Right-wing disinformation about electoral fraud in Wisconsin got its start on a site disguised as a local news source
In less than a day, the story made its way from an obscure blog to Sean Hannity and the Republican National Committee
The march of election-related disinformation continues unabated. On Wednesday, an article published at a website called Milwaukee City Wire falsely claimed that a number of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wards were reporting more votes than registered voters. Though untrue, the article spread widely across social media among supporters of President Donald Trump in search of evidence to back up baseless claims of widespread voter fraud.
Nothing about the numbers in the article added up. For example, the article claimed that voting ward 274 in Milwaukee was home to 640 registered voters, but received 1,290 votes, a turnout of an impossible 202%. The actual numbers, according to the Milwaukee County Clerk’s office, showed 611 out of 702 registered voters cast ballots.
On Thursday, Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe addressed this claim during a public briefing:
Every ballot cast in the state of Wisconsin has a paper audit trail. Every voter registration and absentee request is maintained and available during that public process. And to address some of the questions head-on, Wisconsin does not have more votes cast than registered voters. There were no absentee ballots found in the middle of the night. There were lawyers and observers from both parties on site and involved the entire time.
Wisconsin ABC affiliate WISN investigated the claims made in the City Wire article. When reporter Hillary Mintz reached City Wire publisher Brian Timpone, he tried to play it off as an honest mistake. When confronted with the fact that his numbers appeared to be completely invented, he defended the post and said, “The change in the records doesn't change the story's point materially at all.”
Milwaukee City Wire is part of a growing trend in which right-wing propaganda is packaged to look like it’s coming from a legitimate local news source.
The site is one of dozens of locally branded conservative content farm sites run by Timpone’s Metric Media. In October 2019, The New York Times reported on the sudden emergence of a number of Metric Media sites in Michigan in June of that year. Metric Media’s outlets often have anodyne-sounding names like The Kalamazoo Times, Waterford Today, and The Grand Rapids Reporter. If you didn’t know better, you would assume that these were the names of local newspapers -- this is by design.
The Columbia Journalism Review published its own profile of Metric Media and similar companies that December. CJR called these “pink slime” outlets, a reference to the meat byproduct often found in fast food-quality ground beef. The article criticized these entities as “partisan outlets masquerading as local news organizations” and a source of electoral disinformation.
Though the Milwaukee City Wire article was updated with more accurate information after WISN’s investigation, it had already served its purpose as a catalyst for right-wing conspiracy-mongering.
Josh Hammer, the editor of Newsweek’s increasingly right-wing opinion section and co-author of a note defending the once-respectable news outlet’s racist “birther” smear aimed at Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, was one of the fairly prominent Twitter users to share the article. Hammer has previously praised Trump’s attacks on institutions like legitimate news organizations, and shared articles making unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.
Washington Examiner reporter Mike Brest shared the story on his Twitter account. Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel shared the story on Twitter, though she would later delete it, explaining that there were “discrepancies” between the fake story she shared and actual data. Unfortunately, other right-wing opportunists regurgitated the fictitious report in their own work, spreading it even further.
Pro-Trump former CNN commentator Jeffrey Lord posted a blog to his personal website centered around the story, incorrectly calling the false City Wire numbers “a data graph from the Milwaukee County Clerk,” which it assuredly was not. Fox News host Sean Hannity tweeted multiple links to Lord’s blog.
Another story that cited the City Wire story, written by Michael Anton at American Greatness, was tweeted out by Republican Party national spokesperson Elizabeth Harrington. Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, tweeted out another version of Anton’s blog post published by the conservative Claremont Institute as well as the original City Wire story.
Predictably, dumbest man on the internet Jim Hoft cited the invented data in a post at his Gateway Pundit blog.
This surely won’t be the last time a “pink slime” news outlet is used to launder a narrative into the conservative media ecosystem, but it serves as a case study about how freely disinformation spreads online, leaving readers and reputable journalists to fight it.