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A swirl of white ballots against a black background create a hypnotic spiral. Tara Jacoby for Vox

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Why mail-in voting conspiracy theories are so dangerous in 2020

QAnon is scary, but misinformation about voter fraud poses a bigger and more immediate threat to democracy.

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As the 2020 election enters its final phases, it feels like a lot could go wrong in the United States. Reports warn that hackers from Russia and China are targeting both parties, while the fringe conspiracy movement QAnon slips into the mainstream and possibly influences voters. And millions of people are talking about a different conspiracy theory, one that posits that the election has already been stolen.

Believers say this still-unfolding scandal goes all the way to the top. It gets weird, too. According to some, a sinister millionaire is ripping equipment out of post offices so they can’t properly process mail-in ballots. Others say foreign governments are printing millions of fraudulent mail-in ballots and that “deep state” goons are raiding nursing homes to tamper with senior citizens’ mail-in ballots. One way or another, President Trump is almost always supposedly involved in these plots — either orchestrating the conspiracy or fighting the America-hating intruders. And at the end of the day, this conspiracy theory boils down to one very bad but also mundane thing: voter fraud.

Let that sink in. The conspiracy theory that’s catching on — the one to really worry about as the country gears up to elect its future leaders — is not QAnon, which claims that Satan-worshipping, liberal pedophiles are running the country. It’s the one hiding in plain sight, the one that supporters of both parties are pushing, and the one that’s at the center of the most dangerous misinformation campaigns.

The voter fraud conspiracy theory, including related theories about voter suppression, is also what stands to undermine American democracy in a very immediate way, both by suppressing voter turnout and by sowing doubt among voters about the election’s results. That gets even more worrisome when you consider that President Trump continues to suggest that he won’t leave office, regardless of the election’s outcome. When asked on Wednesday if he’d commit to a peaceful transfer of power, Trump said, “We’ll have to see what happens.” He added, “The ballots are a disaster.”

Up to 80 million people are expected to vote by mail — the most in American history — which is leading to concern about the process. According to data from Zignal Labs, online and social media mentions of mail-in voting, including good old-fashioned voter fraud, are more prevalent than conspiratorial buzzwords like George Soros, the Clintons, or vaccines, including one for the coronavirus. Zignal Labs also calculates that, when looking at online discussions of these topics that are likely to be misinformation, vote-by-mail mentions still outnumber those about these other topics.

That said, anxiety about voter fraud is common during any election season — it’s just not usually this unhinged. In most elections, one side thinks the other side is somehow going to steal the election by ballot-harvesting, double voting, machine-rigging, voter suppression, or any other number of methods, and those fears will either be realized by questions raised after a loss or forgotten in the sweet security of victory.

But the pandemic and all the uncertainty it’s created have exaggerated these fears. Just a small number of Americans — especially in states where it’s not yet a widespread practice — have previous experience voting by mail, according to Pew. An intelligence bulletin posted by the Department of Homeland Security has also warned that Russia is likely amplifying misinformation that casts doubts on the integrity of voting by mail. The incumbent president isn’t helping, either. Trump, who has said “mail-In Ballots will lead to massive electoral fraud and a rigged 2020 Election,” continues to find new ways to discredit the process, as have his lieutenants, like Attorney General Bill Barr.

History tells us that the voter fraud conspiracy theory is a bipartisan issue. For decades, competing and even converging theories about voter fraud have come from Democrats as well as Republicans. And according to research, no matter who loses, about a quarter of those on the losing side will likely believe the election was rigged for one reason or another. Believing in a conspiracy theory like this — or any conspiracy theory, for that matter — can be a useful coping mechanism for some.

“We like knowing that there are causes, and there’s intentionality behind things that happen in the world, and conspiracy theories help with all of that because they impose some structure on a messy, uncertain, random kind of world,” Adam Enders, a political scientist at the University of Louisville who studies conspiracy theories, told Recode. “They tell a story: There’s a winner, there’s a loser, and there’s a bad guy.”

So while it’s tempting to fixate on QAnon and how the many sordid elements of that conspiracy theory might matter in November, that risks missing something even bigger. The conspiracy theory about how voter fraud of some kind will rig the election might not seem so exciting. That might also be why it’s so dangerous.

