One year after the Jan. 6 riot, 81 percent of 2020 election misinformation publishers in the U.S. identified then by NewsGuard continue to spread false election claims
Nearly 900 major brands are funding these sites with digital ads, despite widespread reporting on the problem
By Kendrick McDonald, Melissa Goldin, and Lorenzo Arvanitis
Additional reporting by Chine Labbé, Virginia Padovese, Giulia Pozzi, Marie Richter, Roberta Schmid, Sophia Tewa, Edward O’Reilly, and Sam Howard
Welcome back to NewsGuard’s Misinformation Monitor, our newsletter tracking misinformation with exclusive data from five countries. Sign up to get the Misinformation Monitor in your inbox or download NewsGuard for your browser.
Of the 113 U.S. websites that NewsGuard found were spreading election misinformation in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 presidential vote and that are still active, 81 percent have continued to spread false claims about the election, including about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, a NewsGuard analysis has found.
The problem is global. NewsGuard also found that half of the European websites that it identified as spreading election misinformation last year and that are active still share U.S.-focused misinformation with their audiences.
In its 2020 Election Misinformation Tracking Center, NewsGuard identified 159 sites that between Election Day (Nov. 3, 2020) and Inauguration Day (Jan. 20, 2021) spread false claims about the election.
Now, more than a year after the 2020 election, and as the nation approaches the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack, a NewsGuard analysis has found that the vast majority of the sites spreading election misinformation a year ago have continued to promote the narrative that the election was not legitimate, while defending, downplaying, or redirecting blame for the riot.
NewsGuard also found that 892 major brands were financing the sites that have published election or Jan. 6 misinformation between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1, 2021 during this time period through the purchase of digital advertisements, according to data from Moat Pro, an advertising intelligence tool. There has been widespread reporting in the past year about how misinformation sites are funded by programmatic advertising revenue — including a report by NewsGuard and media measurement firm Comscore earlier this year estimating that companies send $2.6 billion in ad revenue to misinformation sites each year. The 892 brands advertising on the 159 sites NewsGuard identified as publishing election or Jan. 6 misinformation represents a 32 percent decline from a similar period last year.
By the numbers: NewsGuard reviewed the publication of election-related misinformation — including falsehoods about the integrity of the vote and about the Jan. 6 attack — during a 90-day period between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1, 2021.
- Of all U.S. sites included on the 2020 Election Misinformation Tracker, 81 percent have continued sharing false claims. Counting the European sites as well, that number is 72 percent.
2020 U.S. Election Misinformation
One America News (OAN), a NewsGuard Red-rated, pro-Trump news channel, was a prominent source of misinformation about the election in 2020, including false claims about the integrity of election hardware and software company Dominion Voting Systems. (A federal lawsuit filed by the company against OAN in Washington is ongoing.)
- More recently, NewsGuard found an October 2021 article on the network’s website about the Republican-backed recount effort in Arizona promoting false and misleading claims in service of the narrative that the 2020 election was illegitimate. “The Arizona Audit Report showed tens of thousands of questionable votes, illegal voting practices, and what appeared to be outright fraud,” the site reported, adding, “The truth is that Trump won, and the media doesn’t want America to figure that out.”
- During the same period of NewsGuard’s research, Sept. 1 to Dec. 1, 2021, at least 102 brands have advertised on OAN’s website, according to data from Moat Pro.
Asked about OAN’s coverage of the 2020 election, including the article referenced above, Christina Bobb, the host of OAN’s “Weekly Briefing” show who has covered the Republican-run audit for the network, told NewsGuard in an email that “the Arizona Audit report outlines a number of questionable votes and practices” and provided a link to the Arizona Senate’s report on the effort.
Many sites included in NewsGuard’s Election Misinformation Tracker turned their focus in fall 2021 to the Republican-run audit in Maricopa County, Arizona, which ultimately found that U.S. President Joe Biden had indeed received more votes than former U.S. President Donald Trump and did not surface any evidence of widespread voter fraud that could have affected the outcome of the election. Still, a flurry of articles falsely claiming otherwise were published in the days following the release of the audit’s results in September 2021. NewsGuard found at least 24 articles with false claims about the audit between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1, 2021, from sites previously included on the Election Tracker.
- The Gateway Pundit, a NewsGuard Red-rated website that NewsGuard previously found to play an outsized role in promoting false claims about Maricopa County’s election audit early on, published multiple articles alleging that the audit had uncovered thousands of fraudulent and illegal ballots.
- One such Sept. 25 article, titled “REASONS TO DECERTIFY AZ – THE LIST: 70,000 Duplicated, Fraudulent, Illegal or Ghost Ballots (7 Times Biden’s Margin of Victory), Devices Missing, Data Deleted, Criminal Acts Referred to Authorities,” began by claiming: “The result of yesterday’s presentation of the audit results from the audit of the 2020 Election results in Maricopa County is clear — the 2020 Election results in Maricopa County should never have been certified with Joe Biden as the winner.”
