Economy 03-01-2024 13:02 12 Views

A right-wing tale of Michigan election fraud had it all – except proof

The story had all the elements of a blockbuster crime saga: burner phones, semiautomatic weapons, silencers and bags of prepaid cash cards. “NOW WE HAVE PROOF!” blared the headline on the right-wing website Gateway Pundit. “Massive 2020 Voter Fraud Uncovered in Michigan.”

The story referenced “thousands of fraudulent ballots” caught by Muskegon City Clerk Ann Meisch. Grateful readers deluged her office with hundreds of calls, hailing her as a hero.

But Meisch knew it wasn’t true.

According to police reports, the Michigan attorney general’s office and an interview with Meisch, an employee of a voter registration drive company had submitted to the Muskegon city clerk thousands of voter registration applications weeks before the 2020 election, some with faked signatures and faulty addresses.

Meisch’s staff spent hundreds of hours weeding out the bad applications. The guns the police found were legally registered to a landlord who had nothing to do with the registration drive. The prepaid phones and cash cards were given to temporary employees to contact new voter prospects.

“There were no fraudulent ballots,” Meisch said in an interview, “not a single one that anyone in my office was aware of.”

But for Gateway Pundit, which is run out of its founder’s home and whose small staff produces stories that help set the agenda for Donald Trump’s most ardent followers, the August story provided weeks of headlines that radiated across right-wing media and were repeatedly amplified by pro-Trump influencers. That’s despite the fact that it was published nearly three years after the election — and after Meisch’s staff had thwarted any fraud.

The outlet’s emphasis on long-debunked fraud claims helps explain why election denial has proved so durable, despite the many efforts to halt the spread of disinformation and impose consequences on those who persist in it.

Trump himself faces multiple criminal counts for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election on the disproven grounds that it had been rigged against him. The Trump lawyers who pushed false voter fraud claims have, in some cases, been hit with criminal charges, as well as censure and disbarment proceedings. In mid-December, a federal jury ordered former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani to pay $148 million to two election workers who sued him for defamation. Trump’s largest media ally, Fox News, agreed last year to pay $787.5 million to Dominion Voting Systems to settle a defamation suit.

Some right-wing outlets, such as Fox’s smaller cable-news rival Newsmax, have pulled back from election-related conspiracy theories in the face of lawsuits and threats of legal consequences.

But through it all, Gateway Pundit has continued trumpeting disproven election fraud stories, even as it faces defamation suits over its coverage of the 2020 election. It has also taken its own legal action against fact-checkers, disinformation researchers and story subjects, while pressing in court to make it harder for social media companies to crack down on misinformation.

The outlet’s reporting was a favorite of Trump’s as he clung to the presidency more than three years ago, aides said, and it has become a key amplifier of his continued fraud claims as he campaigns to return to the White House. Gateway Pundit traffic peaked in November 2020 at nearly 7 million page views, and the site still averages more than a million visits each month, according to Comscore, which measures the readership of media sites.

Less than a year from the 2024 election, the latest polls show that some two-thirds of Republicans falsely believe that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. Gateway Pundit’s influence helps explain why, experts in disinformation say. Though the site employs only a handful of regular writers, it has played an outsize role in popularizing false claims.

“Gateway Pundit is a known source of disinformation that quickly trades up the chain,” said Joan Donovan, an assistant professor at Boston University studying online disinformation and media manipulation. “Because when they report a piece of information, it gives others license to do so.”

The site’s founder, Jim Hoft, who started blogging as a hobby in 2004, is among “the best at creating a right-wing echo system,” right-wing podcast host and former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon said in an interview. Hoft did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this report.

Bannon said Hoft is often one of the first to pick up a social media post or a local news story that other right-wing personalities then repeat and aggregate. He “isn’t afraid to take a leading edge where you don’t have all the facts but they are coming together,” Bannon explained. Once Gateway Pundit puts one of its signature all-caps headlines on a story, that provides what Bannon calls an “infrastructure” upon which his own podcast and other right-wing outlets and influencers can build.

That infrastructure was useful to pro-Trump One America News, a small cable network that pushed conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. A former OAN producer attested that he and his colleagues were directed to consult Gateway Pundit when they arrived at work to inform the day’s programming, according to depositions and documents from a defamation lawsuit filed against the Trump campaign and others, including Gateway Pundit, by a former Dominion Voting Systems executive who was falsely accused by Trump allies of helping to swing the 2020 election.

“Check Gateway Pundit, Epoch Times and The Blaze right when you get in. … These are very helpful to find good OAN content,” read one Jan. 14, 2021, email to producers from the channel’s news director. OAN settled in the case under undisclosed terms in September.

“Gateway Pundit’s articles were chopped-up sentences that were drawn from whatever crazy thing a Twitter user was saying about election denial,” the former producer, Marty Golingan, said in an interview, “and they would spin it with maximum outrage and reactionary emotion.”

In the weeks before he left office in 2021, Trump brandished printouts of Gateway Pundit articles questioning the results of the election, say former aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private White House conversations.

“When he was looking for evidence, Gateway Pundit was one reliable place he knew he could go for validation, and maybe even some new ideas,” said one former aide.

