Mr. Trump’s effort to discredit mail-in voting follows decades of disinformation about voter impersonation, voting by noncitizens and double voting, often promoted by Republican leaders.
Voting by mail under normal circumstances does not appear to give either major party an advantage, according to a study this spring by Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy Research. But many conservative outlets have promoted the idea that fraud involving mailed ballots could tip the scales in favor of Democrats.
Stephen J. Stedman, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford, said he thought “about disinformation in this country as almost an information ecology — it’s not an organic thing from the bottom up.”
Last month, sites including The Gateway Pundit, The Washington Examiner and Breitbart followed a report from a Fox affiliate in Wisconsin about mail that had been found in a ditch and reportedly included absentee ballots. The story was promoted by the Trump adviser Jason Miller; the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany; the Fox News host Tucker Carlson; and the president himself.
After the outcry, all but unnoticed, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the batch of mail hadn’t included absentee ballots from Wisconsin and that it was unclear if there had been ballots from other states. The liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America traced several other examples.
In a similar cycle, the Fox News host Sean Hannity and conservative publications magnified the reach of a deceptive video released last month by Project Veritas, a group run by the conservative activist James O’Keefe. The video claimed without named sources or verifiable evidence that the campaign for Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, was collecting ballots illegally.
Mr. Stedman said right-leaning outlets sometimes conflated fraud with the statistically insignificant administrative mishaps that occur in every American election.
“The pandemic is making this a true administrative nightmare, where administrators who have never done this on this scale have just a few months to do it, and they now also have the Trump administration trying to take advantage of every single mistake to say, ‘See, that’s fraud,’” Mr. Stedman said. “It can’t end well.”