Trump-linked figures have boosted #StopTheSteal movement

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Demonstrations across the country protesting alleged fraud in this week’s election have ties to major conservative activist groups and MAGA personalities affiliated with President Donald Trump, according to multiple misinformation researchers.

Many of these protests have been organized by prominent, well-funded pro-Trump groups such as Tea Party Patriots, Women for America First, Turning Point USA and Freedom Works USA, according to analyses from several research institutions.

One of the first avenues for organizing, a Facebook group called #StopTheSteal, was created by Amy Kremer, a longtime conservative activist with Tea Party roots and founder of the pro-Trump group Women for America First. The Facebook group collected more than 350,000 members in just over 24 hours before it was banned by the social media company for promoting violence.

The group’s other administrators were even more prominent conservative activists with close ties to Steve Bannon, the former manager of Trump’s 2016 campaign and the ex-chair of the conservative news organization Breitbart, according to data collected by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks online extremism and misinformation.

The page’s rapid surge in membership was also helped by promotion from conservative activists and pro-Trump Facebook groups online. And for a group that existed for just over a day, it had an outsized, real-world impact.

As incoming results from multiple battleground states put Biden on the verge of winning the presidency, the baseless allegations of election-rigging are only getting louder, and some groups are working to organize countrywide rallies this weekend.

At the White House Thursday night, Trump boasted about the “spirit” he was seeing from people angered over voter fraud, although he did not cite any specific movement.

“I’ve never seen such — such love and such affection and such spirit as I’ve seen for this,” he said during remarks in the press briefing room. “People know what’s happening, and they see what’s happening, and it’s before their eyes.”

Yet the affiliation between the #StopTheSteal groups and Trump’s camp show that this “spirit” is supported, encouraged and occasionally manufactured by Trump’s own allies. It’s part of Trumpworld’s broader attempt to gin up outrage about misleading and false claims of voter fraud, thus giving Trump a way to claim the public is behind him.

“This is definitely not just organic, up-from-the-grassroots disinformation,” said Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and Facebook’s former security chief. “There are professionals here who are pushing some of this stuff based upon exactly what is going on in the polls and in the real-world arguments over the election.”

Along with Kremer, administrators for the invite-only Facebook group included Dustin Stockton and Jennifer Lawrence, two political operatives and former Breitbart writers affiliated with other high-profile MAGA projects, according to research from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Stockton and Lawrence had recently been working on We Build The Wall, a Bannon-linked operation where Stockton served as a strategist and Lawrence as communications director. The group, a crowdfunding operation to raise money to build a border wall, counted major Trump allies on its board, such as former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Sheriff David Clarke, Academi CEO Erik Prince, and Bannon himself.

Neither Stockton or Lawrence returned requests for comment.

#StopTheSteal quickly grew beyond Facebook and into on-the-ground action. It was spurred on by MAGA influencers like Mike Cernovich, who helped the group organize a Wednesday night demonstration in Arizona, where more than 100 people flooded the Maricopa County tabulation center where volunteers were processing mail-in ballots. The demonstrators, several of whom had guns, got into a heated confrontation with journalists on-site, prompting security to escort them from the building.

The incident was then amplified and reinforced online. Social media posts tagged #StopTheSteal, including those showing protestors chanting MAGA slogans, quickly went viral after Wednesday’s protest — helped by far-right influencers promoting the videos. The posts garnered thousands of retweets on Twitter and shares across Facebook, based on data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned social media analytics firm.

Some of the prominent conservative groups involved with #StopTheSteal have also organized rallies to get attention for the cause. Tea Party Patriots, one of the most influential political organizations in the original Tea Party movement, served as one clearinghouse, posting scheduling details for rallies in Arizona, Wisconsin and Nevada on its pages.

“It is important that election officials see the public pressure to ensure that we have a valid and legitimate count of the vote,” the group said in a notice on its site. “If the public is deemed to not care, it will be immensely easier for nefarious things to happen.”

The presence of organizations like Tea Party Patriots has raised the profile of armed demonstrations held by far-right fringe groups, said Alex Newhouse, a researcher at Middlebury College’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism.

