November 7, 2022

IntelBrief: Disinformation and the 2022 U.S. Midterm Elections

AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Mis-and dis-information narratives are spreading false allegations online, suggesting that voters cannot trust the outcome of the election and that if “their side” loses, the election has been “rigged” or “stolen.”
  • There is a real risk of political violence leading up to, during, or following the midterm elections taking place throughout the United States tomorrow.
  • During October, the daily volume of mis-, dis-, and malinformation artifacts across thousands of different online sources—including social media platforms, news publishers, blogs, and online forums—purporting that the election is rigged or will be stolen has increased by an astounding 268 percent.
  • Political voices in the U.S., including individuals running for office, have continued to further baseless claims about election fraud in 2020 and are pushing unsubstantiated allegations of potential voter fraud in 2022.

As the 2022 midterm elections approach in the United States, the spread of mis-, dis-, and malinformation (MDM) is proliferating online. According to definitions used by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) misinformation is the unintentional spread of false or misleading information whereas disinformation is the intentional spread of false or misleading information. In the context of an election, there are three primary effects MDM efforts can have on voters; first, if they choose to vote at all; second, whom they vote for; third, if they believe in the outcome of the election. Following the 2020 general election, the latter motivated the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Mis-and disinformation narratives furthered false allegations suggesting that voters could not trust in the outcome of the election, that the election had been “rigged” or “stolen.” The January 6th insurrection illustrates that the national security implications of mis-and dis-information are not confined to the online space, but can result in real-world acts of political violence. Recent reports of foreign actors seeking to utilize online disinformation to influence Americans also illustrate the national security threat posed by the proliferation of dis-and misinformation.

There is a real risk of political violence leading up to, during, or following the midterm elections taking place throughout the United States tomorrow. Last week’s violent attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, when an armed assailant broke into their home with the motivation to kidnap and likely harm the speaker of the house, shows that dis-and misinformation can inspire an individual to carry out acts of political violence. The assailant’s online footprint reveals a portrait of someone deeply ingrained in QAnon conspiracy theories, promoting 2020 election fraud narratives and anti-Semitic content. Following the attack, primarily far-right online communities started spreading conspiracy theories about the attack while promoting partisan narratives and anti-LGBT sentiments. According to the Threats and Harassment Dataset, built by researchers at Princeton University and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), of the 400 cases of threat and harassment observed between January 1, 2020, and September 23, 2022, 40 percent were related to elections, with almost 50 percent of those incidents occurring around the 2020 general election. The data also shows that Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona are the states with the highest share of threat and harassment incidents against poll workers. Intelligence bulletins released by federal law enforcement in the past week have warned of the risk of political violence around the election, suggesting that violent extremist actors could be motivated by disinformation and conspiracy theories claiming election fraud.

Monitoring and analysis by The Soufan Center and Limbik’s Information Defense System have yielded insight into mis-and disinformation narratives proliferating online ahead of the midterm elections. It is important to note that versions of these narratives have historically been present online, including in the lead-up to the 2020 general election, and are not necessarily exclusive to the midterm elections. Instead, for these narratives, our analysts have noted a steady increase in Potential for Impact (PFI)—a data-driven proprietary metric developed by Limbik that aims to assess whether a dis/misinformation narrative has the potential to inspire offline actions, including violence.

One group of mis-and disinformation narratives that have steadily been increasing online over the past month are those that further false allegations of election fraud or tampering with election results. For example, during October, the daily volume of MDM artifacts across thousands of different online sources—including social media platforms, news publishers, blogs, and online forums—purporting that the election is rigged or will be stolen has dramatically increased, by 268 percent. Only last week, the artifact volume was up 44 percent compared to the week prior. These narratives build on the so-called “big lie” from the 2020 general election, which included different strands of conspiracy theories and disinformation narratives to paint a false allegation that the election was “stolen” from former President Trump. Many of those that participated in the January 6th attack on the Capitol believed in these types of disinformation narratives that were coalesced under hashtags online such as #StopTheSteal.

We have observed similar false claims and fabricated warnings centered on specific congressional, senate, and gubernatorial elections. These mis-and disinformation narratives contradict assessments by the federal government, like this recent statement by the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA): “I am confident elections will be safe and secure, and the American people should have confidence in the integrity of elections.” Still, political voices in the United States—including individuals running for office—have continued to further baseless claims about election fraud in 2020 and have raised false alarms based on unsubstantiated allegations of potential voter fraud in 2022. According to a recent analysis by the Washington Post, 291 candidates running for office this election cycle have denied or questioned the outcome of the last presidential election. Election fraud mis-and disinformation narratives have the potential to motivate people to conduct acts of real world political violence. More acutely, it may motivate individuals or a group of individuals to take a range of actions to “safeguard” the election they perceive as being tampered with. There have already been disturbing reports of armed individuals in tactical gear showing up to “monitor” ballot drop boxes in Arizona. Such actions leading up to or during election day can intimidate voters that come to exercise their constitutional right to vote. It also increases the risk of political violence aimed at polling stations, poll workers, and election officials.

These types of mis-and disinformation narratives in conjunction with elections ultimately create further polarization and distrust in the political process of the United States democratic system. In unregulated online forums, violent extremists—including adherents of white supremacy extremism, accelerationism, and neo-Nazism—are celebrating the potential distrust in democracy, convincing followers that “there is no political solution” and that violence is the only way forward. Foreign adversaries, like Russia, China, and Iran, have an abundance of divisive narratives that can be amplified to U.S. audiences to influence the election or to stoke chaos—in short, they simply need to add fuel to the existing fire. For allies and partners, turbulent election cycles marred with mis-and disinformation and political violence hurt the United States’ credibility in championing liberal democracy on the global stage.