Ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton and other key conservative media figures manufactured and spread a false smear about voter registrations, previewing how right-wing media plan to spread disinformation to sow doubt and confusion throughout the 2020 election cycle.
On February 2, Fitton tweeted that “eight Iowa counties have more voter registrations than citizens old enough to register.” Early the following morning, Iowa’s Republican secretary of state, Paul Pate, debunked the claim multiple times as “false,” responding to Twitter users who promoted the smear and issuing a formal statement. Independent journalist Judd Legum also explained that this claim is baseless and relies on a misinterpretation of data. Still, right-wing media acted in concert to feed the smear, spreading the false claim hours after it had been thoroughly debunked.
Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton
Fitton responded to Pate’s debunking by doubling down, claiming that Judicial Watch is “under attack for accurately highlighting dirty voting rolls in Iowa” and smearing the Republican secretary of state and journalists who reported on the claim. In addition to spreading the smear on Twitter, Fitton bought an advertisement on Facebook to promote it. Facebook took the advertisement down after a few hours, but not before it had received between 25,000 and 30,000 impressions.
Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk
Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk also played a key role in spreading the claim. On Sunday night, Kirk tweeted a paraphrase of Fitton’s report, gaining over 43,000 retweets and 62,000 likes. Pate debunked the claim early the following morning, but Kirk continued to spread the smear nearly 21 hours after Pate’s initial attempts to debunk it.
The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times also played an outsized role in spreading the disinformation after it had been thoroughly debunked. At 4 p.m. EST on Monday -- hours after Pate had debunked the claim -- The Epoch Times published an article on the report, which initially simply pushed the false claim but later added Pate’s debunk. The article began to swiftly pick up engagement, earning over 100,000 total interactions on Facebook by 8 p.m. By the following morning, the article had obtained nearly 175,000 interactions on Facebook, which had to add a disclaimer warning users that the post contained false information. On Tuesday morning, most of the posts pushing the article on its multiple Facebook pages were deleted.
Fox News’ Sean Hannity
Fox News prime-time host Sean Hannity also promoted the smear online after it had been debunked, even though Fox Business anchor Neil Cavuto hosted Pate to debunk the claim on his show. Hannity's website wrote the report up in an article titled “REPORT: Eight Iowa Counties Have More Registered Voters than ELIGIBLE Voters, 18K+ Extra Names.” Hannity tweeted out a link to his write-up at 4:07 p.m. EST on Monday, earning over 4,000 retweets and over 6,000 likes. MoveOn’s Natalie Martinez (formerly of Media Matters) also reported that some local radio stations that syndicate Hannity’s radio show were reposting the article. Hannity also posted it on Facebook, which added a disclaimer to his post too, though the social media network did not take it down.
This ordeal offers a glimpse into how right-wing organizations like Judicial Watch use distorted interpretations of information to fearmonger about voter fraud -- a myth long-championed by conservatives to distract from real voter suppression. Their goal appears to be to cast doubt on election results, paving the way for conspiracy theories that leave their audience’s faith in voting institutions shaken.