By CATHERINE SANZ, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — False and misleading election-related claims, already running rampant on social media in the wake of this year’s race, were given an exponential boost in exposure after they were shared by Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, a new analysis commissioned by ABC News has found.
The eldest sons of President Donald Trump repeatedly disseminated unfounded allegations around the improper handling of ballots, including that they were burned or stolen, by sharing videos or pictures of the baseless allegations on social media, according to Storyful, the social media intelligence agency that conducted the analysis.
The brothers, who have over 10 million followers combined on Twitter alone, also shared content that claimed dead voters cast ballots or that ballot counters were illegally changing ballots, the study found. There is no evidence to support any of these claims.
Despite the allegations being debunked immediately by election officials and law enforcement, the brothers did not remove or delete their posts or shares. The analysis from Storyful looked at six specific videos shared by Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump. The analysis showed the pair were among the top drivers of these specific video voter fraud claims on Facebook and Twitter in the days following the election.
“Political speech is the most scrutinized content on our platform, but even knowing this, we went further and developed informational labels so people had easy access to reliable sources about the election,” Facebook said in a statement to ABC News. “This was just one piece of our larger election integrity effort, which also included creating a one-stop-shop Voting Information Center, helping over 4 million people register to vote, removing over 265,000 pieces of content for violating our voter suppression policies and removing dozens of networks engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
Twitter said in a statement, “In line with our Civic Integrity Policy, we took strong enforcement action on accounts sharing misleading information about the election, including the accounts you referenced.”
The Trump Organization, where Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. work, did not respond to a request for comment from ABC News.
The brothers were not alone in sharing dubious election-related content. The president, members of his campaign and a number of other prominent supporters also frequently shared misleading content intended to create the impression of widespread voter fraud.
Storyful found that a video falsely claiming to show official ballots being burned was easily debunked by officials in Virginia Beach on Election Day, but was amplified again on Nov. 4 by Eric Trump.
As of Nov. 12, Eric Trump’s tweet, which has no fact-check label affixed to it, had been retweeted more than 37,000 times. Mentions of the phrase “ballot burning” also spiked on Twitter and Facebook shortly after Eric Trump’s tweet, going from around 20 mentions to over 500, according to the analysis. The city of Virginia Beach’s tweet had been retweeted just under 600 times, indicating how difficult it is for factual information to compete with the misleading content.
False claims that the use of Sharpie felt-tip pens would invalidate votes in Arizona began circulating on the evening of Election Day. Among the earliest examples of this false claim was footage posted to Facebook from outside a polling place in Maricopa County, according to Storyful.
Storyful’s analysis showed that mentions of the word “sharpie” spiked on Twitter at noon on Nov. 4, shortly after Eric Trump, and other high-profile Trump supporters, tweeted about the false claim. Though the brothers did not share the specific video, only tweeting about the claim, mentions of the word “sharpie” on Twitter and Facebook went from around 100 to over 5,500 on the afternoon of Nov. 4.
Facebook said it blocked the term “Sharpiegate” as a means of limiting the spread of the disinformation.
Several videos using footage that claimed to show suspicious activity in ballot counting locations in battleground states went viral in the days following the election.
A video taken at State Farm Arena in Fulton County, Georgia, purporting to show a ballot counter throwing out a ballot was copied and reposted across conservative accounts on social media, although many of those shares received little to no engagement.
But the footage was amplified online when the president’s sons both shared the video on Nov. 5, racking up over 50,000 retweets combined. Their posts have since been labeled with a fact check by Twitter.
Local election officials said on Nov. 6 that the video showed the election worker discarding a ballot packet, but not the ballot itself. Fulton County Election Director Rick Barron told reporters on Friday that the worker had gone into hiding for his own safety.
Also on Nov. 6, Donald Trump Jr. amplified a false claim that Pennsylvania poll workers had filled in empty ballots. Fact checkers at Politifact, which is part of Facebook’s third-party fact-checking network, found that it was selectively edited to remove bipartisan poll watchers who local officials said were “more than six feet away.” According to a spokesperson for Delaware County, the poll workers were copying over information from damaged forms that could not be read by scanning machines.
Eric Trump also retweeted two videos on Nov. 5 that amplified false claims about dead voters casting ballots. One of these videos has received 2.6 million views on Twitter alone, where it was first shared by a verified pro-Trump account with over 240,000 followers. The video was then reshared by Candace Owens, a conservative commentator with over two million followers, before Eric Trump retweeted to his 4.5 million followers.
At a Senate hearing committee on Tuesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said the platform flagged around 300,000 tweets from Oct. 27 to Nov. 11 for content that was either disputed or potentially misleading. That was only about 0.2% of election-related tweets from that time frame, he said.
Dannagal Young, a political psychologist and associate professor at the University of Delaware, said the rhetoric of “elites,” meaning politicians and others in power, is a potent tool to sway popular opinion.
“The rhetoric of those individuals is so so powerful because, again, their status serves as a cue,” she told ABC News. “And if we are not going to exhaustively engage with the content of the arguments or the information presented, the cue from their status is all we need to guide us.”
Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.