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Audrey Bowler / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Study: Vote-by-mail misinformation is all over YouTube thanks to right-leaning channels

Media Matters analyzed the 100 YouTube videos on vote-by-mail with the most views, and found that 47% of total views were from right-leaning channels

Amid concerns over the impact of COVID-19 on the 2020 U.S. elections, right-leaning YouTube channels posted more videos discussing mail-in voting than either left-leaning or ideologically nonaligned channels over the past six months. Many of these videos promote election misinformation to millions of viewers. 

Media Matters identified the top 100 YouTube videos with at least 10,000 views that discuss mail-in voting and were posted within a six-month period from March through August. We analyzed those 100 videos and assessed the political ideology of the channels that posted them, separating these channels into three categories: right-leaning, left-leaning, or ideologically nonaligned. We found that among these categories, right-leaning channels posted the most about mail-in voting (39 of the top 100 videos)  as of August 31 -- accounting for approximately 47% of total views.

Right-wing attacks on vote-by-mail efforts are prevalent on social media even though platforms have guidelines against misinformation about the upcoming U.S. elections. YouTube states that any “content aiming to mislead people about voting” would be seen as a violation of its policy and removed. Additionally, in a September 24 change, YouTube will now put information panels on videos containing potentially misleading information about voting.

Bloomberg noted YouTube is attempting to “balance its work combating conspiracies with charges of political bias” while also commenting on the fact that “one of the most popular YouTube videos about mail-ballots comes from Fox News.”  Considering Media Matters has identified that 36 of the 39 videos about mail-in voting from right-leaning channels contained misinformation, including videos from Fox News, enforcement of this policy may prove to be a challenge.

Media Matters assessed the top 100 YouTube videos about mail-in voting (as identified through a search on the tool BuzzSumo) with at least 10,000 views from right-leaning, left-leaning, and nonaligned YouTube channels over a six-month period between March 1 and August 31. Key findings include:

  • Right-leaning channels posted 39 of the top 100 videos during the six-month period, and these videos accumulated over 8.6 million views -- nearly half of the total views (47%).
  • Left-leaning channels posted 22 of the top 100 videos during the six-month period, and these videos accumulated over 4.2 million views (23% of the total) -- less than half as many views as right-leaning channels.
  • Nonaligned channels posted 33 of the top 100 videos during the six-month period, and these videos accumulated over 5.6 million views (30% of total views). 
  • The top 100 videos about voting by mail that accumulated at least 10,000 views came from 52 different channels.
  • Total number of views accumulated on top 100 videos discussing voting by mail with at least 10,000 views posted between March 1 and August 31, 2020.
  • Total number of top 100 videos discussing voting by mail with at least 10,000 views posted between March 1 and August 31, 2020
  • Views of YouTube videos discussing vote-by-mail efforts by channel ideology
  • Right-Leaning Channels

  • Videos from right-leaning channels received the largest amount of views among the three categories, accounting for nearly 47% of total views on the top 100 videos discussing voting by mail. Based on the total number of videos each channel produced about mail-in voting within the six-month period, Media Matters further analyzed the top 5 right-leaning channels. Every video produced by these channels within our top 100 list contains misinformation regarding voting by mail, such as claiming that it’s safe to vote in person during the COVID-19 pandemic or that mail-in voting will better assist Democrats during the 2020 U.S. elections. The channels are:

  • 1. Tim Pool (11 videos, 246 million overall channel views) 

    American YouTuber Tim Pool (1.07 million subscribers), who regularly amplifies right-wing conspiracy theories, posted 11 of the top 100 videos about vote-by-mail efforts across three channels. These videos received approximately 2.6 million views combined.

    • In a video posted on July 28 titled “Democratic City SLAMMED By Mail in Voter Fraud Charges, Experts Scared This Proves Trump RIGHT,” Pool said “if you can protest, you can show up to vote in person” as an indictment of ongoing demonstrations against police brutality and racism. However, according to a study conducted by four universities, researchers found that “there is a clear and significant negative correlation between the percentage of a state’s population who reported protesting and the subsequent increase in cases of COVID-19.”
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  • 2. Fox News (6 videos, 5.5 billion overall channel views)

    Fox News (6.18 million subscribers) posted 6 of the top 100 videos about mail-in voting on its channels. Three of these were posted on a second channel, NewsNOW from Fox, which has 1.1 million subscribers. The other 3 videos posted by Fox News on its channel -- amassed a combined 2.12 million views. Combined, these videos received around 2.6 million views cumulatively.

