On The Trail: Iowa disinformation hints at a challenging year ahead

On The Trail: Iowa disinformation hints at a challenging year ahead
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DES MOINES, Iowa — As the Iowa Democratic Party scrambled to collect and release results from the first-in-the-nation caucuses, the conspiracy theories began to mount.

Fueled by President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussian sanctions will boomerang States, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press MORE's son and his top campaign advisers, exacerbated by fans of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE (I-Vt.) and entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangTrump seeks split-screen moments in early primary states More accusers come forward after Evelyn Yang breaks silence on alleged assault by OBGYN Sanders leads Biden in latest Nevada poll MORE, the Twitterverse was alight with scandal in the vacuum left by the state party's flub.

The delayed results were the latest in a series of frightening social media freakouts, in which legions of anonymous meme-makers and retweeters spread and amplified unfounded rumors and outright disinformation in the absence of an authoritative counternarrative.

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Taken together, the events of the last two weeks offer a preview of what is likely to happen for the rest of the year, when campaigns, media outlets and everyday voters will face an onslaught of misinformation and disinformation, driven by supporters and opponents of particular candidates and amplified by malign actors overseas.

“From what we've already seen, it’s clear that the 2020 election campaign will be shot through with mis- and disinformation,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University who has written about disinformation in the coming campaign.

The conspiracies started weeks before the vote actually took place. As Sanders and his fellow senators were bogged down in Washington, sitting through an impeachment trial for which their attendance was mandatory, Republicans saw a chance to reignite smoldering tensions between Sanders supporters and the rest of the Democratic Party.

That divide, first exposed during the bitter feud between Sanders and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Democratic demolition derby Juan Williams: Don't count Biden out Candidates in Obama's orbit fail to capitalize on personal ties MORE during the 2016 nominating process, was amplified by Russian actors seeking to influence that year's presidential campaign.

In television interviews and on Twitter, Donald Trump Jr. repeatedly alleged that House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMalaysia says it will choose 5G partners based on own standards, not US recommendations Pelosi warns allies against using Huawei Budget hawks frustrated by 2020 politics in entitlement reform fight MORE's (D-Calif.) decision to hold back articles of impeachment for a month after the House voted was a crafty stunt designed to keep Sanders in Washington, instead of on the campaign trail.

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President Trump accused Democrats of “rigging the election against Bernie Sanders, just like last time, only even more obviously.” Once-mainstream conservatives like Ari Fleischer have also jumped on the conspiracy bandwagon, speculating without evidence that Pelosi was attempting to aid former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE.

“Of all the players in 2020, there is no doubt about who will be the purveyor-in-chief of disinformation. That’s President Donald Trump, who over the past three-plus years has used his Twitter account and other public pronouncements aggressively to spread conspiracy theories and falsehoods about political opponents,” Barrett said.

Then, two days before the Iowa caucuses, the pollster Ann Selzer and her media partners CNN and the Des Moines Register suddenly decided to scrap their final pre-caucus poll because of a technical error.

Again, the conspiracy theories flew: The poll showed Sanders surging to a big lead! No, it was Yang who rocketed into first! Clearly, the powers that be wanted to maintain the status quo and hide the will of the people. Somehow, the Democratic National Committee was the shadowy mastermind behind two media companies deciding to spike their own story.

In truth, the poll results — which quietly leaked out through Iowa political circles — showed pretty much what happened on Monday night: Sanders was ahead, but within the margin of error against former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE. Biden trailed the front-runners. And Yang was nowhere to be found.

Public skepticism over sinister political motives are as old as politics itself; even founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams weren't beneath smearing each other as toadies for evil interests. Skepticism about polling is newer, if only because polling itself is a relatively recent invention.

But the delayed results in Iowa are most troubling, experts said, because they raise concerns that slow vote tallies in November's election could sow doubt in the results, and therefore in the legitimacy of the next president.

“The very basis for democracy is every few years we give the people the chance to decide who's going to lead us, and if we don't accept the way in which we've chosen our leaders is legitimate, then the very legitimacy of the government is in question,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine and author of the new book "Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy."

This year’s political map is likely to complicate matters. In states like Arizona, where the vast majority of voters use absentee ballots, counting can take days or weeks; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) pulled ahead of her Republican rival, Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyEleventh Democratic presidential debate to be held in Phoenix The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats brace for New Hampshire results McConnell: GOP has 'internal divisions' on bill to lower drug prices MORE (R), two days after Election Day as election officials worked through hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots. In other states like Pennsylvania, Georgia and Texas, voters will face new voting machines for the first time, adding to the potential for confusion and delay.

In a deeply fractured nation, any delay risks a void to be filled by the malign actors who raise questions about the legitimacy of an election they don't even know if their side has won or lost.

“A number of states are ... using new voting machines, some of which are controversial, and a lot [of states] have new rules, which could at least delay the counting,” Hasen said. “Americans have been conditioned to getting their vote totals quickly, and I suspect that in places that matter like Pennsylvania and Michigan, [counting ballots] could take extra time.”

“People are very suspicious. Rumors spread on social media like wildfire,” he added. “They're going to be looking for reasons to explain why their side lost.”

Democrats drew their own fire for flubbing the rollout of Monday's caucus results. CNN and the Des Moines Register allowed a thousand conspiracy theories to bloom in the wake of the scrubbed poll. 

The amount of chaos wrought in the last week alone should be a sobering warning for the months ahead: Even after years of deep dives into Russian interference in American elections, after close scrutiny of Facebook and Twitter and their role in arbitrating truth, American political institutions are either unable to combat the misinformation and disinformation that will cast ugly shadows over this year’s campaign or actively willing to use misinformation and disinformation for their short-term gains, regardless of the long-term costs.

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.