Calm down about QAnon

QAnon is wild and scary, which is why it’s getting so much attention right now.

The term QAnon refers to a set of far-fetched conspiracy theories about how a cabal of elites — pedophiles who suck the blood of babies to gain special powers — is plotting against President Trump. If you strip out the more salacious words of that description, you’re left with the idea that elites are plotting against the president.

The thing is, there’s little concrete evidence that QAnon is attracting huge numbers of believers, though awareness of it is growing. From March to September, the number of Americans who had heard or read “a lot or a little” about QAnon doubled from 23 percent to 47 percent, according to a Pew survey. (The organization acknowledged that asking the same people the same question twice stands to skew the results.) Regardless, there’s a big difference between knowing about a conspiracy theory and believing in it.

Beyond the sheer number of its followers, the QAnon movement presents a different kind of danger. The growth of QAnon, which the FBI has identified as a potential domestic terrorism threat, coincides with a rise in right-wing extremist attacks and plots, and QAnon specifically has been linked to multiple acts of violence. There’s also overlap between QAnon believers and violent militia groups like the “boogaloo” movement. This is all deeply concerning and a threat to our democracy, too.

And QAnon is, in fact, finding some legitimacy in politics. Around the same time that QAnon believer Marjorie Taylor Greene won her House primary runoff in Georgia, the social media research company Storyful released data showing that membership in 10 large QAnon Facebook groups increased 600 percent from March to July, and the Instagram followings on top QAnon Instagram accounts quadrupled. On top of that, a Civiqs/Daily Kos poll in early September suggested that a third of Republicans believe the QAnon conspiracy theory is “mostly true.” All of this led to a flurry of reports about how QAnon had gone mainstream. Some conspiracy theory experts, however, have doubts about how the movement factors into the upcoming presidential election.

“We’re not finding a movement that’s either big or growing, or well-known,” said Joe Uscinski, a University of Miami political science professor who has been conducting polling on conspiracy theories for a decade. “This seems to me to be nothing more than a case of a media public, of journalists getting trapped in their own media bubble and just repeating over and over again that this is big and getting bigger and going mainstream.”

Some of the most recent polls, Uscinski has pointed out, ask people broadly if they believe in things like QAnon and the “deep state,” and then conflate the results to mean that belief in QAnon is on the rise. In fact, this broad category of conspiracy theories about shadowy elites dates back to the Masons, the Knights Templar, long-standing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and beyond. So it seems possible that people aren’t expressing familiarity with QAnon specifically but rather other long-standing conspiracy theories about a deep state.

“Conspiracy theories have always played a role in American politics, as far back as when the Anti-Masonic Party rose to power in the Northeast in the early 19th century,” said Travis View, who co-hosts the QAnon Anonymous podcast. “But even if conspiracy theory belief hasn’t increased generally in the United States, it’s notable that the conspiracy theory community are gathering under the banner of ‘Q.’”

Beware the boring conspiracy theory

So while QAnon certainly isn’t harmless — and may well pose a growing, if not violent threat if it continues to spread — its existence should not distract from the more popular, more imminent, and more dangerous conspiracy theories around voter fraud that are taking hold in the US. While QAnon supporters certainly have their own theories about how this year’s election is rigged, voter fraud misinformation has more people, and more prominent people like Trump, promoting it. That leaves both Republicans and Democrats questioning the integrity of American democracy.

As a result, discourse about voter fraud and other voting-related anxieties is finding a huge audience across the political spectrum. According to data from the intelligence firm NewsWhip, links shared on social media about voter fraud, mail-in voting, or vote-by-mail gathered nearly 99 million interactions over the past three months, compared to about 74 million interactions for stories about QAnon-adjacent topics like child trafficking. Meanwhile, stories that explicitly mentioned the terms QAnon, wwg1wga (shorthand for the QAnon rallying cry, “where we go one, we go all”), and #SaveTheChildren (a hashtag QAnon followers recently hijacked) had just over 15.5 million interactions over the past three months.

Data from Zignal Labs also shows that mentions of misinformation related to voting have continued to spike, again and again, this election cycle.

