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Recontextualized Media: Biden “Voter Fraud Organization”

By
Emily Dreyfuss
Media Manipulation Tactics Used
Date Range
October 24, 2020 - ongoing
Region
United States
Network Terrain
Attribution
Target
Strategy
Vulnerabilities
Observable Outcomes

Overview 

In the final two weeks of the 2020 presidential election, Republican operatives spread a recontextualized video of candidate Joe Biden they took out of a larger interview and claimed it showed the candidate bragging about running the “biggest voter fraud organization this country has ever seen.” This claim was quickly debunked, but was amplified by influencers and media personalities and adopted by administration officials to muddy the waters about election integrity in furtherance of the voter fraud narrative President Donald Trump and his allies had been seeding in the electorate for a year, and which ultimately led to a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building.

STAGE 1: Manipulation Campaign Planning

At 8 a.m. ET on the morning of October 24, the liberal podcast Pod Saves America, hosted by two ex-Obama administration officials, uploaded a video to YouTube of an interview with then presidential candidate Joe Biden.1 Later that afternoon, a small group of partisan operatives  took a clip of this video out of context, isolated a sound bite, and amplified it within their networks.

In this 24-second clip, Biden says, “Secondly, we’re in a situation where we have put together, and you guys did it for our administration — President Obama’s administration before this — we have put together, I think, the most extensive and inclusive voter fraud organization in the history of American politics.”2 He was talking about his campaign’s anti-voter fraud efforts, which is clear in the context of the full interview. This mistake was noticed by Republican operatives, who edited Biden’s phrasing out of context to create the impression of an admittance to organized fraud. This simple misleading edit, a piece of recontextualized media, became useful material for a  political attack in the final days leading up to election day. The staging of the campaign utilizing this video clip began in the late afternoon of October 24.

4:55 p.m. ET: The official GOP War Room YouTube channel published a video entitled “Biden Brags About Having The ‘Most Extensive...Voter Fraud Organization’ In History.”3

  • 1. Pod Save America, “Joe Biden Breaks Down Donald Trump, Climate Change and The Election,” YouTube, October 24, 2020, https://youtu.be/C6u1uKznCYw.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. GOP War Room, “Biden Brags About Having The “Most Extensive...Voter Fraud Organization” In History,” YouTube, October 24, 2020, https://youtu.be/BRZEs9BRGK4.
Screenshot a video uploaded by GOP War Room on YouTube of Biden's awkwardly worded comment.

GOP War Room uploaded this recontextualized clip of Biden’s awkwardly worded comment at 4:55 p.m. on October 24. Credit: TaSC.

4:57 p.m. ET: The official Twitter account for the Republican National Committee Research team uploaded the same video to Twitter, and wrote: “Joe Biden brags about having “the most extensive and inclusive voter fraud organization in the history of American politics.”1 It also included a link to view the GOP War Room video.

4:58 p.m. ET: Steve Guest, the Rapid Response Director for the RNC, and a former reporter for The Daily Caller, tweeted the exact same words and uploaded the same RNC video.2 He added two “eyes” emojis. (Since taking the position at the RNC, Guest has shared other misleading statements about Democratic leaders, such as accusing Elizabeth Warren of endorsing voter fraud, and claiming Biden wants to defund the police.)3

After the initial deployment, the clip was subsequently amplified by Trump allies online, muddying the waters around voting integrity, which was already a wedge issue in the final days of the US election.

STAGE 2: Seeding Campaign Across Social Platforms and Web

Tweets by Steve Guest and RNC Research sharing the clip received significant interactions from their networks in the evening October 24. The RNC tweet had been retweeted 76.25K times, and Guest’s had been retweeted 28.9K times, as of December October 27, 2020.

Soon after Guest tweeted, the video was seeded in conservative and conspiratorial subreddits4 and the_donald subreddit replacement website thedonald.win.5 Beginning at 5:25 p.m. Guest’s tweet was posted in several threads on 4chan’s “Politically Incorrect” board, where it was met with both skepticism and support, drawing additional attention and increased campaign participation.6

5:36 pm ET: Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany tweeted the claim to her 1.2 million followers,7 and her tweet was subsequently shared on 8kun’s qresearch board, a hub of QAnon organizing.8 This was the first example of political adoption for the campaign within the administration itself.

5:50 PM: Trump’s deputy campaign manager Justin Clark quote-tweeted Guest, adding, “People ask why the President fights so hard in court for ballot integrity?  Why we have such an extensive Election Day Operations team? This is why.”9

Prominent influencers in the pro-Trump MAGA community subsequently shared the video to their own networks.