The site has been influential in promoting false election fraud theories even though some of the most influential figures on the right say they don’t trust it. One prominent conservative radio host, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of offending political allies, said in an interview that the site’s stories are “bull—-.”

Gateway Pundit represents a “a fringe segment of so-called conservative media that’s driven by conspiratorial clickbait to drive revenues to stay afloat,” the host said.

A former Trump administration official who denies that Joe Biden rightfully won the 2020 election nevertheless told The Post in an interview that if you cite Gateway Pundit in an argument, “it means you’ve lost. You can’t use it to make an argument. You can only use it to hear what you want to hear.”

In the nearly two decades since its founding, Hoft’s website has spread debunked conspiracy theories on a wide range of topics — for instance, casting doubt on President Barack Obama’s birth certificate and suggesting that student survivors of the 2018 Parkland, Fla., school shooting were part of an anti-Trump plot. More recently, Gateway Pundit has helped spread misinformation about the attack on then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, who was bludgeoned in the couple’s San Francisco home last year by an intruder intent on kidnapping his wife. It has also falsely claimed that U.S. aid money for Ukraine is being laundered and going into the pockets of Democrats.

But the site’s most notable focus in recent years has been promoting disproven narratives about election fraud.

Hoft created Gateway Pundit in 2004, inspired by the role that bloggers played in debunking a “60 Minutes” segment on George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard, according to former associates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations. Bloggers had been the first to point out that “60 Minutes” had unwittingly relied on falsified records in telling its story; CBS ultimately retracted the piece.

Hoft, 60, rarely grants interviews. But years ago, the Iowa native described in a message posted online ahead of a high school reunion how he started the site.

“So much has happened since I left Fort Dodge,” Hoft began his note to his former classmates at a Catholic school, explaining that “something exciting happened in late 2004. I started writing a little political blog” that, after a few years, “gained thousands of readers every day.”

The work started getting him invited on “paid trips to different conservative events around the world,” Hoft wrote, including a 2007 visit to Israel sponsored by a conservative political group. There he met Andrew Breitbart, who at the time was an editor at the Drudge Report. The two became friends and developed an appreciation for the power of the internet to take a small ember of a story and turn it into a conflagration.

“Jim is a direct descendant of Andrew Breitbart,” Bannon said, referencing the founder of the right-wing media site Breitbart News. “Remember, they’re both about citizen journalism, and Jim knows how to harness the energy of regular citizens.”

Trump’s candidacy was a boon for Hoft and for Gateway Pundit, which, according to a study conducted by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, became one of the most popular sites on the right in 2015-2016. Among those sites, the study found, “Gateway Pundit is in a class of its own, known for ‘publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes.’”

In 2020, Gateway Pundit became a key part of what researchers at the University of Washington and Stanford University among others deemed a “disinformation campaign” produced by “hyperpartisan media and political operatives” working “alongside ordinary people to produce and amplify misleading claims.”

Instead of operating from the top down, this kind of campaign seizes on the social media posts of “concerned citizens” and turns them into shareable pieces of content that can spread to different outlets and to powerful influencers, the researchers found.

In one illustrative example given in the study, Gateway Pundit helped circulate a photo posted on Twitter by a writer for conservative outlet the Blaze in September 2020. The photo purported to show 1,000 mail-in ballots found in a dumpster in Sonoma County, Calif.

“Big if true,” read the caption. Five hours later, Gateway Pundit weighed in with this headline: “EXCLUSIVE: California Man Finds THOUSANDS of Unopened Ballots in Garbage Dumpster — Workers Quickly Try to Cover Them Up.”

The county responded in a Facebook post: “This is not true.” Instead, the county said, the photo depicted old ballot envelopes from the November 2018 election that had been discarded in accordance with California law.

Gateway Pundit updated its story after the post: “The County of Sonoma put out a statement saying the ballots were from 2018. The county says the ballots were already opened. You can judge for yourself.”

In May, Hoft, alongside a co-director of a coronavirus vaccine skeptics group, sued the researchers, alleging that the entities colluded to “censor” speech by sharing their research with social media platforms as part of an attempted crackdown on misinformation. A representative for Stanford said the case, which is in its early stages, is “completely without merit.” A representative for the University of Washington declined to speak about ongoing litigation.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Gateway Pundit enjoyed a social-media-fueled traffic spike similar to the one it had during the 2016 election. A German Marshall Fund analysis found that “verified account shares of its content” on Twitter increased ninefold from the first quarter of 2018 through the fourth quarter of 2020, reaching 7.2 million shares, more than for The Washington Post, NBC News or NPR. Nine of its 10 most-shared articles “included disinformation about voter fraud,” the analysis found.

One of Gateway Pundit’s highest-profile stories of 2020 was published after a volunteer Trump campaign attorney presented a misleading video during a post-election hearing in Georgia. The video purported to show that Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Wandrea ArShaye “Shaye” Moss, her daughter, had tampered with ballots.

