Donald Trump just made an extraordinary claim on Twitter:
That’s simply untrue. There’s no evidence to support the notion of widespread voter fraud in favor of either candidate. Hillary Clinton leads by more than 2 million votes nationwide, though her popular vote victory has no bearing on the final outcome in the Electoral College, which Trump won handily.
It may be tempting to dismiss Trump’s tweet as just another lie by a man who has made a career of them. But it’s worth analyzing the origins of his latest unfounded claim as a case study in how misinformation can easily spread into the mainstream.
The idea that so many people voted illegally? Trump didn’t make it up. Somebody else did.
The claim appears to have originated with Gregg Phillips, who identifies himself online as a resident of Austin, Texas, and the founder of an app for reporting voter fraud. A few days after the election, he tweeted that more than 3 million people had voted illegally, citing an “analysis” that he hasn’t released:
Those tweets quickly made their way to InfoWars, a conservative website that regularly peddles conspiracy theories and fake news: “Report: Three Million Votes in Presidential Election Cast by Illegal Aliens; Trump may have won popular vote.” That piece has been shared on Facebook more than 50,000 times.
Despite debunkings by outlets like Snopes and PolitiFact, the story continued to spread among Trump supporters online, with headlines like “BREAKING: Massive Voter Fraud Uncovered – Trump May Have Won Popular Vote By LANDSLIDE” and “Illegal Immigrants Cast a Ridiculous Number of Votes.” Most cited the InfoWars article.
Then, on Nov. 27, the voter-fraud claim was tweeted by Trump himself. He didn’t cite a source, so it’s impossible to know how this bit of misinformation made its way to the president-elect, but his language was similar to a Nov. 24. blog post by the hard-right Gateway Pundit: “Without Illegal Vote Tally Trump Would Have Won Popular Vote in a Landslide – Get Over It Snowflakes.” That one was shared on Facebook nearly 24,000 times.
Phillips, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, still hasn’t offered any support for his voter-fraud “analysis.” But he’s been active on Twitter, quickly retweeting Trump’s amplification of his original, baseless claim:
Trump has in the past defended his false statements by saying, “All I know is what’s on the internet.” Now he is positioning himself as editor-in-chief of the fake news movement, soon to be bolstered the imprimatur of the US presidency.