In the wake of the 2018 midterms, a handful of influential conservative commentators rallied around a hashtag, “#StopTheSteal,” to claim Democrats were trying to “steal” the election.
But there was no “steal” to be “stopped.” For the most part, the hashtag was tied to efforts to label as suspicious things as simple as counting all legally cast ballots or undertaking state-mandated recounts. It was a phony slogan trumpeted to spread unfounded accusations of voter fraud. Nothing more.
Now, in 2020, #StopTheSteal is back, and it's just as baseless this time around.
While the hashtag movement doesn’t appear to be directly connected to the controversial Roger Stone-fronted group by the same name that was active in 2016, they share the same strategy: accuse Democrats of election meddling, with or without evidence.
In September, after a leading Democratic data firm told Axios that there may be a “red mirage” in the election -- with Republicans initially appearing to be ahead only to be overtaken by more Democrat-heavy mail-in ballots -- One America News Network host Jack Posobiec, along with conservative filmmaker Ali Alexander, resumed seeding Twitter with the hashtag.
As Election Day rolled around and the “red mirage” began taking shape, Posobiec, Trump campaign advisory board member Harlan Hill, Human Events Editor-in-Chief Will Chamberlain, actor James Woods, filmmaker Robby Starbuck, right-wing commentator Carmine Sabia, cartoonist Ben Garrison, writer Pamela Geller, activist Mike Coudrey, the Tea Party Patriots, and the account for the Philadelphia Republican Party amplified the hashtag. (Several of the same people had used the hashtag in 2018, using it to dispute vote counts or levy false claims about noncitizens voting, while others just tried to make it trend.) The tweets continued on into the evening and spilled over into Wednesday, spewing from white nationalist Faith Goldy, QAnon-supporting Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), human pork chop Matt Schlapp, and Schlapp’s American Conservative Union.
Early Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump delivered a speech from the White House falsely declaring himself the winner of a number of crucial states, adding, “Frankly, we did win this election.” Trump called for states to suspend the counting of outstanding ballots and said that he would be going to the Supreme Court because “we want all voting to stop.” Predictably, Fox News took the president’s instructions to heart, using Wednesday’s edition of Fox & Friends to build a defense of Trump’s claim that ballots that hadn’t yet been counted were somehow suspicious or fraudulent.
The #StopTheSteal hashtag, Fox’s misleading preemptive coverage, and Trump’s attempt to sow confusion about the legitimacy of uncounted ballots are part of a larger assault on democracy. By working to create the false impression that Democrats were carrying out an illegal scheme to “steal” the election in Pennsylvania, Trump and his allies are taking what they view as necessary steps to build public support for the Supreme Court showdown Trump craves. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as he has repeatedly cast doubts on the validity of the election and openly discussed the importance of having an additional hand-picked justice on the court to rule in his favor. Public support for his actions can go a long way to cover for what is essentially an authoritarian coup, which is why right-wing media have been trying to build a case on his behalf by making unsubstantiated claims of fraud. They pushed one such claim early in the day after a Republican poll watcher was briefly and accidentally denied entrance to a polling place. In another case, claims of rigging were leveled at Pennsylvania’s Democratic attorney general because he called for all legally cast ballots to be counted.
History can tell us a bit about why these types of campaigns may matter. In the days leading up to the 2000 presidential election, Republican nominee George W. Bush’s team had reportedly made plans to contest the election results in the event that he won the popular vote while losing the Electoral College. According to a New York Daily News article, Bush planned to appeal to the public’s sense of fairness through an elaborate public relations campaign aimed at being installed as president even though he did not technically win. Bush’s team understood the importance of shaping public opinion in achieving what may appear impossible.
As we know, the opposite scenario unfolded in 2000. Bush won the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. Bush took office to a respectable 57% approval rating, indicating that his team won not only the legal fight, but also the fight for the hearts and minds of Americans.
Some researchers and journalists have noted the fledgling public influence campaign of the #StopTheSteal hashtag. Social media researcher Erin Gallagher was one of the first people on the case.
First Draft News noted that automated bots may be playing a big role in the hashtag’s amplification. Relatedly, BBC researcher Shayan Sardarizadeh took note of a disproportionate amount of retweets compared to original tweets involved in the spread.
Should the 2020 election get drawn out into a lengthy legal battle, hashtags like #StopTheSteal may be key to a parallel public relations battle similar to what happened following the 2000 election. Bush and his supporters understood the power of public opinion. Trump’s supporters do, as well, and that’s why a preemptive coordinated social media campaign is worth keeping an eye on. If Trump and his supporters can convince the public that the election was stolen from him in the event that he loses, he might be able to will his way to a second term.