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Election conspiracy theories: Why they spread, and how to curb them

Trusting Our Elections: Why are conspiracy theories so compelling?

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The narrative that President Donald Trump won the 2020 election was false yet powerful. It is now tied to threats against election-related workers, to deaths in riots at the U.S. Capitol, and to the need for heightened security around the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

In this episode of “Rethinking the News,” we examine the power of conspiracy theories and how just about anyone can be vulnerable to them.

“In a democracy, we want people to question, we want people to hold government accountable,” says political scientist Joanne Miller. But false theories can easily spread when people are looking for ways to cope with news they don’t like. 

“It’s better to talk to family members, friends, in a way that … focuses more on what maybe brought them to the conspiracy theory in the first place,” Ms. Miller says. “Because even if you could find the right words to debunk that conspiracy theory, if they’re still feeling as anxious … and uncertain as they were originally, there’s always another conspiracy theory waiting in the wings.” 

This is the second of two episodes on trusting our elections. Find Part 1 here. 

Truth, lies, and insurrection. How falsehood shakes democracy.

“Rethinking the News” is a podcast that aims to make room for constructive conversations across a range of perspectives, and bring Monitor journalism straight to your ears. To learn more about the podcast and find new episodes, please visit our page. 

AUDIO TRANSCRIPT

Eric Coomer: My day-to-day is very up and down. I’ve gotten threats over text. “Eric Coomer should be hanged.” “Eric Coomer should be drawn and quartered.” “When do we get to waterboard him?” all the way down to texts that just simply say, “run.” And then another text five minutes later: “We’re watching you. We’re coming for you. You can’t hide.” And I have had to grab a go bag, hop in my vehicle, and disappear.

[Music]

Jessica Mendoza: Welcome to “Rethinking the News” by The Christian Science Monitor. I’m Jessica Mendoza.

Samantha Laine Perfas: And I’m Samantha Laine Perfas.

Jess: You just heard Eric Coomer, director of product strategy for Dominion Voting Systems.

Sam: Dominion sells voting machines, tabulators, and software. At least 24 states used their products in the 2020 election.

Jess: Shortly after November 3rd, Eric became the center of stories in some conservative circles online. He was accused of rigging voting machines to steal the election from President Donald Trump.

Sam: Eric denies the allegations, and there’s no evidence to support the claims. But even still, he started getting threats to his life and to his family. He’s since gone into hiding.

Eric: I’ve been publicly doxxed. My parents have received letters, threatening letters at their home. My brothers have been targeted with threats and their public information has been shared online.

[Music]

Jess: In our previous episode, we talked about what makes an election secure. We had experts walk us through why officials across the political spectrum are defending the integrity of the 2020 elections.

Sam: But what happens when people don’t believe it? This year, that disbelief led to an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which in turn led to the impeachment of President Trump. And even now, just ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, a lot of people still doubt the process was fair.

Jess: So today, we talk to Jennifer Morrell. She’s a former local election official. And she’s now a partner at The Elections Group, a team of election experts who worked with officials across the country in 2020.

Sam: We also hear from Joanne Miller, an associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware. We ask her why political conspiracy theories are compelling to so many people.

Jess: But before all that, we wanted to understand what happens when people find themselves facing the kinds of accusations that Eric Coomer is. So we asked him.

[Music]

Jess: So how are you feeling, how are you?

Eric: Yeah, I’m OK. You know, I mean, I’ve been dealing with this now for over two months, so there’s sort of a certain familiarity with it. But my day-to-day life is nothing like it was before all of this started.

Jess: And just to confirm, are you still keeping your location undisclosed?

Eric: Yes, I am, yes.

Jess: Okay. Could you talk about what it’s like for you to wake up – what do you do?

Eric: I move around a lot. I try not to stay at the same location for too long. I am very cognizant of having to go to the grocery store. I wear a mask, I wear a large coat. But I don’t, I don’t leave my residence very often. Every day I wake up with the realization that it may be a very, very long time until my life returns to something that’s ‘normal.’

Sam: Could you have ever imagined yourself being in this position?

Eric: No, not at all. There have always been some level of accusations and scrutiny around the security of elections, and I think for the most part, that’s healthy skepticism. I’ve never said, “Just trust the system.” You know, I’ve worked on systems that try to enhance the transparency. And to then be essentially one of the primary targets of this disinformation – no, I could have never imagined that happening.

