Update (12/21/20): This article has been updated with additional details.
A hoax from a far-right message board about a rejected pro-Trump Supreme Court case went viral, drawing millions of views on social media and tricking a presidential elector in Texas and multiple right-wing media outlets and figures after a known white nationalist shared it.
Since President Donald Trump lost reelection to President-elect Joe Biden, he and his allies have repeatedly pushed baseless claims of voter fraud and filed multiple legal challenges. One of those cases, brought by Texas’ Republican attorney general, urged the Supreme Court to throw out the election results in four states that went to Biden. On December 11, the Supreme Court rejected the case.
That evening, a user on “/pol/,” a far-right message board on 4chan, posed as a “Supreme Court Clerk” and claimed they heard that the justices had been “arguing loudly behind closed doors” about the Texas case in a “closed and sealed room, as is standard.” The user claimed that during a “screaming” match, Chief Justice John Roberts told the other justices that hearing the Texas case would cause “riots” and that he would tell them “how to vote.” The post was clearly false, as the justices have not met in person for months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The following day, Hal Turner, a white nationalist radio host with a long history of spreading false claims and hoaxes, posted a story on his site from “a source deep inside the US Supreme Court as they discussed the pending Texas lawsuit.” In actuality, Turner just copied the 4chan post nearly word for word. The post subsequently earned thousands of engagements on social media, according to the tracking tool CrowdTangle, and the article was shared on social media via images and videos.
On December 14, the day Electoral College delegates met to cast their votes, Texas elector Matt Patrick gave a speech in the state legislature claiming he had “read this morning” in a “report available online” that the Supreme Court justices had met in a sealed room and that a clerk “heard screaming through the walls.” Patrick said that Roberts had insisted the court dismiss the case because he was afraid there would be rioting following a pro-Trump ruling, calling it “moral cowardice.” The speech was later tweeted by C-SPAN’s communications director, earning more than 1 million views.
On December 17, the video of Patrick’s speech invoking the hoax again gained traction, with more users tweeting their own uploads of the video and giving it tens of thousands of shares and well over 1.5 million additional views on Twitter alone, causing “Justice Roberts” to trend nationally on the platform. Video of the speech also earned tens of thousands of views combined on Facebook and Instagram.
Additionally, Patrick’s speech was pushed in multiple segments on pro-Trump network Newsmax, with host Rob Schmitt calling the 4chan hoax a “bombshell whistleblower report.”
One of those tweets amplifying the hoax also came from One America News host Dan Ball, who urged people to “watch” and “share” the video of Patrick’s speech. OAN correspondent Chanel Rion also pushed the hoax on air, calling it “reports,” and asked Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani about it; Giuliani in response suggested Roberts should resign. The right-wing blog RedState also dedicated an entire article to the hoax, though it wound up dismissing it as “one of those stories that may have happened and should have happened, but it lacks proof.”
Videos pushing the hoax have also drawn hundreds of thousands of views combined on YouTube, and some of the videos had ads or both ads and merchandise for sale, meaning both YouTube and some of the channels made money off of the hoax.
This is not the first 4chan hoax employing some kind of “insider” to gain traction: The QAnon conspiracy theory also began on 4chan, started by a user claiming to be a government insider with knowledge of a secret plot. And multiple “insider” posts popped up on 4chan during the presidential campaign, with the posters claiming to be from Biden’s orbit, and some were then shared and spread on social media.