David Reinert holds up a large “Q” sign while waiting in line to see President Donald J. Trump at his rally on Aug. 2, 2018, at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. “Q” represents QAnon, a conspiracy theory group that has been seen at recent rallies. (Rick Loomis/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Experts on election security warned lawmakers during a U.S. House Administration hearing on Wednesday of targeted disinformation campaigns that could occur in the upcoming midterm and presidential elections.
The panel of witnesses also stressed to members of the subcommittee on elections the dangers of conspiracy groups and their reach in sowing disinformation about election fraud.
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Lisa Deeley, the chairwoman of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, said she needed to have a personal police detail follow her around in 2020 because of threats.
“It was a scene that we had never seen in elections in Philadelphia before,” she told lawmakers.
She said she needed protection because a site called the Buffalo Chronicle published an article about fake ballots cast for President Joe Biden in Philadelphia. FactCheck.org says that it is a “dubious website” that published a claim without evidence that a union boss stuffed ballot boxes for Biden.
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Penn., said that because Republicans let the lie about the 2020 presidential election being stolen fester, “we’ve seen dedicated public servants from both parties pay the price.”
Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-N.M., said that this is not the first time targeted disinformation has been used in elections. She pointed to the 2016 election, where Black and Latino voters were targeted, receiving text messages that they could cast their vote for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton on their phones instead of going to a voting location.
“Electoral lies do have consequences,” Fernandez said.
She asked Yosef Getachew, the Media & Democracy Program director at the government watchdog group Common Cause, how Congress can make sure that presidential electors are accurately certifying election results. The House panel looking at the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol is examining slates of pro-Trump “fake electors” in seven states.
Getachew said that Congress needs to tackle election reform, and pointed to Republican-led states that are enacting restrictive voting laws in response to the 2020 presidential election. Since 2021, 18 states have passed 34 restrictive voting laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
He added that states are also moving to pass election interference laws that could change how elections are conducted and how results are determined. Six state legislatures — Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Oklahoma — have passed nine election interference laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
The ranking Republican on the panel, Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., said there were more pressing issues to hold a hearing on and that the federal government should not be determining what is true and what is false.
“Americans are capable of forming their own opinions,” he said.
Steil criticized the Biden administration for trying to put together a Disinformation Governance Board that aimed to combat disinformation. The board is currently on pause.
The chair of the House panel, G. K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat, asked journalist Mike Rothschild, who reports on and researches conspiracy theories, what happens when people who believe in conspiracy theories are challenged with the truth.
Rothschild said that the subcommittee needed to take the threat seriously and that “people who believe these theories believe they are fighting a war between good and evil.”
“They truly believe they are divined to stop evil from winning, and we need to look at it in that lens,” he said. “This is light versus dark.”
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