on, but could result in the development of even more insular “filter bubbles” that hamper healthy online debate on social issues. — Seb Cubbon

Trump campaign lawyers spread election falsehoods during presser

In a 90-minute press briefing Thursday, lawyers for President Donald Trump’s campaign made several claims of systemic election fraud that gained significant traction online despite their many falsehoods. One of those lawyers, Sidney Powell, had said prior to Thursday’s event that she would be releasing damning evidence — which she called “the kraken” — that would expose election fraud and ultimately reveal a landslide victory for Trump over Joe Biden. The largely anticlimactic briefing — where Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani also spoke — contained one notable false allegation that voting systems used in the US had been previously developed at the direction of Venezuela’s former leader Hugo Chávez.

Trump supporters made several high-engagement social media posts touting the briefing as a smoking gun. A tweet, shared over 43,000 times, from the official account for the national Republican Party, quoted a remark by Powell at the conference: “President Trump won by a landslide. We are going to prove it. And we are going to reclaim the United States of America for the people who vote for freedom.” In a tweet that was shared over 2,300 times, founder of the conservative #WalkAway campaign, Brandon Straka said, “If ever I was uncertain about voter fraud claims I am completely resolute now.” Jenna Ellis, another lawyer for the Trump campaign, later tweeted that “@RudyGiuliani and @SidneyPowell1 RELEASED THE KRAKEN!” in a post shared over 22,300 times. A clip of Powell’s remarks uploaded by Dinesh D’Souza, titled “Sidney Powell Releases the Voter Fraud Kraken On Media to Their Faces,” has over 98,500 views on YouTube. The same clip has over 478,000 views on Rumble, a conservative alternative to YouTube.

So far, several of Trump’s lawsuits have been rejected or abandoned, some because of a lack of evidence. The campaign’s strategy has reportedly shifted to focus on convincing Republican-held legislatures in key states to ignore the popular vote and award their states’ electoral votes to Trump. Chris Krebs, the former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency who Trump fired on November 17, called the press conference “the most dangerous 1hr 45 minutes of television in American history. And possibly the craziest.” — FD staff

Danish mask study prompts pandemic misinformation

A Danish study into the efficacy of mask-wearing to combat the spread of Covid-19 reported that masks did not prevent wearers from contracting the virus, conflicting with other studies and recommendations from health bodies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the trial, 3,030 people were recommended to wear masks; 2,994 people were in a maskless control group. The study did not contradict evidence that masks prevent infected people from spreading the virus, but anti-mask figures are sharing the findings without this information. UK anti-lockdown movement Keep Britain Free posted on Facebook that “Denmark proves masks are NOT effective” and that anti-mask advocates got “castigated” for their beliefs in a post that attracted some 700 shares. The study also piqued the interest of UK blog Lockdown Scepticswhich posted that the study showed masks do “little or nothing” to lower the infection rate. Similarly, Turkish Twitter user Cemil Barlas, who has posted various conspiracy theories in the past, shared the study to 122,000 followers, claiming those who promote masks should talk about the trial’s results because they show mask-wearing has no effect.

While news of the study may cast doubt on the impact of Covid-19 protection for wearers, the trial relied on participants self-reporting test results and their behavior at a time when infections and mask-wearing in the country were uncommon, according to The New York Times. The study also had low compliance, with some participants potentially not wearing masks correctly or at all. Its lead author has advised that wearing masks is still worthwhile. — Lydia Morrish

Post-audit vote count mismatches in Georgia are fueling false voter fraud claims

As officials in Georgia prepare to announce the results of an audit of the presidential vote there, issues it has already uncovered — which officials say show the audit is working — are fueling unevidenced claims of systemic fraud. Previously uncounted votes have been discovered in four counties: Floyd, Walton, Fayette and Douglas. The vote mismatches in these counties — three of which yielded a net gain for President Donald Trump, bringing his margin of defeat from around 14,000 to about 12,800 — are being used to undermine the election results. Yesterday, Trump posted a tweet with at least 57,500 shares that read in part, “The Georgia recount is a joke and is being done UNDER PROTEST. Even though thousands of fraudulent votes have been found, the real number is in matching signatures.” Twitter has attached a “disputed” label to the tweet, which includes a link to a fact-check by the Associated Press explaining that election workers in Georgia are required to match signatures on absentee ballots with those on file. They are, however, unable to do so in a subsequent audit because state law mandates a secret ballot, and storing envelopes that identify voters with matching ballots would violate ballot secrecy. Gabriel Sterling, a state voting official, rejected Trump’s claim that the vote count and audit had been fraudulent and said of the errors detected, “So the system is working the way it is intended.”

Republicans in the state used another error uncovered during the audit to make misleading claims. On Twitter, the chairman of the state Republican party, David Shafer, claimed that GOP monitors had found a counting error during the audit in DeKalb County that yielded an additional 9,626 votes for Joe Biden. His tweet has more than 29,600 shares, and also has a “disputed” tag. Shafer suggested in a subsequent tweet that more errors had likely gone undetected. Sterling, the state voting official, rejected Shafer’s claim of a systemic issue. The error reported by Shafer “would have been discovered and corrected even without the monitor there to have to point it out,” he said. — Maddy Webb

Georgia secretary of state fights misinformation amid election audit


President Donald Trump and his supporters are advancing conspiracy theories about top Georgia officials in an effort to pressure them as the state carries out a hand recount. During an interview Monday with conservative radio host Mark Steyn, Trump-connected lawyer Sidney Powell accused Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of receiving “personal benefit” in exchange for using Dominion Voting Systems’ machines in that state’s election. Her unevidenced claim was shared in a post by unverified user Cari Kelemen that drew over 23,000 retweets. Powell’s insinuation of wrongdoing through manipulation of equipment or software provided by Dominion echoes a now-familiar refrain that has been debunked, including a joint statement from election officials and experts.

