By Peter Geoghegan
In late August, roughly five weeks before Americans went to the polls, a story appeared in The New York Times reporting new data about the reach of fringe US conservative outlets on Facebook. The numbers were staggering.
Posts by far-right news site Breitbart had been shared three times as often as posts from the official pages of every Democratic member of the US senate combined in the previous 30 days. Conservative firebrand Ben Shapiro had chalked up 56 million interactions, more than the main pages of ABC News, NBC News, The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR put together.
Reporting the findings, New York Times technology correspondent Kevin Roose urged caution on Democrats who thought Joe Biden would coast to victory. “What,” Roose asked, “if Facebook is the ‘silent majority?'”
Well, it turns out that Facebook is not a majority in America, or at least not yet. Joe Biden flipped a series of key swing states and is on course to win the popular vote by more than four million.
But many of the silent masses identified by The New York Times did turn out on Tuesday. And most broke for Trump. The sitting president picked up in excess of 70 million votes, more than any other Republican candidate before, attracting supporters that opinion pollsters did not seem to even know existed.
Facebook, of course, did not deliver Trump victory. But social media is crucial to understanding why a man so patently unfit for the office of president did unexpectedly well – and how Trump has been able to systematically undermine trust in American democracy itself.
Florida is a case in point. This key swing state was expected to be tight, but many pre-election polls had Biden narrowly ahead. As Tuesday night moved into Wednesday morning, Trump held the Sunshine State comfortably, mainly thanks to Latino voters in the state’s most populous county, Miami-Dade, shifting in huge numbers from Clinton in 2016 to Trump this time around. Why?
One reason is the months of YouTube videos and Facebook posts that led many in Miami to believe that Biden was a stalking horse for socialism, anathema to the city’s large Cuban ex-pat population. These conspiracy theories were shared widely and then repeated incessantly on Spanish-language radio.
WhatsApp messages are not enough to make someone vote for something they don’t want to. Viral videos are not counted on polling day. But online disinformation campaigns can exert a powerful pull on voter behaviour, exploiting pre-existing fears and concerns through half-truths and straight out lies.
Without Facebook and Twitter, Trump would have struggled to get the message of fictitious voter fraud out to his supporters last week. On Wednesday, the most popular post on Facebook in the US was an update from the president baselessly alleging electoral fraud.
Facebook has been slow to act on the torrent of disinformation. A video of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon saying Dr Anthony Fauci should be beheaded was on the platform for 10 hours before being taken down.
By the time a ‘Stop the Steal’ Facebook group was eventually removed earlier in the week, it had hundreds of thousands of members and some of Trump’s most fervent supporters were already on the streets demanding a halt to the cornerstone of any democracy: the counting of legitimately cast ballots.
Social media was not just a medium for Trump’s rantings, it often provided the flimsy evidence for his tirades against ‘illegal votes’.
Last Thursday evening, when Trump delivered his most unhinged press conference yet – a high bar for a man who told the media that bleach should be used to treat Covid – the president’s speech was peppered with fantastical claims seemingly plucked from the furthest reaches of the internet.
In front of the world’s media, Trump regurgitated online rumours as if they were gospel truths.
“Bad things happened” after counting stopped for a few hours in Georgia; in reality exhausted election counters had simply taken a break. Poll watchers in Pennsylvania had been removed. They hadn’t. The windows of polling stations had been blocked out to stop people taking photographs, not to hide mass cheating. Trump’s attacks on the electoral process were long telegraphed. He spent much of his four years in the White House railing against mail-in voting. Despite casting a postal ballot himself.
Paid adverts on social media seeded the narrative of voter fraud months before the election. 2020 was the most expensive campaign in American political history: $14bn was spent across all races, with $6.6bn on the presidential battle alone. And while Biden heavily outspent Trump – raising more money from both Wall Street and small donors – the Republicans invested more on Facebook than the Democrats.
We had Herman Cain tweeting in August about how coronavirus was ‘not as deadly’ as the media portrayed – despite the former GOP presidential candidate having died of the virus the previous month.
On Tuesday night, the US senate had its first open supporter of the QAnon, a conspiracy theory that claims that Donald Trump has been secretly fighting to bring down a cabal of paedophiles. (Last month, Facebook banned QAnon from its platform. Three years after it first emerged.)
Trump might be defeated, but Trumpism – and the online disinformation that swirls around it – is likely to far outlast the bitter recriminations of the weeks to come. The long-term impact of the campaign to delegitimise the election could be severe.
Just 59% of Americans trust their votes will be accurately cast and counted, down 11 points from 2018, according to a Gallup poll. The drop among Republicans is 34 points, to just 44%.
The irony is that American democracy is deeply compromised, just not in the way Trump believes. Gerrymandering is endemic in some states: the 2016 report by the Electoral Integrity Project at Harvard measuring the health of American democracy gave North Carolina a seven on a scale of 100, a rating in line with Iran and Venezuela.
Nevertheless, Trump’s vote tally begs questions for Biden’s presidency. Without control of the senate, the Democratic president will struggle to push through his agenda. The surge that almost saw Trump hang on to the White House fatally undermines the Democrats’ assumption that ‘demography is destiny’.
Biden might have won Arizona and Georgia, but Trump seems to have recorded the best ever Republican performance among minority voters. Polls suggest 35% of American Muslims voted for a man who banned travellers from Muslim-majority states.
Trump has already indicated that he wants to fight again in 2024. Whether that comes to pass or not, the online world of political disinformation that provided so much of his support is here to stay. Trump’s ‘silent’ followers on Facebook and YouTube could be about to get a lot noisier.
Peter Geoghegan is the investigations editor of openDemocracy’s main site. He is also the author of Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.