“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.