Jess: What about that experience or that perspective do you want people to really understand?

Eric: I mean, I guess at the heart of it is that real people are involved in this. I mean, I’m a real person. I get up, I go to work, I do my job, I come home, I make dinner. And, you know, I do this job because I believe in it. . . . There are thousands of people that believe that I had something to do with a fraudulent election. Me, personally. It’s not even something I could do. I designed and developed the systems. I’ve never written a single line of code for the system. And even if I had, all the code goes through an independent code review, security testing, functional testing. And at the end of the day, it’s individual elections directors, whether they are at the state or county level, that actually conduct the elections and verify that the results are secure and correct. I have no part in that.

Jess: I would love your take on this idea of trust. Could you talk about the importance of trust to the work that you do at Dominion or the work that you went in wanting to do in the election security space?

Eric: It is “trust but verify.” So you don’t necessarily have to trust me. Again, I’m not the one that’s conducting the elections. You do have to have at least some trust that they are fulfilling their oath to their office. But there are a variety of ways to verify that. It is not a blind trust. In elections, there are a variety of safeguards that exist to verify at the end of the day that the counts were correct and that wide scale fraud did not take place. But factual information doesn’t seem to matter with at least a large portion of this audience that really believes that the election was fraudulent.

Jess: Well, Eric, thank you so much for your candor and for taking the time to talk to us.

Eric: I appreciate the time.

[Music]

Jess: In December, Eric filed a lawsuit against the people he says promoted false claims that he’d rigged voting machines during the 2020 election. The defendants include a conservative activist in Colorado, President Trump’s lawyers, and the Trump campaign.

Sam: Early this month, Dominion Voting Systems filed its own defamation lawsuit against former Trump campaign lawyer Sidney Powell.

Jess: But Eric and Dominion weren’t the only ones to face threats and accusations of election rigging and fraud. Election officials around the country – Democrat and Republican – did, too.

Sam: So we reached out to Jennifer Morrell, a former local election official who now works with jurisdictions nationwide, to find out how they’re handling this situation.

[Music]

Sam: Jennifer, can you describe what you heard from election officials across the country, both during and after the 2012 presidential election?

Jennifer Morrell: You bet. This year turned out to be really unique. We watched spring elections start to unfold where state and local administrators, same job that I had done for years and years, we watched these folks really struggle to think about how to administer an election safely and securely in a pandemic. Then we had this huge expansion of voting by mail. On top of that, we thought the adversary for this November would be foreign. So training officials to understand cybersecurity practices. And then we started to see the mis- and dis-information. Despite just some incredible work this year – live streaming elections, providing virtual tours of their facilities, infographics, more engagement on social media – still we’re met with criticism and worse, right, harassment, threats, doxxing. So sort of a set of problems that we didn’t even consider in the ramp up to November.

Jess: I’m curious, Jennifer, is that level of threats, harassment, is that relatively new?

Jennifer: I’ve never experienced that when I ran elections. I never heard of anybody experiencing that. I mean, it was not unusual to have concerned voters or candidates call you. You know, you would have poll watchers in your facility. They might raise a concern. Never have I heard of officials dealing with threats.

Sam: So how did you respond or advise election officials to respond to these accusations?

Jennifer: You know, we have focused a lot on the education component, like making sure that election officials have the tools and the templates and the things that they need to communicate with their voters, “Here were the procedures that we went through. Here was the process that we have in place. Here are the security protocols, the safeguards implemented by our office,” and try and communicate that. But, you know, it’s challenging.

Jess: In your view, what is at the heart of the kind of accusations that officials, whether in government or in nonprofit or the private sector, have faced?

Jennifer: That’s been really hard, right? Comms isn’t necessarily the strong point, I would say, of a lot of officials. And yet they stepped up to that, right? They really thought, “OK, here’s the thing we’re going to learn about. This is the thing that we think will, you know, mitigate any mis- or disinformation that we might face.” We completely underestimated what that was going to look like. The volume. And so, yeah, I think everyone is still puzzling over, What do we do next time? We did everything that we had been taught to do in professional development courses, we did all those things, you know, it still wasn’t enough for some groups of the public to feel confident about the election.

