‘Big lie’ vigilantism is on the rise. Big Tech is failing to respond

Stolen-election activists and Trump supporters have embraced a new tactic in their campaign to unearth supposed proof of fraud in the 2020 presidential race: Using social media to chase down ‘ballot mules’

By: - June 23, 2022 6:30 am

Inspired by a conservative documentary film that has won praise from Trump and his allies, self-styled citizen sleuths are posting and sharing photos of unnamed individuals and accusing them of election crimes (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images).

This story 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.

This is the new playbook, and I’m worried that platforms are not prepared to deal with this tactic that encourages dangerous behavior.

– Emma Steiner, a disinformation analyst with Common Cause

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.

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Andy Kroll
Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll is a reporter for ProPublica covering voting, elections and other democracy issues.