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Well before Iowans cast the first ballots of the 2020 presidential race, an insidious campaign to seed distrust in the election process was already underway.
Conservative and liberal activists took to social media to push outright false or unproven claims to their online followers. Suspicions even reached President Donald Trump, who questioned the Democratic primary's fairness to his tens of millions of Twitter followers.
Misleading social media complaints — some go as far as alleging a vast conspiracy will determine the next president — were likely to intensify over the course of the presidential race.
The falsehoods could so erode faith in the election that a losing candidate's supporters may refuse to accept the results, either for the nomination or the White House, warned David Becker, founder and director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research.
"The thing that keeps me up at night," Becker said, is that even if the 2020 election is fair and well-managed, “the losing party's supporters won't accept that democracy worked.”
On the eve of Monday's Iowa caucuses, conservative pundits used Twitter posts and YouTube videos to wrongly allege that the vote is ripe for fraud because there are more adults registered to vote in eight Iowa counties than actually living there.
Not true, according to the state's own publicly available voting information. Secretary of State Paul Pate debunked the claim Monday on Twitter, where the erroneous assertion had been liked and retweeted by thousands of social media users. The claim was initially planted on a YouTube video put out by the conservative group Judicial Watch.
“It’s unfortunate this organization continues to put out inaccurate data regarding voter registration, and it’s especially disconcerting they chose the day of the Iowa Caucus to do this,” Pate said. His office released and tweeted data that showed the number of voters registered in those eight counties did not actually exceed the adult population.
But the claim grew online — liked, retweeted and viewed thousands of times. Some even accused Pate of lying about official voter registration numbers, showing how difficult it can be to correct online misinformation once it’s shared widely.
“Stop lying and fix the problem otherwise you’re the problem,” one woman tweeted to Pate.
Tom Fitton, who leads Judicial Watch, acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press that he used older statistics and census numbers to argue that the number of registered voters outnumbered the entire adult population in eight Iowa counties. Fitton maintained voter fraud is “a big issue” and said he released the findings in order to coincide with the Iowa caucuses.
Other social media users seized on campaign developments over the weekend to suggest the presidential election process was rigged.
On Saturday, The Des Moines Register and CNN announced that it would withhold the results of a final presidential poll because Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s name was omitted from at least one interview.
Social media users who identify as supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders quickly turned to Twitter where, using #ReleaseThePoll, they alleged that the media outlets intentionally suppressed the results only to hide how well Sanders was doing in the state.
“We know Bernie Sanders is winning Iowa and we the people deserve to see the results of the poll!” one Twitter user wrote in a tweet shared hundreds of times.
The claims hark back to the 2016 election, when Sanders’ supporters griped that the Democratic Party had “rigged” the primary process in favor of Hillary Clinton. Trump, who could see Sanders as his Democratic challenger in his reelection bid, has also repeatedly floated the idea that Democratic establishment treated Sanders unfairly in 2016.
And hours before Monday’s caucus began, Trump used Twitter to capitalize on that lingering frustration among Sanders’ supporters and again fuel suspicion about that process.
“The DNC on Bernie Sanders, ‘Looks like they’re going to do it to him again, doesn’t it?’” Trump’s tweet, sent Monday morning, said in part.
Trump is hoping to propagate uncertainty about the election process among Sanders’ supporters, said Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of political rhetoric at Texas A&M University. It’s a strategy that worked in Trump’s favor during the last presidential election -- and Trump hopes it will help him again this year, she said.
“He’s either wanting them to distrust the process and stay home, or distrust the process and vote for him," Mercieca said. “He’s a strong believer in circulating conspiracy theory when he thinks its to his advantage.”