“As for the lack of evidence that is the mantra of all you flying monkeys. It’s like denying the Holocaust. The evidence is overwhelming and compelling, despite the framing of your question.”
This statement is from an email sent from Roger Stone to CNN, in response to a question about whether the current Stop the Steal movement is a recycled version of the narrative of mass voter fraud he promoted before the 2016 presidential election. Stone, a veteran Republican operative and self-described “dirty trickster,” has haunted American politics for decades as a figure with little regard for the truth and an affinity for controversy. Just a few months ago, Stone was in national headlines after President Donald Trump commuted his sentence on seven felony crimes, including false statement and obstruction counts.
Stone’s latest project, Stop the Steal, is a right-wing movement centered around a conspiracy theory that President-elect Joe Biden and the Democratic Party stole the 2020 election from Trump through mass voter fraud. The campaign illustrates the increasingly urgent issue of political disinformation in the United States, one that threatens to derail and erode our democracy.
In 2016, Stone’s political action committee launched a “Stop the Steal” website to fundraise for the election, claiming, “If this election is close, THEY WILL STEAL IT.” Although Stone’s self-described “vote protectors” project became buried in lawsuits just before Election Day, the movement resurfaced and gained traction ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The first Stop the Steal Facebook group, managed by a coalition of conservative activists with ties to Stone’s ex-wife, turned into one of the fastest-growing groups in Facebook’s history, amassing more than 320,000 followers in less than 24 hours.
Although Facebook shut the group down hours later, right-wing operatives, including former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, created similar groups, all peddling in disinformation about the legitimacy of the election. While Facebook has taken some steps to stop the spread of the conspiracy theory, the cluster of groups and pages on the social media site associated with Stop the Steal has come to amass a total of over 2.5 million followers. The conspiracy theory continues to spread on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites at an alarming rate, creating online communities where Trump supporters are able to mingle with conspiracy theorists and hate groups.
Far from being a grassroots movement organized by disgruntled Trump supporters, Stop the Steal is a highly coordinated, partisan operation created to undermine trust in our democratic institutions for political gain. It succeeded by adopting the modern blueprint for political disinformation campaigns, first executed by the Nazi regime in the 1930s: capitalizing on preexisting tensions and divisions in society, amplifying extremism to drown out consensus, and creating echo chambers of conspiracy theories and propaganda that aim to radicalize their audiences . By drawing on Trump supporters’ distrust in the media and the government, Stop the Steal was able to convince millions that the most secure election in American history was actually riddled with fraud and deception. Existing polarization and extensive consumption of partisan media only made the political climate more conducive to the spread of election-related disinformation.
Like all successful political disinformation campaigns, Stop the Steal has the potential to be detrimental to the health of our democracy. In targeting specific voters and drawing them into a parallel universe of conspiracy theories and propaganda, political disinformation efforts erode our shared sense of truth. These campaigns further exacerbate the polarization that gave way to their rise, as citizens exposed to such content become more likely to believe that the other side is illegitimate, subversive, or criminal and that its members pose an existential threat to the nation.
As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe in their book How Democracies Die, this hyperpolarization can lead to the abandonment of norms central to democracy, such as mutual toleration and forbearance . If citizens believe that the political opposition represents an existential threat, they become much less likely to accept that it too has the right to participate in politics, as well as more likely to sacrifice restraint in favor of partisan gain. As a result, the public becomes less able and willing to engage in meaningful political discourse with the opposing side, hold their leaders accountable, and protect the health of the democracy through consensus and cooperation.
The polarization and intolerance that disinformation campaigns stoke can also give rise to what Jennifer Mercieca termed as “dangerous demagogues.” According to Mercieca, dangerous demagogues are distinctive in their use of “weaponized communication,” defined as “the strategic use of communication as an instrumental tool and as an aggressive means to gain compliance and avoid accountability” . Mercieca lists propaganda, conspiracy theory, fake news, and disinformation as examples of weaponized communication, all of which enable dangerous demagogues to gain compliance and avoid accountability. These measures aid such leaders in obscuring the actions of the government, emboldening their base, and convincing the public of the futility of resisting. In other words, disinformation campaigns hinder the ability of the people to hold their governments accountable and enable the potential authoritarian tendencies of their leaders.
Since the media projected Biden’s victory on November 8th, some have argued that Trump’s concession, or lack thereof, matters little to the actual transition of power; regardless of Trump’s reluctance to admit defeat, Biden will most likely be sworn in on January 20th. However, the efforts of Stop the Steal and similar political disinformation campaigns to ensure that Trump’s supporters will not accept an electoral loss is a different matter entirely. A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll found that about half of Republicans believe that Trump “rightfully won” the election but that it was stolen from him through mass voter fraud. This statistic will likely present an enormous challenge to Biden as he grapples with the issue of governing over those who view his presidency as illegitimate.