- The article had received 4,657 interactions on public Facebook posts and was shared by Facebook pages that had a combined follower count of more than 220,618 as of December 2021, according to CrowdTangle, a social media monitoring tool owned by Facebook.
- According to data from Moat Pro, 118 brands advertised on The Gateway Pundit during the period of NewsGuard’s analysis. In September 2021, Google reportedly banned The Gateway Pundit from its advertising services, according to Forbes.
The Gateway Pundit published an article by Joe Hoft, a contributing editor for the site and twin brother of The Gateway Pundit’s founder and editor, Jim Hoft, in response to an email NewsGuard sent to Jim Hoft inquiring about the story referenced above. The Gateway Pundit’s article stated: “Our country was founded on the belief that the winners of elections are to govern. When elections are stolen, the entire makeup of our country is destroyed. This is a very serious issue. We have been at the forefront in pointing out the many corrupt and criminal actions involved in the 2020 Election steal. The article in question was another piece in painting this complete picture of the obviously stolen election in 2020. This article was released the day after the results in Maricopa County were presented to the public.”
Other websites focused on false claims that mail-in balloting, the use of which was expanded during the 2020 election due to the COVID-19 pandemic, can — and did — lead to widespread fraud.
- TheFederalistPapers.org, a conservative, NewsGuard Red-rated website, published a December 2021 story (originally published by the conservative WesternJournal.com) titled “Poll: Majority of Likely Voters Think the 2020 Election Results Were Impacted in Some Way by Cheating.” It claimed: “One of the reasons this specific election was so vulnerable to fraud was because various states decided to implement a universal mail-in ballot system.”
- The story noted that “no court has found credible evidence of widespread, coordinated, election-altering voter fraud in the 2020 election — at least not yet” and pointed out that “fraudulent votes” may not “tip the election one way or the other.” However, in addition to the claim about mail-in voting referenced above, it also stated that “there were numerous instances of localized voter fraud found across the country that undoubtedly affected the election’s outcome by changing both candidates’ vote totals.”
- The article had received 2,076 interactions on public Facebook posts and was shared by Facebook pages that had a combined follower count of more than 2.3 million as of December 2021, according to CrowdTangle.
- While voter fraud does occur, evidence indicates that it is rare. The conservative Heritage Foundation maintains a voter fraud database documenting cases dating as far back as 1986 and, as of Dec. 22, 2021, had found a total 1,334 cases of voter fraud, with 224 involving absentee ballots. In December 2021, The Associated Press found “fewer than 475” cases of potential voter fraud from the 2020 election in six battleground states — Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
A message NewsGuard sent through a general contact form on TheFederalistPapers.org and an email sent to Steve Straub, the site’s director and founder, inquiring about the article referenced above, went unanswered.
AmericanThinker.com, a NewsGuard Red-rated website that publishes conservative analysis and commentary on political and cultural issues, was another important source of false election claims in 2020. In early 2021, the site received some attention for a retraction notice apologizing to Dominion Voting Systems for what the site called its “completely false” claims about the company that had “no basis in fact.” But the site has shown no signs of dropping the broader false narrative that the 2020 election was illegitimate.
- On Nov. 6, 2021 — more than a year after the 2020 election — the site claimed that Trump won the presidential race in an article titled, “The Big Truth: Election 2020 Really Was Rigged.”
- The article stated: “The evidence can be boiled down as follows. Trump won a fair election on Nov. 3, but lost a fraudulent one late on Nov. 3 (about 22:00) and on to Nov. 4 and beyond, in some important Electoral College states. The Dems believed their own (fake) polling data that had said Trump was far behind. But they were shocked when they saw that he was about to win by a huge margin in those states. No matter. That’s when they went to Plan B and did their dirty work, in the early hours.”
Breaking it down: AmericanThinker.com based this false assertion on the claim that “the Dems, with their allies in the lying media, unprecedentedly stopped the normal vote count” and “in the late hours illegally rammed through numerous lopsided ballots (a ‘surge’), favoring Basement Biden.” These claims have been thoroughly debunked by media outlets and government officials from both parties.
- As of December 2021, the AmericanThinker.com article had received 2,456 interactions on public Facebook posts and was shared by Facebook Pages that had a combined follower count of more than 123,000, according to CrowdTangle.
- At least 47 brands advertised on AmericanThinker.com between Sept. 1 to Dec. 1, 2021.
The enduring myth that Trump won the 2020 election — spread by AmericanThinker.com and other websites over the past year — has allowed other related falsehoods to flourish and has led to real-world consequences, including the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
In an email to NewsGuard, American Thinker editor Thomas Lifson did not comment on the article cited above and included a link to the site’s retraction notice, also described above.
Jan. 6 Misinformation
NewsGuard also identified multiple articles that contained falsehoods about the events that unfolded on Jan. 6, 2021, during which rioters, some of whom were armed, stormed the U.S. Capitol during a session of Congress to certify the presidential election results for Biden.
