‘Big Lie’ Vigilantism Is on the Rise. Big Tech Is Failing to Respond.
A discredited theory about voter fraud via ballot drop boxes has led to online vigilantism. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
This article was originally published by ProPublica.
The dummied-up flyer bore the hallmarks of a real WANTED poster. A grainy photo of a woman outside an election office in the suburbs of Atlanta stamped with the word “WANTED.” An image of a sheriff’s badge and the phone number for the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office. The implication was clear: The woman was being sought by the local sheriff for voter fraud.
The flyer was fake, and though the sheriff’s office eventually called it out, the false poster went viral, amassing tens of thousands of shares, views and threatening comments on Facebook, Twitter and TikTok and raising fears that harm could come to the unidentified woman.
Stolen-election activists and supporters of former President Donald Trump have embraced a new tactic in their ongoing campaign to unearth supposed proof of fraud in the 2020 presidential race: chasing down a fictional breed of fraudster known as a “ballot mule” and using social media to do it.
Inspired by a conservative documentary film that has won praise from Trump and his allies — and debunking from critics including former Attorney General William Barr — self-styled citizen sleuths are posting and sharing photos of unnamed individuals and accusing them of election crimes. They are calling on their followers to help identify these “ballot mules,” who are accused of having violated laws against dropping off multiple absentee ballots during the 2020 election. A state lawmaker in Arizona has even encouraged people to act as “vigilantes” and catch future “mules.”
Promoting such false information violates the policies of Facebook, Twitter and TikTok. Facebook’s “Community Standards” says its policy is to remove content that incites harassment or violence or impersonates government officials. Twitter and TikTok have similar rules and guidelines for what can and can’t appear on their platforms.
ProPublica identified at least a dozen additional posts on Twitter, Facebook and TikTok that accuse unnamed individuals of being “ballot mules” and engaging in allegedly illegal activity. Some of these posts echo the “WANTED”-style language seen in the Gwinnett County meme, while others include similar calls to action to identify the individuals.
None of the posts reviewed by ProPublica include evidence that any of the people depicted in the posters engaged in illegal activity. Yet the social media companies have reacted slowly or not at all to such posts, some of which clearly violate their policies, experts say.
Disinformation researchers from the nonpartisan clean-government nonprofit Common Cause alerted Facebook and Twitter that the platforms were allowing users to post such incendiary claims in May. Not only did the claims lack evidence that crimes had been committed, but experts worry that poll workers, volunteers and regular voters could face unwarranted harassment or physical harm if they are wrongfully accused of illegal election activity.
So far, there is no sign that any of the people depicted have been identified or suffered any threats.
Emma Steiner, a disinformation analyst with Common Cause who sent warnings to the social-media companies, says the lack of action suggests that tech companies relaxed their efforts to police election-related threats ahead of the 2022 midterms.
“This is the new playbook, and I’m worried that platforms are not prepared to deal with this tactic that encourages dangerous behavior,” Steiner said.
Spokespeople for Facebook, TikTok and Twitter said they would remove posts flagged by ProPublica for violating their respective community standards policies.
Thirty-one states allow a third party to collect and return an absentee or mail-in ballot on behalf of another voter. These laws help voters who are disabled or infirm, live in spread-out rural areas or reside on tribal lands with limited access to polling places or ballot drop boxes. In states with a history of absentee voting, both Democratic and Republican operatives have engaged in organized ballot-collection drives.
Critics, labeling the practice “ballot harvesting,” have sought to restrict its use, warning about the potential for fraud. However, incidents of proven fraud related to ballot collection are extremely rare. A database maintained by the conservative Heritage Foundation identifies just 238 cases of “fraudulent use of absentee ballots” since 1988. One high-profile case of fraud involving absentee ballots occurred in a 2018 North Carolina congressional race. A Republican operative engaged in a ballot-tampering scheme involving hundreds of ballots. The state election board later threw out the election result and ordered a redo. It was likely the first federal election overturned due to fraud, according to historians and election-law experts.
The phrases “ballot mules” and “ballot trafficking” — with their intentional echoes of the language of drugs and cartels — started to gain traction online in 2021, according to Mike Caulfield, a misinformation researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. An analysis by Caulfield and his colleagues found that prominent Republicans including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel invoked “ballot trafficking” last spring.
But it wasn’t until conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza and a discredited conservative group called True the Vote last fall began to tease findings that would later appear in D’Souza’s movie “2000 Mules” that uses of “ballot trafficking” and “ballot mules” shot up, according to Caulfield’s research.
The “2000 Mules” film claims that a network of thousands of people illegally stuffed ballot boxes in swing states to steal the presidency for Joe Biden. It draws heavily on the work of True the Vote, which purported to use surveillance footage and geolocation data to make its claims of illegal ballot activity.
Numerous fact-checks of the film have cast serious doubt over its central premise. In a deposition with the Jan. 6 select committee, Barr said he found the conclusions of “2000 Mules” far from convincing. “My opinion then and my opinion now,” he said, “is that the election was not stolen by fraud, and I haven’t seen anything since the election that changes my mind on that, including the ‘2000 Mules’ movie.”