It is clear from the case of the Stop the Steal movement that the bushfire spread of disinformation on social media and partisan media outlets represents a grave threat to our democracy. There is hope that Americans can move past this age of conspiracy theories and disinformation. For instance, countries like Taiwan have been able to recover a shared sense of truth through a whole-of-society approach to combatting disinformation. However, solving the problem can only come after we collectively acknowledge its existence. Adena, Maja, Ruben Enikolopov, Maria Petrova, Veronica Santarosa, and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya. “Radio and the Rise of the Nazis in Prewar Germany.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2015.  Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die, 2018.  Mercieca, Jennier R. “Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 2019.
The featured image is used under the Creative Commons 2.0 License. The original was taken by Gage Skidmore and can be found here.
I’m in complete agreement with you that the importance of a common “epistemic foundation” – as Levitsky and Ziblatt state – to a democracy can only be understated. However, while I think the proposed solutions may have beneficial, immediate effects, there longer term consequences are far more discomforting. For example, Facebook has quite the history of suppressing information which challenges the status quo in several issues. It’s dangerous, to say the least, to give power over the regulation of information to an organisation that is virtually un-accountable, i.e. Facebook and other such tech companies.
Similarly, while the state may undertake measures to control misinformation, this arrives perilously close to the state deciding upon what may be said and what may not; solutions to propaganda often flirt with the problems they were tasked to solve.
This was a very well-crafted blog post! I agree with everything that you said here. It’s important for democracies to acknowledge the existence of misinformation and disinformation in politics. Organizations like Stop the Seal only serve to polarize the American polity even further and make it more difficult for our democracy to function. One question that I would like to pose is where do we go from here? How can a strong democracy, such as the U.S., go about regulating sources of disinformation? Obviously, a number of social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have taken it upon themselves to flag posts and tweets for disinformation. However, do large tech conglomerates really deserve the right to do that? How do we respond to individuals who say that this type of regulation violates their freedom of speech/expression? One solution, besides regulation, that comes to mind is to somehow educate the public. If disinformation targets politically uneducated and unaware citizens, then why not make an effort to educate those individuals on how to differentiate between what is true and fake? But, then again, how would a democracy as large and diverse as the U.S. go about doing this?
The “Stolen” 2020 Election: How Conspiracy Theories Threaten our Democracy
Conspiracy theories can be a lighthearted source of entertainment, but when do they cross the line into harmful territories? According to a poll conducted by CBS News, 66% of Republicans, and 31% of all citizens in America, believe that the 2020 election was fraudulent (De Pinto & Salvanto, 2022). Mariana Paez addresses Roger Stone’s “Stop the Steal” campaign, a right-wing movement centered around the conspiracy that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Trump. She argues that mass disinformation movements like this threaten our democracy; a stance I agree with. Throughout this response, I aim to further elaborate on the precursors for democratic erosion that conspiracies, including the “stolen” 2020 election theory, pose on the United States. The four factors resulting from conspiracies that I will address include the modern implementation of technology, emotion driven rhetoric, increasing polarization, and the violation of democratic norms.
Primarily, it is important to recognize the role that technology plays in amplifying and rapidly spreading conspiracies. Paez introduced how the Stop the Steal operation has adopted a “modern blueprint” to spread disinformation at rapid paces and how echo chambers amplify the extremist voices. She notes that Facebook allowed the campaign to gain over 320,000 followers in less than 24 hours.
To build off of Paez’s point, a PBS Frontline episode titled United States of Conspiracy highlights the dangers of the internet. This film spotlights Alex Jones, and how the internet has endorsed the extremity of the disinformation he is circulating. In the case of Jones, the Sandy Hook incident was initially thought to be the end of his career due to the great backlash he received for targeting mourning victims. While networks dropped Jones, the internet gave him a new platform to resurface. Online conspiracists find individuals who feed into their fears and bigotry causing real mobilization. People hear perspectives and explanations that they’ve never heard before, simply because it was not accessible prior to the internet. An additional danger is the new incentive conspiracists have when their income is streaming from clicks and views. There becomes a pattern, where the more outrageous, the more clicks it gets. Youtube recommends items based on popularity thus allowing dangerous conspiracies to instantaneously appear at the fingertips of millions of individuals (Kirk et al., 2020).
In addition to the modern technological advances, the rhetoric used in conspiracies to attract voters demonstrate dangerous demagoguery tactics. Paex elaborates on the notion of dangerous demagoguery by using Mercieca (2019)’s description of “weaponized communication.” This form of communication often, used in conspiracy theories, is strategic and aims to intentionally manipulate a following into complying while avoiding accountability. I agree with Paex’s point that such disinformation campaigns hinder citizens’ ability to hold their politicians accountable.