    • Fox News posted a May 26 clip from prime-time program Tucker Carlson Tonight titled “Tucker: Ballot harvesting makes a mockery of the secret vote.” In this video, Fox host Tucker Carlson alleged that Democrats are trying to legalize the practice of ballot harvesting in all 50 states and “make it as unrestricted as possible” so as to cheat in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and skew votes toward Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. This false narrative of “ballot harvesting” combines absentee ballot fraud with this method of ballot collection “in which a designated person assists absentee voters by collecting their filled-out, sealed ballots and transporting them to a collection site,” which is currently legal in 27 states. As the Brennan Center for Justice stated: “Ballot tampering is illegal everywhere. That includes practices like stealing ballots from mailboxes, filling out other people’s ballots without their consent and direction, and changing or throwing out other people’s ballots.” 
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  • 3. Judicial Watch (3 videos, 65 million overall channel views)

    Conservative outlet Judicial Watch (404,000 subscribers) posted 3 of the top 100 videos about voting by mail. These videos received a combined 245,700 views.

    • In a July 8 video titled “WATCH: Ballot Harvesting & Vote-By-Mail Schemes by Leftists Could Cause Voter Fraud for Elections!” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton and senior attorney Robert Popper claimed that mail-in ballots will overwhelmingly favor Democrats in this election. Fitton claimed that California Democrats had declared that their “success is contingent on this mail-in ballot scheme proceeding. They admitted that they thought they would do better if they sent out 20 million ballots in the mail.” However, a working study conducted by Stanford University found that “vote-by-mail does not appear to increase either party’s vote share,” though it “modestly increases overall average turnout rates.”  
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  • 4. Wikipolitics (3 videos, 24 million overall channel views)

    Right-wing channel Wikipolitics (160,000 subscribers) posted 3 of the top 100 videos about mail-in voting. Cumulatively, these videos amassed nearly 170,000 views before being removed. As of September 22,  the Wikipolitics YouTube account was seemingly taken down.

    • Wikipolitics clipped an interview featuring Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) in a video titled “See What Jim Jordan Just Said About Pelosi's Mail in Voting.” In the video, Jordan was asked if he thought President Donald Trump was purposely trying to inhibit people from voting by mail, to which he responded, “No, I think this is the Democrats playing politics.” He went on to say that once the postmaster general’s hearing begins, the Democrats will treat him “just like they treated the attorney general three weeks ago,” referring to Attorney General Bill Barr’s hearing on July 28, when many Republicans argue he was unfairly attacked by House Democrats. Jordan then complained that he believed the Democrats would be discriminatory in the postmaster general’s upcoming hearing and that it was an unjust way of pushing the Democrats’ agenda. Despite these claims, many were still concerned with certain actions taken by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, such as the possible removal of 671 mail-sorting machines. As David Becker, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research, explained to The Washington Post, “The high-speed sorters that are getting deactivated, the loss of overtime, the delays in mail we’re seeing right now, all of this should cause some concern and warrants questions.”
  • 5. BlazeTV (2 videos, 347 million overall channel views)

    Conservative outlet BlazeTV (1.06 million subscribers) posted 2 of the top 100 videos about vote-by-mail efforts. These videos have accumulated nearly 1.4 million views combined. One August 13 clip from BlazeTV amassed over 1.3 million views and was the highest viewed right-leaning YouTube video about mail-in voting posted between March 1 and August 31. 

    • In a clip posted by BlazeTV titled “Press Sec. Flips Script on Reporter, Exposing the Massive FRAUD Risk with Mail-In Voting,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany discusses the supposed rise in voter fraud, saying, “The president has always said that absentee voting for a reason is different than mass mail-out voting” and claiming that mail-in voting is unreliable and rife with fraud. In spite of these claims, the YouTube-backed Bipartisan Policy Center has released research stating that “voting by mail is also known as 'absentee' voting,” and officials say there is little distinction between the two. Additionally, based on extensive analysis done by experts within the field, the Brennan Center for Justice has found that while voter fraud is “very rare,” “repeated, false allegations of fraud can make it harder for millions of eligible Americans to participate in elections.”
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  • Left-Leaning Channels

  • Videos from left-leaning channels received the least amount of views among the three categories, accounting for just just 23% of total views on the top 100 videos discussing voting by mail. Based on the number of videos produced within the six-month period, Media Matters also identified the top 5 left-leaning channels. Those channels are:

  • 1. The Ring of Fire (8 videos, 386 million overall channel views)

    Progressive outlet The Ring of Fire (587,000 subscribers) posted 8 of the top 100 videos about mail-in voting. These videos collected approximately 1.08 million views combined, with 2 videos landing on the highest viewed left-leaning videos list. 