Voter fraud exists, but its prevalence is overexaggerated, particularly in modern US elections. As long as Americans have been voting, there have been reported instances of voter fraud, including some sensational ones that have been proven true. The conservative Heritage Foundation keeps a running tally of these that can be found on the White House website. Many of the cases reported therein are linked to absentee ballots, which provides rhetorical ammunition for President Trump, who has falsely claimed that mail-in voting will lead to a “rigged election” and similarly spent much of his 2016 campaign warning of voter fraud. Trump also keeps encouraging people to vote twice, which is illegal.

Republicans nevertheless maintain that, because voter fraud has happened in the past, it’s opening the doors for Democrats to steal this year’s election, when the pandemic is upending many voting norms. Despite Trump’s persistent warnings to the contrary, there were just four documented cases of voter fraud reported in the weeks after the 2016 election.

“We know from decades upon decades of data that while there is voting fraud in the United States, it is incredibly rare,” Sam Rhodes, a political scientist at Utah Valley University who studies fake news, told Recode. “It’s very difficult to swing an election by stealing a couple votes, especially when you consider the decentralized nature of the American federal election system.”

Meanwhile, there’s little evidence that higher levels of voting by mail will lead to more cheating. In the five states where mail-in voting is the norm — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington — there have been virtually no cases of documented voter fraud. What’s ironic is that Republicans historically have cast more absentee ballots than Democrats, which complicates Trump’s claim in August that mail-in ballots “are dangerous for this country because of cheaters.” The president’s rhetoric around voter fraud seems to be resonating within the party. A September Pew survey showed that 43 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe voter fraud associated with mail-in voting is a “major problem” in the election.

The voter fraud conspiracy theories conservatives are sharing online are evolving well beyond the president’s statements about mail-in voting, too. The right-wing site Natural News, which has been banned on Facebook after spreading conspiracy theories, has been pushing the baseless claim on its expansive network of sites that Democrats are using mail-in voting to skew the election in their favor.

Some of the voter fraud narratives can get pretty wild. One conspiracy theory making the rounds online is that arsonists set the recent West Coast wildfires in an attempt to shut down highways and prevent mail-in votes from being delivered and to suppress Republican turnout, according to research from the web intelligence firm Yonder. Meanwhile, former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker claimed in a Facebook post that Democrats were spreading a “fake postal controversy in hopes that worried people will vote by mail before the first debate.”

Democrats aren’t immune to voter fraud conspiracy theories, though they tend to worry more about the voter suppression side of things. The “fake postal controversy” Walker mentioned is a reference to the disruptions in the US Postal Service that followed the appointment of Louis DeJoy, a top Trump donor, as postmaster general. Those disruptions included the removal of 711 mail-sorting machines from postal facilities and widespread mail delays. Meanwhile, misleading images of collection boxes being removed from street corners went viral on social media.

All of this led to allegations that the Trump administration was sabotaging the election by dismantling the Postal Service, claims that were swiftly framed by conservatives as a false conspiracy theory about a far-fetched form of voter suppression. Yet, just as Republicans could claim that voter fraud has actually happened in the past, there was no denying the fact that actions taken by the president had disrupted the Postal Service mere months before an election that could be decided by mail-in voting. Trump even admitted to blocking USPS funding because he didn’t want universal mail-in voting.

Conspiratorial thinking of this nature has been a bipartisan issue for decades on both sides, according to a 2017 paper published in Political Research Quarterly. Notably, the authors report, “Republicans are especially prone to believing that people are casting ballots they should not, whereas Democrats are more concerned that they are not able to cast ballots.”

In many ways, conspiracy theories that flirt with the facts are more harmful than those that seem more outrageous. Conspiracy theories about QAnon are not nearly as dangerous to elections as those about voter fraud and voter suppression because they’re so much more believable and embraced by a much larger share of the population. Even if they’re not true — and even if they’re not completely believed — these conspiracy theories can seed doubt in the minds of millions of American voters about the democratic process, and when the media or the president amplifies these theories, those doubts become much more severe.

“The long-term impact of those kinds of stories is that a few weeks after the fact, we know we heard something, and we have a question in our mind,” said Kris Shaffer, technical director of Yonder. “Even if the truth was really clearly laid out, we’ll still have a question in our mind as to what actually happened.”

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