Misinformation Monitor: July 2021

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Editor’s Note: As of February 2024 the Misinformation Monitor is now Reality Check, a weekly newsletter on misinformation and media online. Learn more and subscribe here on Substack.

Written by Melissa Goldin and Kendrick McDonald
Additional reporting by Sam Howard

Misinformation site Gateway Pundit dominates coverage of Maricopa County’s election audit; grabs over five percent of all social media engagement on news articles

As purveyors of mis- and disinformation related to the 2020 elections have turned their attention to a partisan audit of ballots in Maricopa County, Arizona, one website has played an outsized role in promoting the story and spreading related false claims — The Gateway Pundit.

According to NewsGuard’s analysis of data from NewsWhip, a social media intelligence company, The Gateway Pundit — a Red-rated (meaning generally unreliable) conservative news and commentary website with a history of advancing false claims — has published 263 articles about the audit of Maricopa County election results between when U.S. President Joe Biden took office on Jan. 20, 2021, and June 20, 2021, making it the most prolific online publisher promoting the Arizona audit.

The audit, which was authorized by the Republican-controlled state Senate, has reviewed the county’s approximately 2.1 million ballots and is reportedly entering its final stages. The effort is widely seen as partisan and aimed at sowing doubts about the election results, echoing former U.S. President Donald Trump’s false claims that the election was marred by massive fraud. Earlier official hand count and electronic equipment audits found no evidence of fraud or vote switching in Maricopa County.

By the numbers: According to NewsWhip data, The Gateway Pundit’s articles have received significant social media engagement and sparked further coverage by other outlets, including by other Red-rated sites.

  • In comparison to The Gateway Pundit’s 263 articles, the Green-rated Arizona Republic (AZCentral.com) has published 159 articles about the audit in the same time frame. Unlike the St. Louis-based Gateway Pundit, the Arizona Republic is based in Maricopa County.
  • Other Red-rated sites published an additional 485 articles about the audit from Jan. 20, 2021, to June 20, 2021, that explicitly reference The Gateway Pundit — by attributing information to the outlet or republishing one of its stories, for example. The combination of The Gateway Pundit and other Red sites referencing its coverage represents six percent of all articles about the audit during that time frame, NewsGuard found.
  • Green-rated sites have also published articles naming The Gateway Pundit, including fact-checks or other coverage of audit misinformation. Including these stories, articles about the audit either by, or naming, The Gateway Pundit make up 12 percent of all audit coverage in the same time frame, demonstrating the outlet’s significant influence.
  • The Gateway Pundit has received just over five percent of all social media engagement, such as likes, shares, and comments, on articles about the Arizona audit published between Jan. 20, 2021 and June 20, 2021.

Breaking it down: The Gateway Pundit has published a wide variety of falsehoods about the Arizona audit, and the substance of those articles has been frequently spread and further amplified by other sites.

  • For example, a March 6, 2021, article about the audit claimed that “someone ordered the ballots to be shredded.”
    • However, Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, whose office maintains voter files and works with the county’s Elections Department to hold elections, told The Associated Press: “I can say with 100% certainty that the 2.1 million legally voted ballots from the November General Election are safe and accounted for in the Elections Department vault, under 24/7 surveillance.
    • Megan Gilbertson, communications director for the Maricopa County Elections Department, added in a separate statement to The AP: “Maricopa County has not, and would never destroy voted ballots until legally authorized to do so after the 24-month retention period.”
    • This false story has received approximately 29,300 social media interactions (shares, likes, and comments) since it was first published — the most interactions received by any article about the audit that the site published.
    • NewsGuard found 19 additional articles that amplified this false claim about shredded ballots and named The Gateway Pundit, earning an additional 11,000 social media interactions.

The Gateway Pundit, a conservative news and commentary website with a history of advancing false claims, has been the most prolific online publisher promoting the election audit in Arizona's Maricopa County. (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

‘Deleted Files’: On May 12, 2021, The Gateway Pundit published an article (originally published by 100PercentFedUp.com, another Red-rated site) whose headline falsely claimed, “Maricopa County Elections Officials DELETED ENTIRE DATABASE DIRECTORY from Voting Machines.” Citing a letter that Arizona Senate President Karen Fann wrote to Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers, the article stated: “On Wednesday afternoon, it was discovered that ‘the entire database’ showing the ‘Results Tally and Reporting’ for the 2020 election had been deleted from the Maricopa County voting machines!”

  • However, Sellers said in a May 12 statement that “the claim that our employees deleted election files and destroyed evidence is outrageous, completely baseless and beneath the dignity of the Arizona Senate.”
  • A technical memo from the Maricopa County Elections Department confirmed that the database to which The Gateway Pundit referred had not “been spoiled or deleted.” It explained that the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office shut down the database’s server in preparation to deliver it to the Arizona Senate and that auditors did not properly reconstruct the server, creating the impression it had been deleted.
  • While the initial story from 100PercentFedUp.com received approximately 4,000 interactions, The Gateway Pundit’s article amplifying the claim received almost six times as many, 23,600 interactions — the second-most popular Gateway Pundit audit story.
  • On May 18, 2021, Ben Cotton, the co-founder of the audit subcontractor CyFIR, admitted at a special hearing on the audit with Arizona senators, in reference to the database: “I have access to that data” and “I have the information I need from the recovery efforts of the data.”
  • NewsWhip’s data shows that after the reports by 100PercentFedUp.com and The Gateway Pundit, at least 27 more articles promoting the false claim appeared on other websites.

The Gateway Pundit was founded in St. Louis in 2004 by conservative blogger Jim Hoft. It has promoted myriad other false claims and debunked conspiracy theories, including that former U.S. President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, can be linked to the deaths of more than 40 people, and that students who spoke out in favor of gun control after the February 2018 mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school had staged their responses.

NewsGuard sent founder and editor Hoft three emails inquiring about the site’s coverage of the audit, but did not receive a response.

Why we should care: Misinformation about the Arizona audit, which perpetuates the myth that the 2020 election was rigged, can sow distrust in the democratic process and weaken the foundations of government. Plus, all the falsehoods being published about the “discoveries” of fraud in Arizona have now given other states controlled by disappointed followers of President Trump the idea to pursue their own partisan audits.

  • A June 2021 Monmouth University poll found 40 percent of the U.S. public believes that audits of the 2020 election will weaken the country’s democracy, while one-third believes that such audits “are legitimate efforts to identify possible voting irregularities.”
  • The same poll found “one-third of Americans continue to believe Joe Biden won the presidency only due to voter fraud.”
  • Trump partisans in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan are pushing for their own versions of the Arizona spectacle, meaning that the country could be debating the 2020 election — termed the most secure in history by President Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security officials — well into 2022.