Sam: And I think trust is something that really has eroded over the last few years. I’m curious how that lack of trust can affect the work of election officials. And also, what do you think needs to happen to build back that trust in our election system?

Jennifer: Yeah. So one of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is proof, I guess. There’s an opportunity there to do three things. We continue to document all of the procedures around testing around all of the sort of things that are done. Then we focus a little bit more, I think, on auditing. We do an audit for compliance. We do an audit to verify ballots were counted correctly, procedures were followed, all of those things. And then the third piece is the communication. We figure out how do we – how do we share that with the public in a way that’s meaningful to them? And so I think it’s you know, I think it’s all three of those that we’ll be focusing on moving forward.

Sam: Jennifer, thank you so much for joining us. I’ve got just one more question: As we move forward and the 2020 election begins to recede, what gives you hope that we can do better next time?

Jennifer: Yeah, so, you know, as I look back over this year, I think I can say unequivocally that not only was this election one of the most challenging we’ve ever faced, but election officials met those challenges. I think that gives me hope that even though often we do just see the misinformation, we also saw a lot of people stepping up and providing support, signing up to be a poll worker, folks that had never worked before. There’s certainly plenty of people out there, you know, trying to dispel the misinformation. So, you know, I think there is an election community who seem ready and willing to continue to collaborate and to meet whatever the next challenge is head on.

Jess: Well, thank you, Jennifer, for taking the time to talk to us today and really, really appreciate your time.

Jennifer: You bet.

[Music]

Clay Collins: Hi everyone. I’m Clay Collins, Director of Editorial Innovation for the Monitor. Because of listeners like you, our reporters are able to bring fresh perspectives and new voices to the stories of the day. If you’re enjoying “Rethinking the News,” consider subscribing to The Christian Science Monitor. Go to csmonitor.com/subscribe to learn more. That’s csmonitor.com/subscribe. We really appreciate your support.

[Music]

Sam: Welcome back. We just heard from Eric Coomer and Jennifer Morrell about some of the challenges facing those involved in the 2020 election. As Eric and Jennifer said, this year was really different from past years. Facts weren’t enough to dispel the misinformation, largely driven by rightwing conspiracy theories.

Jess: Now, we’re going to turn to Joanne Miller, an associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware. She’ll talk about why those narratives have persisted.

[Music]

Sam: What is the difference between a conspiracy theory and a legitimate concern?

Joanne Miller: So that’s not an easy question to answer. From an academic standpoint, we would define a conspiracy theory as an allegation of a secret plot by a group of people who were attempting to do something that’s illegal or ambiguously legal for their own gain. But the problem is, of course, that we know that conspiracies actually happen. So what distinguishes a conspiracy from a conspiracy theory? And really the balance here is the amount of evidence from credible, authoritative people or entities. And I’m hesitating here because I recognize that what is a credible authority, especially these days, is contested.

Jess: We have spoken to some experts about the security of this election specifically and why the process is considered secure, but it seems that so many people still believe otherwise. Could you talk about that? What is it about political conspiracy theories in particular that Americans find so compelling?

Joanne: One, loss of control. So when people feel like they’re – they’re uncertain about themselves, they feel like they’ve lost control, they’re anxious, especially when a really big negative event happens, it’s a natural psychological tendency. We all want to regain control. We want to understand our world. And so in seeking out explanations for why events occurred the way they occurred, we can very quickly end up in a space where we believe a conspiracy theory that helps us sort of tie up all these loose ends into this nice, neat sort of bow. When it comes to political conspiracy theories, there’s another layer. That when you’re on the losing side of politics, that puts you in this special place of one, feeling like you’ve lost control, feeling uncertain and wanting to have an answer to why your side lost, and also wanting to defend your side in a way, and protect your own values, beliefs, attitudes.

Sam: It’s interesting to think about control and how we want to control our surroundings, our world. So when we look to things that are happening around us, for example, in an election – the president that I wanted to win didn’t win. I’m trying to understand why that happened. That, then, is like a framework that we use to look at the evidence and look at the information around us. How does confirmation bias fit into that? Do we look for certain information or we do we just absorb information differently based on what we want the narrative to be or what we think is already true?

