It’s Election Day across the U.S. and the stakes are high. We’re at a tense political point. Last week, Arizona even had to issue a restraining orders against the conservative, sometimes armed, militia members showing up at early voting sites. And the spread of a burgeoning conspiracy theory on Twitter is an illustrative case study in the role online disinformation plays in sowing such political discord.
A video posted to Twitter, recorded at a voting site in Anthem, Arizona, gained rapid traction on Tuesday morning amid right-wing users of the platform. In it, a poll worker informs a line of would-be voters that the site’s machines aren’t working — and attempts to re-assure voters that their ballots will still be read manually.
Charlie Kirk, noted disinformation disseminator and founder of the conservative youth organisation Turning Point USA, first tweeted out the video at 9:26 a.m. Eastern. Less than two hours later, millions of people had watched it and the tweet had been interacted with via retweets, replies, and quote tweets tens of thousands of times, according to data collected by Kate Starbird, a researcher who studies misinformation and social media at the University of Washington.
The Election Integrity Partnership, led by the University of Washington and Stanford University also tweeted out a thread on the phenomenon of the Maricopa County Machines’ viral spread.
Conversation around the tabulation system errors spread rapidly on Twitter. We have observed 40,000+ relevant tweets in the span of two hours. Attention spiked after a tweet from Charlie Kirk, which fueled others who allege that these machine failures are deliberate. pic.twitter.com/b3i7cbCCB6
— Election Integrity Partnership (@EI_Partnership) November 8, 2022
Many quote tweets and replies falsely insinuated that the faulty machines were an intentional ploy by Democrats to rig the election. “Cheating” became a trending topic on Twitter as a response. Donald Trump Jr. retweeted the clip, spreading it to his massive hoard of Twitter followers. Kirk, Trump Jr., and other far-right pundits amplified the idea that putting ballots into “Box 3″ when machines weren’t working, as instructed by poll workers, was tantamount to throwing your ballot away.
The online claims spread so quickly that the Maricopa County Elections Department tweeted out their own video about an hour after Kirk’s post.
In it, two election officials explain that all ballots will be counted regardless of faulty tabulators and that hand-counting ballots is standard in most Arizona counties on election days. The officials further added that voters can opt to cast their ballots at any location, and can go elsewhere if they really want to put their ballot in a working machine.
But that video has been viewed significantly less than Kirk’s, with less than half a million watches.
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