- The most prominent falsehood that NewsGuard identified in connection to the Jan. 6 attack was that the FBI had orchestrated the riot.
- The myth appears to have originated in a June 2021 report on the website Revolver News, and has since been widely promoted by Fox News host Tucker Carlson on his primetime show and in Carlson’s three-part docuseries about Jan. 6 titled “Patriot Purge.”
- Many of the articles flagged by NewsGuard relied on circumstantial evidence, such as apparent similarities between the Jan. 6 attack and the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in October 2020, which FBI informants helped to prevent.
- However, there is no evidence that federal agents orchestrated the attack on the U.S. Capitol. In September 2021, The New York Times reported that the FBI had at least two informants in the crowd that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, but noted that confidential records it had obtained did not provide any evidence that the FBI had participated in planning or coordinating the attack, stating that “the records show that [an] informant traveled to Washington at his own volition, not at the request of the F.B.I.” The Times also reported that “if anything, the records appear to show that the informant’s F.B.I. handler was slow to grasp the gravity of what was happening that day.”
- Some articles attempted to rewrite the events of Jan. 6. The NewsGuard Red-rated site ZeroHedge.com claimed that the rioters were unarmed, for example. The NewsGuard Red-rated site InformationLiberation.com reported that those who entered the Capitol building had received permission from Capitol Police officers to do so.
- However, according to a database maintained by NPR, of the people facing federal charges for their involvement in the Jan. 6 attack, as of December 2021, 23 people had been charged with possessing a deadly or dangerous weapon, and three had been charged with possessing a gun on Capitol grounds.
- Moreover, Capitol Police officers did not allow rioters into the building. Video footage from throughout the day from multiple angles showed that the rioters climbed scaffolding, busted doors, smashed windows, and shoved past barricades to get into the building. Some attacked police officers in the process.
Europe and the U.K.
NewsGuard’s analysis found that myths about the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 attack were not unique to the U.S. While a smaller share of European sites from the Election Tracker were sharing misinformation during the year that followed, it is clear that narratives from the U.S. have been exported to websites elsewhere that are well known to lack credibility.
- In Italy, the NewsGuard Red-rated website ComeDonChisciotte.org published an interview with former Virginia State Senator Richard Black in November 2021 headlined, “Former U.S. Senator Black To The Italians: ‘Your Freedom Is In Danger. Resist The Tyranny!’” (“L’ex senatore Usa Black agli italiani: ‘La vostra libertà è in pericolo. Resistete alla tirannia!’”)
- Without providing additional context or countervailing evidence, the site published Black’s claims, stating: “The U.S. presidential election was massively rigged. In all six swing states, Trump had a strong advantage until the polls were closed for the night. Republican observers were ordered to leave so that only the Democrats remained at the polls. A wave of false votes was sent to the polls in large inner Democratic cities, and by the time the polls were reopened, Biden was mysteriously ahead in every state.”
- NewsGuard sent two emails to a general address for the ComeDonChisciotte.org editorial office, but did not receive a response.
- In Germany, the NewsGuard Red-rated website JournalistenWatch.com published a September 2021 story titled “Is the election already called? Metropolitan areas record high increase in absentee voting” (“Ist die Wahl schon gelaufen? Großstädte verzeichnen hohen Anstieg bei Briefwahl”) one week before the German federal election.
- The site made a direct link between the U.S. election almost a year earlier and Germany’s election: “The last presidential election in the USA, in which Trump was forced out of office by criminal, left-wing means, should really be warning enough for us. But now it looks like the foundation for fraud has just been built here as well.”
- Asked about this article, Max Erdinger, a writer for JournalistenWatch.com, told NewsGuard in an email: “I am replying to you because our editorial team is currently working on several articles on the indoctrination methods of the so-called quality media, whose websites are under scrutiny, including for spreading misinformation about the US election in 2020 and the storming of the US Capitol on January 6. In doing so, we came across many articles that did not speculate that mail-in voting would lead to fraud in DE just as it did in the U.S., which we believe is a serious oversight.” Erdinger then asked if NewsGuard “would like to comment” on this.
- NewsGuard found at least five francophone NewsGuard Red-rated sites that published stories about the Arizona audit, such as a September 2021 story headlined “Audit in Arizona: don’t believe the media, the audit indeed confirms the extent of the fraud” (“Audit en Arizona : ne croyez pas les medias, en fait l’audit confirme l’ampleur de la fraude”) from ResistanceRepublicaine.com.
- NewsGuard sent two emails to a general address for the ResistanceRepublicaine.com editorial office, but did not receive a response.
The bottom line: Considering that the proliferation of false election claims showed no sign of slowing down in 2021, there is little reason to think that the trend will stop going into the next election cycle. Indeed, with the anniversary of the Jan. 6 riot approaching, NewsGuard Red-rated sites can be expected to double-down on a false narrative that sows doubt about election integrity and calls into question the foundations of democracy in the U.S. and abroad.