On Tuesday afternoon, the MAGA internet was quiet at best, bitter at worst.
By Wednesday, it was crowing and chest-thumping about voter fraud and the establishment’s destruction, flooding social media with viral — and incorrect — accusations of electoral theft.
What started as a day of uncharacteristic restraint for President Donald Trump’s supporters on Tuesday quickly turned into a round of “I told you so” admonishments as it became clear Democrats would not sweep the board and that Trump had outperformed his poor standing in the polls. To them, it proved, once again, that they were right and mainstream media culture was wrong.
Then Trump walked out to the White House podium early Wednesday morning to falsely proclaim that Democrats were trying to steal the election from him. And he turbocharged his freshly energized legion of all-caps online backers.
Within hours, far-right influencers and partisan news outlets had jumped on that message, using the hashtags #VoterFraud and #StealTheVote to garner more than 300,000 interactions, including likes, comments and shares on Facebook, according to data from CrowdTangle, a social analytics firm owned by Facebook. That included Facebook pages with millions of followers promoting fake videos of Joe Biden saying the Democratic Party was carrying out an extensive voter fraud campaign.
Though internet commentary is not the real world, digital MAGA’s last-effort push will shape the GOP’s view of how to interpret the 2020 election. And as final votes are tallied, recount requests get filed, and hordes of campaign lawyers are dispatched, the messaging has coalesced into a fourth-quarter, full-court press against the media, the Democrats and big tech.
“I think it’s a bit of a contradiction,” said Seth Mandel, the executive editor of the conservative-leaning Washington Examiner magazine. “The end result shows how winnable this race was for Trump, but he doesn’t have the discipline or the trust of the system to figure out how to course-correct.”
The defiance was not widely shared as people went to the polls on Tuesday.
Outside the White House fence, there was little evidence of the pro-Trump demonstrations that some far-right groups had promised. Instead, a smattering of anti-Trump protesters had taken up residence at Black Lives Matter Plaza, playing smooth jazz on electric keyboards as women danced with giant tie-dye flags — hardly the scene for a revolution.
The MAGA mood shifted, however, once the East Coast polls had closed. Trump supporters started noticing the president was ahead in Florida by several hundred thousand votes — and that none of the networks, Fox News included, were calling it. That sentiment only snowballed throughout the night, to the point that even the Trump campaign and its allies were livid at Fox for calling Arizona for Biden before other networks.
“This is election interference. Fox News must fire [politics editor] Chris Stirewalt. The Trump campaign should sue Fox News,” tweeted Benny Johnson, chief creative officer at pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA.
Trump’s gains among certain minority groups also bolstered their belief that MAGA nationalist-populism transcended race. They pointed to the gains he made from 2016 among Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County. He also made surprising inroads with Latinos compared to 2016.
But polling shortcomings seemed to be the theme of the night. With Democrats failing to make the Senate gains they were anticipating, Midwest states becoming nail biters rather than landslides and the House Democrats barely clinging to their 2018 majority, the wider world of conservatives boasted that another pillar of modern political media was falling apart.
The MAGA perspective interpreted the networks’ hesitance to call the election as a sign of the Democrat-media nexus at play — either because they remained blind to the electorate, or, more conspiratorially, to help Biden win.
“DO NOT concede jack shit until every LEGAL vote is counted!” tweeted Dan Bongino, a conservative commentator with millions of online followers.
Throughout the night, numerous conspiracy theories began popping up through Twitter alleging Democratic election interference. The Pennsylvania-targeted “#StopTheSteal,” for instance, became a popular meme on the right, tweeted over 13,000 times between Tuesday and Wednesday, along with queries for “voter” and “fraud,” according to analysis by social media researcher Erin Gallagher.
Elsewhere, prominent far-right figures, from fringe MAGA figures to actual Trump campaign surrogates, were raising alarms about Sharpie usage invalidating votes in Arizona — a claim debunked by the Arizona secretary of state almost immediately, but one that persisted in conservative media, regardless.
Gallagher, an independent social media analyst based out of Philadelphia, said she’d observed that anything with the worlds “steal,” “stole,” or “stealing” were vectors of disinformation on the right, and that it had trickled from MAGA internet to actual policy — citing the Arizona attorney general’s letter demanding that the state explain its Sharpie usage.
“The right wing influencers in my network graph were central to propagating the rumors that circulated yesterday and today but the @PhillyGOP account and Trump himself have been key nodes in spreading misinformation about Democrats stealing the election,” said Gallagher. “Official government accounts ‘confirming’ misinformation makes it much harder to counter.”
And repeatedly, MAGA voices were casting doubt on the legitimacy of absentee votes that were being counted overnight, with Trump himself falsely claiming that these contested states were “finding Biden votes all over the place.”
“MAGA world has almost as a raison d’être that the ‘establishment’ is corrupt, rigged, unreliable, untrustworthy,” said Mandel. “This sort of outcome is so integral to the MAGA worldview that I suspect a not-insignificant portion of the grassroots will be arguing for years that nothing needs to change from Trump’s GOP because they really ‘won.’”
However, Trump’s false claims of victory went too far for some of his loyal boosters.
“No, Trump has not already won the election, and it is deeply irresponsible for him to say he has,” tweeted popular conservatie podcaster Ben Shapiro.
On Wednesday morning, liberal commentators, civil rights groups and other Biden supporters began to regain ground on social media, aiming to fact-check the incorrect voter fraud claims and telling voters that it would likely take time before a final result could be called. Yet these posts, including reminders that the outstanding mail-in ballots were likely to favor Biden, have yet to garner the same level of virality on Facebook and Twitter compared to their conservative counterparts, based on POLITICO’s review of CrowdTangle data.
And those conservative counterparts remained convinced there was a conspiracy to oust Trump, as illustrated in one particularly viral Twitter trend meant to amplify Trump’s baseless claims of electoral theft.
“Everyone must tweet what @realDonaldTrump did before getting suppressed by Twitter. Copy and paste his tweet:
Trump: "We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed!”
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