  • 2. Brian Tyler Cohen (3 videos, 399 million overall channel views)

    Online political commentator Brian Tyler Cohen (728,000 subscribers) posted 3 of the top 100 videos about vote-by-mail efforts. All of these videos were among the top 5 highest viewed left-leaning videos, and they collected 2.62 million views combined.

  • 3. Secular Talk (2 videos, 753 million overall channel views)

    Left-leaning political commentary channel Secular Talk (882,000 subscribers) posted 2 of the top 100 videos about mail-in voting, which received a combined 140,000 views.

  • 4. Acluvideos (1 video, 17 million overall channel views)

    Nonprofit legal and advocacy organization the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) posted one video on its YouTube account (64,800 subscribers) that made it into the top 100 YouTube videos about mail-in voting. This video, which explained how voting via mail would work in the upcoming U.S. election, collected nearly 213,000 views.

  • 5. Beau of the Fifth Column (1 video, 72 million overall channel views)

    A self-proclaimed “southern journalist who is tired of a lack of common sense,” Beau of the Fifth Column (430,000 subscribers) posted one video on his channel that discussed vote-by-mail efforts. This video received over 131,000 views.

  • Nonaligned Channels

  • Videos from nonaligned channels received 30% of the total views within the top 100 vote-by-mail videos during the studied time period. Based on the number of videos posted, Media Matters also identified the top 5 ideologically nonaligned channels, which accumulated a combined 5.6 million views as of August 31. The channels are:

  • 1. MSNBC (12 videos, 4.3 billion overall channel views)

    MSNBC (3.5 million subscribers) posted 12 of the top 100 videos that discussed vote-by-mail efforts in the studied time period. These videos received nearly 2.2 million views combined, with two collecting the majority (approximately 1.4 million) views. 

  • 2. CNN (6 videos, 7.6 billion overall channel views)

    CNN (10.7 million subscribers) posted 6 of the top 100 videos about mail-in voting, with 2 in the top 5 nonaligned videos by views. All 6 together accumulated nearly 2.1 million views.

  • 3. NBC News (3 videos, 2.1 billion overall channel views)

    NBC News (3.8 million subscribers) posted 3 videos regarding vote-by-mail. These videos collected nearly 152,000 views overall

  • 4. ABC News (2 videos, 8.2 billion overall channel views)

    ABC News (9.7 million subscribers) posted 2 of the top 100 videos on mail-in voting. These videos received approximately 78,000 combined views.

  • 5. CNBC Television (2 videos, 481 million overall channel views)

    CNBC Television (894,000 subscribers) posted 2 of the top 100 videos on vote-by-mail. These videos accumulated nearly 67,000 total views.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters used BuzzSumo to conduct a search of all English-language YouTube videos posted between March 1 and August 31, 2020, that included any variations of the following phrases in their titles: “vote by mail,” “mail-in voting,” “mail-in ballot,” “ballot fraud, “voter fraud,” “election fraud,” and “ballot harvesting.” We then eliminated all videos with fewer than 10,000 views and analyzed the remaining videos for significant discussion of voting or vote-by-mail. “Significant discussion” constituted a single speaker making two or more statements about the topic, or two or more speakers each making one or more statements about the topic. 

    This list of videos was then coded for each channel’s ideological alignment through a review by two separate coders. A channel’s ideological alignment was determined by a review of the channel’s name, “about” section, the organization/owner of the channel, the titles of other videos on the channel, who the account follows and is followed by, or statements of other social media accounts associated with the channel. The description and content of the video itself was analyzed to determine ideology only when the above set of criteria did not provide enough information for a researcher to determine the channel’s alignment. 

    Researchers reviewed videos from channels coded as right-leaning to determine if they contained voting and vote-by-mail misinformation. They were determined to include such information if they used exclusively right-leaning sourcing (outlets, influencers, Trump administration talking points); featured clips of President Donald Trump pushing misinformation without providing facts or context within the video; or used any of the following talking points: alleging that voting by mail carries a high risk of voter fraud; saying that Democrats will use the practice of ballot harvesting to commit voter fraud on a massive scale; alleging operatives will impersonate voters in states with no voter ID laws such as New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania; claiming that mail-in voting would overwhelmingly favor Democrats; suggesting health concerns about voting in-person are overblown or made-up; and claiming that voting in person is as safe as protesting or running errands.