Beyond the unaccountability aspect, dangerous demagogues are able to appeal to the emotion of their following by providing explanations and blame for distressing large-scale events. Might you also consider connecting this attachment individuals feel towards conspiracies to Hoschild (2018)’s “Deep Story.” Deep stories are the root of individuals and the values they hold. For many rural, conspiracy believing, lower class white Americans, their Deep Story is the American Dream. Many of these individuals have grown up believing that if they work hard enough then they will be provided with financial security because that is the American promise. However, as unemployment rates increase and wealth becomes more scarce, it feels as though the American Dream is passing them by. Meanwhile, the populist leader Donald Trump is able to appeal to their emotions by using immigrants and minorities as scapegoats and calling them line-cutters. He engaged their deep story by claiming to restore America and its past values that were once dominated by white men.
For many people, Trump’s election loss, symbolized the loss of ever attaining their American Dream. This conspiracy would open up a reality, where the American Dream has not been stripped away from them once more. Miller (2016) conceptualizes this internal decision as a means of motivated reasoning which is making decisions that fill an emotional bias over accumulating factual information. These explanations are common, consistent and easy to believe. Party identification also causes individuals to endorse conspiracies that make the opposition look bad as if in solidarity with their partisan “team” (Miller, 2016).
This populist rhetoric communicated by disinformation campaigns inflicts polarization on the people. Paez notes the detrimental effects that polarization has on our democracy by describing the heightened distrust and increased likelihood of falling prey to populist oratory. As noted above, populists like Trump institute rhetoric that places blame on a minority group of individuals. In turn, he is promoting the use of “Us vs. Them” terminology and implanting fear towards the “other.” This degree of antagonism towards the outgroup promotes what Hoschild (2018) refers to as “empathy walls.” “Empathy walls” are obstacles that prevent individuals from understanding those differing from themselves. The divide is typically between white men who believe they are at the top of the social hierarchy, and those of differing ethnic and religious backgrounds. This increases the likelihood for individuals to adopt conspiracies that demonize the other, because they cannot understand eachother.
Democratic Norm Violation
The anger and polarization builds, thus threatening the guardrails of our democracy. Paez highlights these guardrails: institutional forbearance and mutual toleration (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2019). I agree with her assertion that if citizens see the political opponent as a threat then they are more likely to withdraw from obtaining the rules of the democracy. However, I invite you to acknowledge that this very stolen election conspiracy is a violation of mutual tolerance. Mutual toleration, as defined by Levitsky and Ziblatt (2019), refers to accepting a political opposition as legitimate. The “stolen” 2020 election conspiracy blatantly delegitimizes the democratic party by calling them cheaters and fraudulent. The distrust and hostility towards the partisans does threaten the likelihood of parties staying within the norms, or unspoken rules, needed to maintain a strong democracy.
The main objections I foresee are denying the fact that individuals fall prey to such falsehoods, or the argument that conspiracies are harmless and merely a source of entertainment. Additionally, for those holding the belief that the “stolen election” is true, I respond by stating that there is no evidence of a fraudulent election, therefore defining such a position as a conspiracy is accurate. For those who deny such conspirators are out there, I invite you to consider the intentions behind the reason for believing. Achen and Bartels (2017) raise the point that it is hard to match the ideal informed and rational democratic citizen and in turn we use shortcuts to compensate. These heuristics cause citizens to inappropriately attribute blame when it is not deserved and therefore make unwise, undemocratic decisions. Lastly, I addressed why conspiracies at this extremist level can be harmful towards our democracy through increased polarization and democratic norm violation.
Achen, C. H., & Bartels, L. M. (2017). Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government. Princeton ; Oxford Princeton University Press.
Arlie Russell Hochschild. (2018). Strangers in their own land : Anger and mourning on the American right. The New Press.
De Pinto, J., & Salvanto, A. (2022, January 24). CBS news poll: Threats to democracy and elections – what are they and who sees them? http://Www.cbsnews.com. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/threats-democracy-elections-opinion-poll/
Kirk, M., Wiser, M., Gilmore, J., & Bennett, P. (2020). FRONTLINE season 2020 episode 16 United States of conspiracy. In PBS. https://www.pbs.org/video/united-states-of-conspiracy-1phat1/
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2019). How democracies die. Broadway Books.
Mercieca, J. R. (2019). Dangerous demagogues and weaponized communication. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 49(3), 264–279. https://doi.org/10.1080/02773945.2019.1610640
Miller, J. M., Saunders, K. L., & Farhart, C. E. (2016). Conspiracy endorsement as motivated reasoning: The moderating roles of political knowledge and trust. American Journal of Political Science, 60(4), 824–844. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24877458