Joanne: Absolutely. Confirmation bias plays a big role here because if the candidate that I supported loses the election, I’m not just looking to find out why. I want to find out why in a way that bolsters my beliefs, worldview. It’s what they call motivated reasoning. I’m more likely to be attracted to explanations that help me also maintain my beliefs that my side really should have won because they have the better ideas, the better policies, will make the country better.

Jess: It’s interesting that you brought up motivated reasoning. We often assume that political knowledge or savvy has something to do with whether or not a person is likely to engage in these sorts of theories. Could you talk about that relationship a little bit?

Joanne: It is true that what we find consistently is that people with with lower levels of education are more likely to believe conspiracy theories in general. But when we look at something like political knowledge, what we find is, that partisan split is stronger for people who are more politically knowledgeable. So it’s the, say, Democrats who are more knowledgeable, who are more likely to believe conspiracy theories that make Republicans look bad. And vice versa. This is less about the ability to discern information than it is about the motivation to want to bolster one’s worldview.

Sam: You know, right now it feels like there’s a lot of right-wing conspiracies around the election. But in the past presidential election, there were a lot of left wing conspiracy theories. So i’’s not that it’s uncommon to – to really entertain these theories and get sucked into them. How does that help us empathize or just understand where people are coming from if they are latching on to these different narratives?

Joanne: If I ever write the book that I have in my head to write, the title of the book will be “Coping by Conspiracy.” And I like to use the word “coping” here because I want to emphasize that a lot of conspiracy theory beliefs stem from an absolutely natural need, desire to cope, understand the world around us. And we say, “That’s it. That’s the answer. I know how this thing is caused. It’s not random, and now we know what we can fight.” What’s unfortunate about this is that the evidence that we’re seeing is saying that it typically doesn’t work. It doesn’t actually make us feel any less anxious. In some cases it actually makes us feel more anxious. But we think at the time that we’e doing this, it is going to be helpful. And so that coping is really about understanding.

Jess: It seems like we ourselves then might be prone to believing things that aren’t true, like nobody is exempt from this.

Joanne: I really don’t think any of us is immune. Now, this is not to the same degree, but if you think about superstitions, wearing my lucky socks to play my sports game, these are all ways that we trick ourselves into feeling like we have more control than we have. In a sense, conspiracy theories are the same category. I think it’s also worth remembering or thinking that in a democracy, we want people to question, we want people to hold government accountable. And so the fact that there’s this growing group of scholars out there studying conspiracy theories and why people believe conspiracy theories, it sort of is pinning it on, ‘Oh, those people somehow need to be fixed. So we need to understand these aberrant people.’ Some would argue that the people who are just as aberrant, if not more aberrant, are the people who trust everything. Now, I don’t want to downplay the fact that belief in conspiracy theories can have really negative social and political consequences. But I think it’s important to recognize that nobody’s immune.

Jess: Now, I’m kind of curious, what does it mean for me as a person trying to figure out what’s real, what’s not? You know, how do I talk to the people in my life about it?

Joanne: As anyone knows who’s tried to do this, trying to reason with and provide logical arguments doesn’t work particularly well. Part of the reason for that is because conspiracy theories are what we call self-sealing. Any evidence that you bring to bear against the conspiracy theory is just more evidence for the conspiracy theory. My sense is that it’s better to talk to family members, friends, in a way that is empathetic but focuses more on what maybe brought them to the conspiracy theory in the first place. If we go back to this idea of coping by conspiracy, what’s going on in their lives right now? Are they feeling anxious, out of control? How can we support them in the ways that they’re feeling, independent of the conspiracy theory itself? Because even if you could find the right words to debunk that conspiracy theory, if they’re still feeling as anxious and out of control and uncertain as they were originally, there’s always another conspiracy theory waiting in the wings.

Sam: Thank you so much.

Joanne: Great, thanks a lot.

[Music]

Sam: Thanks for joining us.

Jess: If you liked this episode, please consider subscribing to the Monitor. This work is made possible by your support. Visit csmonitor.com/subscribe.

Sam: Again, that’s csmonitor.com/subscribe.

Jess: This episode was hosted, reported, and produced by Samantha Laine Perfas and me, Jessica Mendoza. Liz Marlantes, Mark Trumbull, and Yvonne Zipp were the editors. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt. Produced by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.

[End]

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