In a video posted to Facebook on Sept. 14, Dan Bongino, a popular right-wing commentator and radio host, stated that the Democrats are planning a coup against President Trump on election day.
For a little over eleven minutes, Mr Bongino talked about how non-partisan electoral officials who met in June to plan what could happen after the vote were actually holding exercises for such a coup. In order to support his unsubstantiated claim, he twisted the group's words to match its meaning.
"I want to warn you that this stuff is intense," said Mr Bongino, speaking into the camera with his 3.6 million Facebook followers. "Really intense, and you have to be ready to digest anything."
His video, which has been viewed 2.9 million times, generated a strong response. One commentator wrote that when Democrats "cross the line", people should be prepared so that they can "show them what true freedom is." Another posted a meme of a Rottweiler about to pounce with the caption, "Veterans are like … Tell me if Americans."
The coup lie was just misinformation that went viral in right-wing circles ahead of election day on November 3rd. In another baseless rumor spread on Facebook and Twitter, a secret network of elites planned to destroy the ballots of those who voted for President Trump. And in another invention, supporters of Mr. Trump said an elite cabal was planning to prevent them from entering polling stations on election day.
All rumors seemed to have the same effect: upset Mr. Trump's troubled base, just as the president publicly fueled the idea of electoral chaos. Comment after comment on the untruths, respondents said the only way to stop left-wing violence is to respond with in-kind violence.
"Liberals and their propaganda," wrote one commentator. "Take this nonsense to compatriots who literally sit in wait for days to pull a trigger."
The misinformation, compounded by far-right media outlets like Fox News host Mark Levin, and branches like Breitbart and The Daily Wire, add controversy to an already existing powder keg campaign season. Mr Trump has repeatedly declined to say whether he would accept a peaceful transfer of power if he lost to his Democratic challenger Joseph R. Biden Jr. and urged his supporters to "go into the polls and watch very closely".
The falsehoods on social media support the idea of disrupting the choice. Election officials have said they feared harassment and intimidation of voters on election day.
"This is extremely worrying," said Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University in Elon, NC, who is tracking extremists online. Combined with Mr. Trump's comments, the false rumors give "violent guards an excuse" that acting in real life is "in defense of democracy," she said.
Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, said Mr. Trump would "accept the results of an election that is free, fair and fraud-free," adding that the issue of violence "would be better put to Democrats".
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In a text message, Mr. Bongino said the idea of a democratic coup d'état was "not a rumor" and that he was busy "exposing LIBERAL violence".
According to an analysis by the New York Times, skewed information about the elections is also flowing online in left-wing circles, albeit to a lesser extent. Such misinformation includes a viral lie that mailboxes have been blocked by unknown actors to effectively prevent people from voting.
Other popular left-wing websites, like Liberal Blogger and The Other 98%, have also twisted facts to further criticize Republicans, according to PolitiFact, a fact-checking website. For example, in a flammatory claim last week, the left-wing Facebook page Occupy Democrats claimed that President Trump had directly inspired a right-wing group conspiracy to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Social media companies seem increasingly alarmed about how their platforms can be tampered with to create election chaos. Facebook and Twitter took steps last week to curb inaccurate information before and after the vote. Facebook banned groups and posts related to the pro-Trump conspiracy movement QAnon, saying it would suspend political advertising by-elections. Twitter said it changed some basic features to slow the flow of information on its network.
On Friday, Twitter leaders urged people to "recognize our collective responsibility to voters to ensure a safe, fair and legitimate democratic process this November."
Oct. 13, 2020, 4:00 p.m. ET
Of the lies, Facebook said it was "removing calls for interference or violence at polling stations" and flagging posts that attempted to delegitimize the results. YouTube said it doesn't recommend videos with false rumors, while Twitter said that sharing links to controversial news is allowed if the tweets didn't violate its rules.
Even so, the idea of a Democrat-led coup has gained a lot of buzz online in recent weeks. It has found its way into at least 938 Facebook groups, 279 Facebook pages, 33 YouTube videos, and hundreds of tweets, according to a Times analysis.
The unsubstantiated claim stems from a letter dated Aug. 11 from two former military officers, John Nagl and Paul Yingling, to the country's top military official, General Mark A. Milley, according to researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London. Research organization. In their public letter, Mr Nagl and Mr Yingling asked General Milley to hold forces ready to escort President Trump from the White House grounds in case he lost the election and refused to leave.
Some online commentators took up the letter as evidence of an impending coup by the left. "Bootlickers Nagl and Yingling propose a violent military coup," read a post on Facebook on August 12th, which received 619 likes and comments and was linked to the letter. On the same day, Infowars, a conspiracy theory website, also published an article alleging retired officers were openly talking about a Democratic coup.
Mr. Nagl and Mr. Yingling did not respond to requests for comments.
On September 4, the right-wing exit The National Pulse reinforced the conspiracy. It published an article pointing to the "radical, anti-democratic tactics" of the Transition Integrity Project, a bipartisan group of former government officials who analyzed how to prevent a disrupted presidential election and transition. The group released a report of their efforts on Aug. 3, but The National Pulse said the document showed "an impending attempt to delegitimize the far-left elections".
Trey Grayson, a former Kentucky Republican Secretary of State and a member of the Transition Integrity Project, said the idea that the group was preparing a left wing coup was "insane". He said the group studied many election scenarios, including a Mr. Trump victory.
Michael Anton, a former national security advisor to President Trump, published an essay in the conservative publication The American Mind on Sept. 4, claiming, "The Democrats are laying the foundation for revolution right before our eyes."
His article was the turning point for the coup claim. It was posted on Facebook more than 500 times and reached 4.9 million people, according to CrowdTangle, an analytics tool from Facebook. Right-wing news sites like The Federalist and DJHJ Media have stepped up coverage of the idea, as has Mr Bongino.
Mr Anton did not respond to a call for comments.
The lie also began to metastasize. In one version, right-wing commentators claimed without evidence that Mr Biden would not admit if he lost the election. You also said his followers were upset.
"If a defeated Biden doesn't give in and his party's rioters take to the streets in an attempted coup against President Trump, will the military be needed to stop them?" tweeted Mr. Levin, the Fox News host, on Sept. 18. His message has been shared nearly 16,000 times.
After The Times contacted him, Mr. Levin posted a note on Facebook saying his tweet was a "sarcastic response to the Democrats".
Bill Russo, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, said in a statement that Mr Biden would accept how the people vote. "Donald Trump and Mike Pence are the ones who refuse to commit to a peaceful transfer of power," he said.
Dozens of videos on YouTube promoting the false coup narrative have garnered more than 1.2 million views in total, according to The Times since Sept. 7. One video was titled "RED ALERT: Are the President's Enemies Preparing a COUP?"
The risk of misinformation translating into real-world actions is growing, said Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy expert at Washington State University Vancouver.
"What we have seen over the past four years is the increasing ability of believers to" turn these conspiracy narratives into direct physical acts, "he said.
Ben Decker contributed to the research.