True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht said her group had never spoken with Barr and disputed the notion that True the Vote had not proven its claims about voter fraud. “I do think that when 80%+ of America is concerned about election integrity, something must be done to address the situation,” she said. “It is the failure of leaders across all branches of government, who have allowed lawlessness to be the new law, that we find ourselves where we do.” D’Souza did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite its flimsy conclusions, “2000 Mules” found an enthusiastic audience in Trump and his supporters. In early May, Trump screened the film at his Mar-a-Lago private club. The film has since earned nearly $1.5 million at the box office, according to Box Office Mojo. In a recent 12-page letter responding to the public hearings organized by the Jan. 6 select committee, Trump cited “2000 Mules” nearly 20 times.
As the film’s dubious claims have spread online, stolen-election activists are creating and sharing online content purporting to reveal more “mules” and accusing those individuals of illegal behavior without actual evidence of wrongdoing.
The most striking example is the meme that depicts an older white woman leaving a ballot drop box in Georgia’s suburban Gwinnett County. The word “WANTED” appears above her head as does the image of a sheriff’s badge labeled “Gwinnett County” and the sheriff office’s phone number.
“Ballot mule,” the meme says. “If you can ID her, call Gwinnett Co. sheriff’s office.”
A spokeswoman for the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office says the meme is fake. The sheriff’s office hasn’t received calls purporting to identify the woman. The spokeswoman said that the office was investigating who created the meme.
ProPublica was unable to identify the woman in the “WANTED” meme. A spokesman for the Gwinnett County elections office confirmed that the name tag worn by the woman in the meme matched those worn by county election workers in 2020. He also verified that the drop box in the video was located outside of the county’s election headquarters.
The origins of the woman’s photo in the “WANTED” meme appear to point back to a Georgia businessman and self-described election-fraud investigator named David Cross.
For months Cross has posted short clips of surveillance footage showing people depositing ballots at drop boxes in Gwinnett County. Cross sometimes narrates these videos and makes unverified accusations of illegal ballot harvesting. In a clip that Cross posted online on May 3, an older white woman — the same woman in the “WANTED” meme — deposits multiple ballots into the drop box outside the headquarters for Gwinnett County’s elections office. In his narration, Cross accuses the woman of depositing as many as 35 ballots, though it’s not at all clear from the video exactly how many ballots the woman deposited. “Totally illegal,” he says in the video. (Cross did not respond to requests for comment.)
Georgia law prohibits many third parties from submitting a ballot that’s not their own. However, the law makes exceptions for caregivers for the elderly and the disabled, immediate family members, members of the same household, in-laws, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and more.
Cross, the Georgia activist, has filed complaints with the State Election Board and secretary of state’s office alleging illegal ballot deliveries and citing his surveillance footage clips. Last month, the State Election Board dismissed three complaints alleging “ballot harvesting” after an investigation by the secretary of state’s office found that the alleged “mules” were voters dropping off ballots for themselves and family members.
A spokesman for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told ProPublica that the office has a pending investigation into the woman in the “WANTED” meme. The spokesman, Walter Jones, stressed that no one should assume that an individual shown in a video delivering multiple ballots is automatically guilty of a crime, nor would the ballots in question be invalidated even if someone had violated the state’s ballot-collection law.
The video published by Cross of the woman at the Gwinnett County drop box spread rapidly online. Twitter users accused the woman of being one of the “2000 mules” and urged their followers to “MAKE HER FAMOUS!” — in other words, reveal her identity and share it widely.
One Twitter user shared the woman’s image with the “WANTED” text and the fake Gwinnett County sheriff’s badge. “Once we find out who paid these people the whole story will become clear,” the account wrote. That tweet amassed more than 9,000 retweets and more than 14,000 likes before Twitter removed it.
The “WANTED” post spread across Twitter, Facebook and TikTok. A Facebook group called “Celebrities for Trump” shared it. “We need more if [sic] these,” the post said, referring to the WANTED sign. “Keep your eyes open. Report them all it is a crime.”
Several days after the “WANTED” flyer surfaced and reached a large audience, the Gwinnett County sheriff stated that the post was “false.” Yet despite the post impersonating a law-enforcement agency, social-media companies have been slow to remove it.
While Twitter removed dozens of posts with the “WANTED” sign, ProPublica was able to find instances of it still on the platform.
Disinformation researchers tell ProPublica that they also identified posts accusing people of being ballot mules in other states with laws that restrict third parties from submitting people’s ballots. “Mule right here in PA,” one TikTok post read. “Make this Upper Dublin resident famous #2000Mules #2000MulesDocumentary #2000MulesTheMovie.”
In Arizona, a Republican state senator named Kelly Townsend has encouraged people to camp out at ballot drop boxes and write down license plate numbers of people deemed to be suspicious. “I have been so pleased to hear of all you vigilantes that want to camp out at these drop boxes,” Townsend recently said. “So, do it. Do it.”
Even if “2000 Mules” were accurate — which experts stress it almost certainly is not — the ballot-trafficking theory put forward by the film would not change the result of any election. Rick Hasen, a professor and election-law expert at the University of California, Irvine, says he believes the rigged-election message in “2000 Mules” is just the latest attempt to more broadly lay the groundwork for challenging and overturning the outcome of a future election.
“If you believe the last election was stolen, you’re going to be more likely to take steps to steal the next one back,” Hasen said. “It’s pretty obvious that what’s going on here is using false claims of fraud as a potential pretext to engage in election subversion in 2024 or another future election. That’s very dangerous for American democracy.”
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