“They don’t usually get into these really far-right campaigns,” Newhouse said. “So seeing FreedomWorks do it, seeing a verified Tea Party group pushing it, and seeing them push actual events with dates and times — saying, ‘Get out there, get on the ground and protect the vote’ — that was surprising to me as well, and also a big reason why this took off as fast as it did.”

Several protests are planned in key swing states this week, and were initially promoted on the #StopTheSteal Facebook page before it was removed from the platform.

The content they oversaw and cultivated was heated, and sometimes stoked violence.

In the #StopTheSteal Facebook group, users voiced their anger over what they said, without clear evidence, were efforts to steal the election from Trump. Others called for violence against what they perceived as widespread voter fraud across the country, even though such allegations have been widely debunked.

In one post, reviewed by POLITICO, a Facebook user posted an image with the text: “I don’t know why we are surprised about the vote, we all saw it coming and we know how it will end. Neither side is going to concede. Time to clean the guns, time to hit the streets.”

Facebook users also responded to people’s posts with similar call-to-arms. “Civil war! We are sick of this. It’s about time,” wrote one in the private group. “There will be a war and the folks with guns will win,” said another.

Several other Facebook messages in the invite-only group also promoted false allegations that the Democratic Party was stealing the election. “God help our country!!! I’m literally sick at my stomach. This election is very much rigged!!!” said one Facebook user whose post was shared 185 times and received almost 2,000 comments.

Facebook deleted the group because of its rules against using the platform to promote violence or undermine the electoral process. “We saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group,” Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesperson, said in a statement.

But even with the disappearance of #StopTheSteal’s official Facebook page, other groups have continued to promote similar rallies through their own social media channels, and through conservative influencers advertising events on their own pages, according to an analysis from Media Matters, a progressive group monitoring far-right media. The bulk of these events are focused in swing states that are still counting ballots — including Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania — and are planned for locations where votes are being tabulated.

Within hours of the first #StopTheSteal Facebook groups being removed, at least 20 other groups with the same name — with a combined membership of over 320,000 people — had sprouted up on the social network, though Facebook removed some of these groups.

Some of the groups — which are organizing protests in battleground states — subsequently changed their names to pro-Biden topics to avoid detection, leading to pushback from their members, based on a review of their Facebook posts by POLITICO.

“We have to avoid being in the open as much as possible. Our goal should be to fly under the radar,” said the administrator of one of those groups with roughly 93,000 members. Facebook eventually removed that group.

High-profile conservatives are also now using other avenues to reach out. Women for America First’s private Facebook page is advertising nationwide demonstrations for Saturday, according to data pulled by Media Matters for America, a progressive group monitoring right-wing media.

“We will be sharing the locations where the vote counts will be happening in the contested states,” wrote the group’s coalitions director, Cindy Chalian. “If you can’t make it to any of those locations, we encourage you to organize a local rally to demand transparency and to count the LEGAL votes. We support President Trump and we demand our elections be honest and fair. End the fraud now!!!”

Other MAGA personalities with large social media followings are hosting additional events, according to a new website, StopTheSteal.us, operated by Ali Alexander, an ex-Tea Party political strategist, current MAGA internet personality. Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk and Cernovich will be holding rallies in Arizona. Jack Posobiec, a correspondent for the Trump-friendly OAN outlet, and conservative activist Scott Presler will be in Pennsylvania. Kremer — the #StopTheSteal group founder — will be in Wisconsin. Many of these events were marketed online as grassroot uprisings to defend democracy.

Newhouse, the researcher from Middlebury, said the combination of social media, shared conservative messaging and the far-reaching influence of these MAGA forces, has created the “perfect storm” for a quickly spreading campaign.

He called SharpieGate — a debunked but prominent conspiracy theory circulating on far-right forums claiming that Arizona used Sharpie markers to disenfranchise voters — a prime example of a small local quirk that Trump allies quickly made into a nationalized MAGA flashpoint.

“It took a few hours for SharpieGate to appear, and then to appear on protest signs that people are holding up in Arizona,” he said. “There’s definitely a direct throughline there, and the amplification of online material and online campaigns in this area — I’m pretty confident in saying that it’s had an effect on actual on the ground activism.”

Steven Overly contributed to this report.

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