Raffensperger, who announced the audit last week amid GOP pressure, maintains that there has been no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularity in Georgia’s election. The Republican secretary of state’s assurances contradict leaders from his party, including Trump, who has tweeted several times about the ongoing audit, including claims a legal settlement signed in March “makes it impossible to check & match signatures on ballots and envelopes, etc.” and therefore enabled fraud. As the Associated Press reported, that settlement, known as a consent decree, aimed instead to address “a lack of statewide standards” for verifying signatures on absentee ballots.

Despite a lack of evidence of widespread fraud, and vigorous efforts by Raffensperger to defend the ongoing audit process, claims that he and Kemp committed major electoral fraud continue. Yesterday, lawyer Lin Wood, who is representing the Trump campaign in Georgia, called in a tweet for Raffensperger and Kemp to be imprisoned. The post has received over 23,100 shares. — Chris Looft

Correction: In this briefing, we incorrectly described Lin Wood’s role in a lawsuit against Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Wood is the plaintiff who brought the lawsuit, not the attorney representing the Trump campaign in Georgia. We apologize for the error.

False claims about turnout at Million MAGA March in Washington, D.C.


The “Million MAGA March” held in Washington, D.C., on November 14 to promote the false claim that the election was stolen from President Donald Trump serves as a reminder of how images and video can be deployed to support misinformation narratives. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a tweet showing images of the crowd, “More than one MILLION marchers for President @realDonaldTrump descend on the swamp in support.” That claim was echoed online in high-engagement posts, including one from actor Kevin Sorbo with over 22,700 shares and a tweet from the unverified user @RealTina40 shared over 12,100 times. News outlets estimated the crowd size in the “thousands” or “tens of thousands,” in line with the high-end capacity for the Freedom Plaza where the pro-Trump rally culminated.

Just as McEnany’s false claim relied on misleading visual evidence, some of Trump’s supporters used video of clashes between pro-Trump demonstrators and left-wing counter-protesters. Right-wing journalist Andy Ngo posted a 35-second video to Twitter, in which a group of apparent counter-protesters knocked a man to the ground and kicked him. In his post, which was shared over 32,800 times, Ngo describes the video as depicting “[Black Lives Matter] rioters knocking a man unconscious who was leaving the #MillionMAGAMarch in DC earlier today.” In a longer video, that man can be seen approaching, threatening and striking people beforehand. After receiving several replies about the longer video, Ngo posted it. But the misleading shorter video has been shared over ten times the full video’s 3,200.

False claims about Pennsylvania vote gain steam


Deceptive narratives continue to spread about the swing state of Pennsylvania, where the vote tally pushed Joe Biden past the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the US presidential election. One US Postal Service worker last week claimed to have overheard instructions to illegally backdate ballots, only to recant those claims Monday. The postal worker has subsequently denied his recant and launched a fundraising effort on the Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo, after GoFundMe put two of his campaigns on hold for violating its terms of service. News of GoFundMe’s decision pushed the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., to accuse GoFundMe of political bias and “flagging a whistleblower” in a post that attracted more than 10,000 retweets, with calls to abandon GoFundMe being made on Parler. As of Friday morning, $225,000 has been raised by more than 5,400 donors for the postal worker on GiveSendGo.

On Tuesday, false claims of destroyed ballot envelopes in Philadelphia were spread on Twitter by David Chapman, a prominent Trump supporter. They received more than 8,000 retweets. Al Schmidt, a Republican and one of the city’s top election officials, explained that ballot envelopes are removed in front of Democratic and Republican poll watchers to certify that all required voter registration information is present and accurate.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump, who has yet to concede, tweeted false information about the Dominion Voting System. The debunked claim asserted that the election software switched more than 221,000 Pennsylvania votes from Trump to Biden, echoing a recent story by the far-right The Gateway Pundit website that regularly shares misinformation. The Trump campaign continues to fight legal battles and push false voter and election fraud narratives ahead of a November 23 deadline for Pennsylvania to file and certify election results.

Georgia recount is fueling false US election voter fraud claims


Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s decision to push forward — amid Republican political pressure — with a hand recount and audit of the presidential election in the state is feeding unevidenced narratives that the initial result was fraudulent. Conservative figures on social media, including Sebastian Gorka, former deputy assistant to the president, suggested the recount was called because of evidence of widespread voter fraud, a sentiment echoed by President Donald Trump’s campaign in a press release. Raffensperger, a Republican, said his office is investigating fraud claims but has seen no evidence of widespread misconduct.

Despite the lack of evidence, narratives about the election are being adapted to the state. For example, one National Pulse article on November 9 by Trump campaign adviser Steve Cortes that was shared over 5,300 times on Facebook suggested 95,000 Georgia ballots were marked for Joe Biden and no other down-ballot candidates for Senate, compared to just 818 filled out only for Trump. But as the conservative National Review pointed out, those figures appear to be derived by comparing presidential and Senate votes, which more likely reflects split-ticket voting — casting a ballot for Biden but a Republican for Senate, for example — than any disparity in undervoting.

The National Review debunk did not stop Cortes doubling down on the false fraud claim in a tweet shared over 1,300 times. A number of unverified accounts on Twitter continue to echo Cortes’s claim, including two in the last 24 hours with over 300 shares. A misinformation narrative about undervoting was previously shared by Trump-linked attorney Sidney Powell, who said 450,000 ballots in key states were cast for Biden and no other down-ballot candidates, suggesting this would be evidence of likely fraud. In fact, Powell’s figure would be in line with undervoting statistics from previous elections.