In the early hours of Election Day, the prevailing mood among the coterie of popular websites, internet communities and social media users who support Donald Trump was electric.
The polls weren’t looking all that good, and the polls of polls were looking even worse. But in the early hours of Election Day, the prevailing mood among the coterie of popular websites, internet communities and social media users who support Donald Trump was electric.
On Breitbart News Network, a website whose chairman, Stephen K. Bannon, took a leave of absence in August to become chief executive of Trump’s campaign, headlines blared. “Trump Biggest Lead Yet in Most Accurate Poll,” read one. Another headline below: “Vegas Oddsmaker Predicts Brexit-Like Victory for Trump.”
At the blog Gateway Pundit, which has promoted the idea that Trump’s social media support reveals deep flaws in polling, a writer touted a surprising new result (in uppercase letters): “Wow! Hillary Support Crashes in Reuters Likely Turnout Poll.” (A few hours later, an update read, “Reuters Deletes Poll.”)
In the Trump community on Reddit, where scores of ardent supporters have gathered over the last year, users set a similar tone, albeit in terms of their own. “Wakey Wakey Centipedes,” posted one user (in capital letters), using a term of endearment for fellow Trump supporters, “It’s Time to Vote.” Another (in capital letters) required little interpretation: “Merry Trumpmas!!!!”
This loosely organized, self-described alternative media has provided a steady stream of content, and affirmation, for Trump supporters over the last year, inverting, mimicking and frequently mocking what it sees as an ideologically bankrupt mainstream media. It is unabashed in its support for Trump, and in its disdain for his opponents. It has also served not just as an alternative news source but also as a testing ground of sorts, to see if messages, and tactics, might be ready for broader consumption.
So Tuesday morning was something like a respite — a moment to regroup after a year of all-out war — before the final battle. (Reddit users spent the weekend scouring WikiLeaks for evidence of, among other things, a human-trafficking conspiracy.) Yet it didn’t last long. By midday, the tone was changing, and celebratory headlines were making way for a story line that has recently become more familiar: The election is rigged.
The first reports came almost immediately after voting started; within hours, those claims were being amplified, often uncritically, throughout the pro-Trump media.
The Philadelphia Republican Party began posting complaints on Twitter about voter fraud in the city shortly after 6 a.m., saying Republican poll watchers had been barred from polling sites — the complaint was picked up by the conservative website The Daily Caller, gained steam on Reddit and proliferated across Twitter and Facebook.
Separate reports that electronic voting machines in Pennsylvania were switching votes meant for Trump to Hillary Clinton reached Infowars — a site, long focused on conspiracies, that has recently gained prominence as a pro-Trump outlet — only to be further fueled by a viral video, described as from a Pennsylvania voter, showing difficulty voting for Trump on a touch-screen machine. Soon, The Drudge Report posted a link on Facebook to an article on a conservative website featuring the video with the (uppercase) caption: “Voters report seeing Trump votes switch to Clinton before their eyes . . . .”
By the time a Nevada judge denied a request from Trump’s campaign to have votes impounded on the ground that poll workers had illegally extended early-voting hours, and Trump himself suggested in radio and television interviews Tuesday that he might not accept the result of the election, the floodgates had been opened.
Trump has frequently expressed doubt about the integrity of the voting process, at campaign events as well as on the night of the 2012 presidential election. “This election is a total sham and a travesty,” he said on Twitter after President Barack Obama’s re-election. “We are not a democracy!”
So it should come as no surprise that Trump’s most reliably supportive voices on the internet were ready to back up that narrative. Project Veritas, which films undercover videos and orchestrates political stunts and then shares them through social media and other websites, released a video purporting to show a woman wearing a head scarf and claiming the ballot of Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin in New York City. In another video, James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, was in a car trailing what he called “a pastor’s bus” that was transporting people to the polls in Philadelphia. O’Keefe promised evidence of people doing “improper things, busing people around.”
By early evening, before the polls had closed, the same alternative media ecosystem that had fostered a sense of confidence and calm in the morning had made allowances for either outcome. “Only Correct Public Brexit Poll Predicts Trump Victory,” said the top headline on Breitbart, all in capital letters, with a photo of Trump pumping his fist. However, right next to the image in a smaller typeface (though still all in capitals), was a hedge, courtesy of a series of updating headlines. “Reports of Voter Fraud Hit Social Media,” one stated. Another provided a hint of what might be in store for the night to come, and the days after: “TROUBLE AT POLLS.”