Sometimes, if you’re paying attention, you can see the first moments of a new election lie.
By scraping Twitter data and analyzing the velocity and reach of a story, researchers can visualize the process of a narrative going viral. It looks like this.
That graph, produced by analysts at the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), a group of researchers and students tracking election-related disinformation on the web, shows thousands of tweets and retweets over time — true, false, misleading and otherwise — about a story out of Colorado that has gone viral on the right-wing web over the last week. The secretary of state’s office accidentally sent postcards to 30,000 non-citizens informing them, incorrectly, that they might be eligible to apply to register to vote.
According to the secretary of state’s office, voter registration postcards were erroneously sent to some residents because of a data analysis error on a Colorado Department of Revenue list of non-citizen driver’s license holders.
But some conservatives were quick to assume ill intentions from Democrats.
As Ava Armstrong, a novelist and “ultra-MAGA Expert at triggering Leftists,” wrote on Twitter: “Now, we know why they opened the borders and 5 million illegals flooded in just in time for the 2022 election — funny, huh?” She was pretty early to the story, retweeting an account seven times smaller than her own on Sunday and flagging the story to her 147,000 followers. She also put a familiar spin on the narrative, falsely casting it not as an innocent mistake but a purposeful attempt to displace legitimate votes with those of newcomers — a trope sometimes referred to as the “Great Replacement” theory.
Within a day of Armstrong’s tweet, the reach of the Colorado story would grow tenfold. By midday Thursday, there were more than 47,000 tweets related to the incident, according to EIP’s numbers.
If the postcards were part of a massive criminal conspiracy to harvest electoral gains from the victims of human trafficking, its perpetrators did a terrible job. Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold’s office proactively alerted local media to the mistake, the Colorado Public Radio reporter who broke the story confirmed to HuffPost. The postcards, which didn’t come with any voter registration paperwork and instead directed recipients to a public information page, also explicitly stated that one must be a U.S. citizen to register. The secretary’s office is sending another postcard on Friday alerting Coloradans of the error and reiterating the voter registration rules.
If a postcard recipient attempts to register, they’ll hit existing safeguards, the secretary’s office said. The Department of Revenue would flag their non-citizen driver’s license number, and the registration would be blocked.
“One of the best tools we have is to be honest, and transparent,” Annie Orloff, the office’s communications director, told HuffPost. “We did that by providing all the details of what happened, how it happened, and what measures were being taken to correct the issue. We are here to make sure every eligible voice is heard.”
She added, “Unfortunately, bad-faith interpretations to fuel the Big Lie are expected.”
Sure enough, on Monday, three days after the initial report, Fox News host Jesse Watters painted a sinister picture. “Don’t you also have a feeling that the human smuggling is also a voter registration drive on the side? Because we just found proof it is,” he said before referring to an Associated Press article about the Colorado mixup that said no such thing. By Wednesday night, former President Donald Trump had cited the story as evidence that “Our Elections are CORRUPT!!!”
How did a straightforward local report of an innocuous mistake become a primetime election lie, one implying that election officials were engaged in not only a massive election fraud scheme but also a human smuggling ring?
In some ways, it was inevitable. For years, non-citizen immigrants have been caricatured as Democratic political pawns by right-wing politicians, who falsely cast them as obedient illegal voters bused across the country to do Democrats’ bidding.
Most notably, Trump lied after the 2016 election that he’d only lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton because “millions” of people had voted illegally. He based the lie on a tweet from political operative Gregg Phillips, costar of this year’s smash conspiracy theory hit “2000 Mules.” Phillips has never offered any evidence for his claim — there is none. But at an event this summer, he said it was “believable” and “possible” that 3 million non-citizens voted if you contemplate the possibility that there are three times more non-citizens living in the country than more accepted estimates assert.
The false trope of non-citizens voting for Democrats is so ingrained in American politics that the Colorado story didn’t need much prodding. The conservative commentator Katie Pavlich quoted an Associated Press report on the Colorado story Monday with a two-letter comment: “Oh.” The story appeared clear to her Twitter audience of nearly 1 million accounts. This was likely no mistake. Dozens commented, accusing Colorado authorities of acting intentionally.
“The underlying conspiracy theories themselves, those have been a part of public consciousness for long enough that people can reference it without actually saying a single word related to it,” Stephen Prochaska, a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington and part of the team at EIP who keeps tabs on the never-ending flow of disinformation on social media. “They just put ‘accidentally’ in quotes, and suddenly their readers know what it is that they’re referencing.”
Case in point: The first big right-wing outlet to write up the story, Red State, wrote the following headline Monday, “Colorado ‘Accidentally’ Sends Out 30,000 Voter Registration Cards to Non-Citizens.”
After HuffPost reached out to the author of the Red State article, who goes by “Bonchie,” they tweeted that they had “put accidentally in quotation marks because I was quoting another article that used that word.” They told HuffPost separately, “Get bent.”
“We were going to be shocked if it didn’t get picked up,” Prochaska said, referring to what happened in Colorado. “There’s a lot of potential for it to be misinterpreted or reframed.”
The Colorado Public Radio reporter who broke the news knew it would likely reach a large audience.
“We were going to be shocked if it didn’t get picked up.”
“We were aware that this story had the potential to spread far and wide,” Bente Birkeland said. “We tried to be diligent in how we wrote the story so anyone who clicked on the link and read it would immediately learn that these voter registration notices don’t allow ineligible people to register to vote.”
And many outlets — even on the right — did, correctly, include that context. In an early Tuesday morning news bulletin, even Fox News presented a one-sentence just-the-facts version that ended, “officials clarifying that any non-citizen attempting to register will be denied.”
But by then, word had spread elsewhere. “I am sure it is just an accident,” wrote Fox News contributor and former congressman Jason Chaffetz. “It’s always a ‘mistake’ or a ‘glitch,’” said Jenna Ellis, a lawyer and right-wing commentator. Ellis attempted to overthrow the 2020 election results as a member of the Trump campaign’s legal team and is now a senior adviser to far-right Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano. When asked for comment on her response, Ellis publicly tweeted a series of questions casting doubt on whether the secretary of state’s office sending the postcards “was really a mistake.”
Dinesh D’Souza, a well-known perpetrator of his own lies regarding voter fraud, snarked, “Wow, these ‘accidents’ always fit a pattern. How is it that the tennis ball always falls on one side of the net?”
Not everyone has twisted the story to fit a voter fraud narrative. Pam Anderson, the Republican nominee to replace Griswold in November, responded to the news by criticizing the error as a sign that it’s time to boot the secretary from office, without implying that it was a purposeful attempt to add non-citizens to voter rolls.
The mistake from Griswold’s office is a Colorado story. Still, the false narrative that Democrats seek to steal elections with the help of non-citizens is a national cudgel that the right has employed for years, with no sign of stopping.
And while there are steps that journalists and public officials can take to frame the news responsibly, Prochaska said, those efforts have limits.
“I hesitate to say that something’s going to happen no matter what,” Prochaska said. “But if there is a group that is dead set on re-contextualizing and reframing whatever event may occur, there’s only so much you can do.”