That day, Gateway Pundit published the first of 58 articles on the two women that would appear over the next year and a half, despite the fact that Georgia election officials had quickly debunked claims that the pair had engaged in election fraud. Gateway Pundit’s stories cast Freeman and Moss as “crooked” operatives who counted “illegal ballots from a suitcase stashed under a table!”

In 2021, the women sued Gateway Pundit, Jim Hoft and Hoft’s twin brother, Joe, who is a frequent contributor to the site. Gateway Pundit and Jim and Joe Hoft filed a counterclaim, alleging that the case against them is designed to drive Gateway Pundit out of business. The counterclaim was dismissed in 2023.

The lawsuit by Freeman and Moss, which is awaiting trial, alleges that the falsehoods about them “have not only devastated their personal and professional reputations but instigated a deluge of intimidation, harassment, and threats that has forced them to change their phone numbers, delete their online accounts, and fear for their physical safety.”

In their response, the Hofts said articles in Gateway Pundit about Freeman and Moss were “either statements of opinion based on disclosed facts or statements of rhetorical hyperbole that no reasonable reader is likely to interpret as a literal statement of fact.”

A federal jury recently ordered that Giuliani pay the two women $148 million for his own false claims that they helped steal the election from Trump. His lawyer, Joseph D. Sibley IV, told jurors that Gateway Pundit had been “patient zero” for the false claims.

Meisch, the Muskegon city clerk, fears she may come under the same kind of attack when people learn that she doesn’t believe she uncovered massive voter fraud in her city.

“I’m just worried people will turn on me,” she said.

Gateway Pundit’s Aug. 8 story about Muskegon, a formerly booming foundry town on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan that Trump narrowly lost in 2016 and 2020, outlined a purported voter fraud conspiracy. The report was built on a police investigation that had been reported on three years earlier by local news outlets. The police had found no evidence of a broader effort to subvert the election, but referred the case to the FBI because the voter registration company at the center of the case was based out of state. The FBI did not respond to requests for comment.

Gateway Pundit published a copy of the 2020 police report, which contained new details about the investigation, including that police had found guns in the storefront that the voter registration company had rented. Almost immediately after publication, other right-wing outlets picked up and amplified the piece. The same day the story was published, Bannon hosted Hoft on his daily podcast to discuss it. Over the next two days, then-Fox News host Lou Dobbs, conservative podcaster Joe Oltmann and Right Side Broadcasting, a pro-Trump streaming service, cited the story.

Dobbs called it a guide to “how the Marxist Dems stole Michigan.” Oltmann said the gun silencers were evidence “of organized crime.” Bannon said the story showed that “demon” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, was a “liar.”

For the next 10 days, Gateway Pundit averaged a story a day on the topic, eventually publishing at least 40 pieces. During that period, an array of right-wing podcasters all discussed the story on their shows, including former Fox personality Dan Bongino, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk and Jack Posobiec, a far-right blogger.

Twelve days after the initial story was published, the Michigan attorney general’s office issued a statement responding to the report, citing its “false claims of election law violations.”

“Despite Gateway Pundit’s continuing claims to the contrary, the 2020 election has been thoroughly litigated and audited and has been proven well beyond a reasonable doubt that it was fair and accurate,” the statement read.

The voter-registration company employee who had handed in the faked registration applications to the clerk’s office had not filled them out herself; she was responsible for collecting the registration forms from many employees and submitting them in batches, according to Nessel’s office. Voters registration in Michigan are nonpartisan.

The state attorney general’s office said that while it had not ruled out that a crime may have been committed in Muskegon, numerous state agencies had investigated and none had uncovered evidence of successful fraudulent registrations because they had all been “intercepted and not filed into the state’s voter database.”

“This is once again, not a smoking gun for their long-debunked theories,” the statement read.

But Gateway Pundit was unbowed. The same day, the site published another piece on Muskegon and Hoft appeared on Bannon’s podcast again, calling Nessel’s statement “confirmation” of the Gateway Pundit story.

On Sept. 5, Trump posted about the story on Truth Social, without comment, and was reposted 3,300 times.

In late August, the Michigan Republican Party held a news conference in Lansing, the state capital, that party Chairwoman Kristina Karamo billed as an opportunity to “address the recent reports of election corruption uncovered in Michigan.”

“The constant questions surrounding our election system is an absolute threat to our republic,” Karamo said. “No one is going to continue to convince us that these are all just a bunch of anomalies.”

Gateway Pundit “slanted the story to make it seem that the attempt to interfere with the election was successful,” Karen Buie, the Muskegon County clerk, said in an interview. “There was an attempt. You can’t negate that. But it failed because we have systems in place.”

Meisch, the city clerk, said in an interview that she is bracing for even more mistrust of the system that she has worked for over 30 years to protect. Already, she said, paranoia among voters has been growing as baseless conspiracy theories spread about voting machines and drop boxes.

“We haven’t yet seen the full impact of the Gateway Pundit story,” said Meisch. “We won’t see that until the next [presidential] election.”

But for Gateway Pundit, the impact is already apparent. In July, the month before the Muskegon story, the site’s traffic fell below 700,000 unique visitors for the first time in years, according to Comscore.

In August, it more than doubled, to 1.5 million.

Clara Ence Morse and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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