Riled Up: Misinformation Stokes Calls for Violence on Election Day

In a video posted to Facebook on Sept. 14, Dan Bongino, a popular right-wing commentator and radio host, declared that Democrats were planning a coup against President Trump on Election Day.

For just over 11 minutes, Mr. Bongino talked about how bipartisan election experts who had met in June to plan for what might happen after people vote were actually holding exercises for such a coup. To support his baseless claim, he twisted the group’s words to fit his meaning.

“I want to warn you that this stuff is intense,” Mr. Bongino said, speaking into the camera to his 3.6 million Facebook followers. “Really intense, and you need to be ready to digest it all.”

His video, which has been viewed 2.9 million times, provoked strong reactions. One commenter wrote that people should be prepared for when Democrats “cross the line” so they could “show them what true freedom is.” Another posted a meme of a Rottweiler about to pounce, with the caption “Veterans be like … Say when Americans.”

Social media companies appear increasingly alarmed by how their platforms may be manipulated to stoke election chaos. Facebook and Twitter took steps last week to clamp down on false information before and after the vote. Facebook barred groups and posts related to the pro-Trump conspiracy movement QAnon and said it would suspend political advertising postelection. Twitter said it was changing some basic features to slow the way information flowed on its network.

On Friday, Twitter executives urged people “to recognize our collective responsibility to the electorate to guarantee a safe, fair and legitimate democratic process this November.”

Of the lies, Facebook said it was “removing calls for interference or violence at polling places” and would label posts that sought to delegitimize the results. YouTube said it was not recommending videos containing the false rumors, while Twitter said sharing links to disputed news stories was permitted if the tweets did not violate its rules.

Even so, the idea of a Democrat-led coup has gained plenty of traction online in recent weeks. It has made its way into at least 938 Facebook groups, 279 Facebook pages, 33 YouTube videos and hundreds of tweets, a Times analysis found.

The unfounded claim traces back to an Aug. 11 letter from two former military officers, John Nagl and Paul Yingling, to the country’s top military official, Gen. Mark A. Milley, according to researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based research organization. In their public letter, Mr. Nagl and Mr. Yingling asked General Milley to have military forces ready to escort Mr. Trump from the White House grounds if he lost the election and refused to leave.

Some online commentators seized on the letter as evidence of a coming left-wing coup. “Bootlickers Nagl and Yingling suggest a violent military coup,” read one post on Facebook on Aug. 12, which got 619 likes and comments and linked to the letter. That same day, Infowars, a conspiracy theory website, also published a piece claiming that retired Army officers were openly talking about a coup by Democrats.

Mr. Nagl and Mr. Yingling did not respond to requests for comment.

On Sept. 4, the right-wing outlet The National Pulse added to the conspiracy. It published a piece pointing to what it said were 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 published a report on Aug. 3 about its efforts, but The National Pulse said the document showed “an impending attempt to delegitimize the election coming from the far left.”

Trey Grayson, a Republican former secretary of state of Kentucky and a member of the Transition Integrity Project, said the idea that the group was preparing a left-wing coup was “crazy.” He said the group had explored many election scenarios, including a victory by Mr. Trump.

Michael Anton, a former national security adviser to President Trump, also published an essay on Sept. 4 in the conservative publication The American Mind, claiming, “Democrats are laying the groundwork for revolution right in front of our eyes.”

His article was the tipping point for the coup claim. It was posted more than 500 times on Facebook and reached 4.9 million people, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool. Right-wing news sites such as The Federalist and DJHJ Media ramped up coverage of the idea, as did Mr. Bongino.

Mr. Anton did not respond to a call for comment.

The lie also began metastasizing. In one version, right-wing commentators claimed, without proof, that Mr. Biden would not concede if he lost the election. They also said his supporters would riot.

“If a defeated Biden does not concede and his party’s rioters take to the streets in a coup attempt against President Trump, will the military be needed to stop them?” tweeted Mr. Levin, the Fox News host, on Sept. 18. His message was shared nearly 16,000 times.

After The Times contacted him, Mr. Levin published a note on Facebook saying his tweet had been 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 voted. “Donald Trump and Mike Pence are the ones who refuse to commit to a peaceful transfer of power,” he said.

On YouTube, dozens of videos pushing the false coup narrative have collectively gathered more than 1.2 million views since Sept. 7, according to a tally by The Times. One video was titled “RED ALERT: Are the President’s Enemies Preparing a COUP?”

The risk of misinformation translating to real-world action is growing, said Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy expert at Washington State University Vancouver.

“What we’ve seen over the past four years is an increasing capability” from believers to turn these conspiracy narratives “into direct physical actions,” he said.

Ben Decker contributed research.



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