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How the #sharpiegate Election Fraud Narrative Went Viral

Nov 5, 2020

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On November 3, a video was reportedly recorded at around 8 p.m. CST and within two hours, it had been uploaded to 14 YouTube channels and the links shared to Twitter. The video mentioned Sharpie in a narrative about election fraud in Arizona and featured a woman who claimed she had been forced to use a sharpie to mark her ballot, and alleging that this was not an effective way to mark a ballot and thus, her vote would be invalidated.

Within 24 hours, the narrative entered the mainstream via astroturfing tactics and is now also trending on fringe social media platforms like Parler, where it is being used in content that also promotes the #colorrevolution and #stopthesteal hashtags, which aim to spread the idea that democrats have hatched a plan to steal the election from President Trump and Americans should prepare for a revolution.

The most unintentional participant here? Newell Brand’s Sharpie. For better, or worse, the Sharpie brand is now synonymous with these incidents. They’ve officially been caught in the crossfire, a situation becoming more common and harder for brands to navigate.

Below is an overview of how the narrative spread, who made it trend, and what might happen next.

How did the narrative spread?

Within a two hour window, the raw video containing allegations that systematic fraud took place in Arizona was uploaded to at least 14 different YouTube channels. The links were then shared on Twitter via a coordinated astroturfing campaign whereby the content was spammed to influential and verified accounts including President Trump’s.

By 11 a.m. CST on November 4, the then highest performing Twitter post linking to the video had 4,900 retweets and 5,200 likes.

By the evening of November 4, Donald Trump Jr. had mentioned the conspiracy theory and the narrative reached news media channels including who discussed #sharpiegate on live television and both aired and published interviews with election poll officials in Arizona who confirmed sharpies were OK to use on ballots and would not invalidate them.

Who spread the narrative?

Right-leaning factions and QAnon conspiracy theorists pushed this narrative into the mainstream using Astroturfing tactics whereby the content was uploaded around the same time, made to look organic, and shared with influential accounts that might re-share it and help make it spread.

In order to combat misinformation, social media platforms will sometimes deploy automated mechanisms to downrank or remove posts that contain terms that violate terms of use. In order to evade detection, a common tactic by factions is to use subtle misspellings that humans can interpret with ease, but which automated systems may be unable to detect (e.g. “sharp1e” and “sharpy”). At Yonder, we leverage natural language processing which enables us to find the evolving uses of language as they take root.

This is not the first time #sharpiegate has trended

Even though it went viral overnight, the #sharpiegate hashtag started 14 months. The original narrative was associated with President Trump using a sharpie to change the direction of a hurricane. Factions recycled the same hashtag, which had previously gained some traction, but changed the direction of the narrative to be about voter suppression. We see that once factions are effective in making a narrative stick, they will bring that narrative back 9 times out of 10.

What happens next?

As conspiracy theory factions like QAnon and others are banned from mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook, we are seeing new fringe channels pop up. Parler being one of them. 
#sharpiegate is already appearing on the site and it is becoming associated with posts that promoting the #colorrevolution and #stopthesteal hashtags, which aims to spread the idea that democrats have hatched a plan to steal the election from President Trump and Americans should prepare for a revolution.

This narrative is being spread by the Fringe and Conspiratorial Right and Populist Right factions, as well as other extreme right and conspiratorial groups online.

This narrative is particularly problematic because it involves inauthentic activity including the creation of brand new accounts to amplify and manipulate the #stopthesteal hashtag. Our analysis of a significant sample of social media posts including the term “stopthesteal” reveals that 99 of the participating accounts were created after October 1, 2020 and 55 of those were created on November 3. An assessment of the posts from those accounts, bucketed by the weeks they were created, indicates that the most recently created accounts dominate the volume of posts including the term.

This is a common modus operandi based on analysis of previous elections/debates, where new accounts significantly amplify and manipulate narratives before social media platforms spot them and take them down. Regardless of whether these new accounts had substantial impact, the data clearly reveals attempted coordinated manipulation.

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