5:53 pm ET: Author Dinesh D'Souza tweeted the video.10

5:56 p.m. ET: Columnist Todd Starnes blogged about it, and tweeted his story out.11

6:33 p.m. ET: Conservative influencer Ian Miles Cheong tweeted.12

6:34 p.m. ET: Actor James Woods tweeted.13

Google Trends indicates spikes in searches for “voter fraud organization” on October 25, the time of the initial campaign, and on November 7 when the Associated Press called the 2020 election for Biden.14 A search on for the phrase “voter fraud organization” on Twitter and Facebook between October 24 and election day November 4, revealed swarms of users replying to unrelated Biden posts with the quote. An estimate of interactions on tweets using the specific phrase “voter fraud organization” on Twitter from October 24 and November 4 suggested likes and retweets of at least 100,000. The cumulative audience size of the influencers who shared it over those days is higher than 100 million. And on BitChute, a video repository commonly used to share media for disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories like QAnon, there are 483 videos related to this claim as of time of writing on December 9, and we noted 60 as of October 29.15 The quote was drafted into use as a meme, with images of Biden’s face appearing next to his quote.16

STAGE 3: Responses by Industry, Activists, Politicians, and Journalists

Next, Trump adopted the campaign, formalizing it as official political messaging.

7:23 p.m. ET: Trump retweeted Clark.1

8:29 p.m. ET: Trump’s son Eric tweeted the video.2

8:36 p.m. ET: Trump retweeted Clark again, this time adding in a quote tweet (see screenshot below), “What a terrible thing for Biden to say! Rigged Election?” He retweeted the clip twice more that night.3

Screenshot of Trump quote-tweeting Justin Clark, his deputy campaign manager, who was sharing a tweet containing the video.

Screenshot of Trump quote-tweeting Justin Clark, his deputy campaign manager, who was sharing a tweet containing the video.

By retweeting the video, Trump kickstarted a major amplification of the misleading video, ramping up social media discussion and media exposure of the video, and cementing the campaign’s virality. That night, right-wing news organizations like Breitbart,1 The Federalist,2 Zero Hedge,3 True Pundit,4 RedState,5 PJ Media,6 and the Gateway Pundit covered the video clip as both a gaffe and a possible accidental admission of guilt.7 Coverage continued the next day.

October 25, 8:13 a.m. ET: Fox News host Sean Hannity tweeted the recontextualized clip out to his 5.3 million followers.8 Conservative influencers continued to follow suit after the wave of ambiguous right wing and conservative press coverage

8:23 a.m. ET: Video bloggers Diamond and Silk retweeted Eric Trump.9

1:30 p.m. ET: Political commentator Dan Bongino tweeted it.10

Later that day, Fox News published an article online headlined, “Biden says in video he has created 'voter fraud organization'.” While the article acknowledges the likely mistake in Biden’s words, it also summarizes the MAGA coalition’s amplification of the claims on social media.11

1:39 p.m. ET: Trump tweeted the video again, again quote tweeting Clark, this time adding the word “Amazing!”12

STAGE 4: Mitigation efforts 

The next day, October 26, fact checkers, on high alert for misinformation that could influence voting responded to the spread of the clip with debunking efforts,1 pointing out that the video was being taken out of context, and claiming Biden misspoke. That day, Snopes and Politifact debunked the campaign.2

Oct 27: Mainstream news gets involved when CNN fact checks the campaign.3

Critical press of the video continued throughout that week.

Oct 29: USA Today publishes a debunk.4

Oct 29: Reuters publishes a fact check, as well.5

By December 9, YouTube had added a fact check for “voter fraud organization” search results, while the clip remained live on the GOP War Room and Trump’s YouTube channels.6 Other tech platforms took no direct action that we could find. However, it is possible that an earlier action taken by Twitter7 -- to root out and ban many QAnon related accounts -- helped to slow the spread of this campaign. Before the network was taken down, studies indicated that inauthentic and coordinated QAnon accounts were a major amplification network for pro-Trump manipulation campaigns and related disinformation.8

STAGE 5: Adjustments by campaign operators

Unfazed by fact checking and not subject to platform mitigation efforts, campaign participants continued to share the misleading clip. They did not need to adjust their tactics to get around mitigation, but their approach morphed organically to include text and memes related to the clip.

It’s difficult to measure the campaign’s true scale on social media, since it takes so many different forms -- various videos showing the same thing, articles, direct text quotes, as well as memes. According to CrowdTangle data, the first YouTube video itself has been posted only 37 times on Facebook. Total interactions on those posts were less than a 1,000. But Todd Starnes’ article about the video had been interacted with 8,523 times as of December 12, which is just one of many different permutations of the same disinformation campaign. Another version of the video, uploaded by a group called “conservative Resurgence" had over 600 interactions on Facebook, according to Crowdtangle. This underscores how hard it is to accurately gauge a campaign’s spread.

Example of one of the memes circulating alleging Biden's involvement in voter fraud.

Example of one of the memes circulating alleging Biden's involvement in voter fraud.

November 4, election Day: The New York Times and the Washington Post addressed the “voter fraud organization” campaign.1

The recontextualized clip joined a deluge of falsehoods raining down from the top of the US government in an attempt to muddy the waters around voter integrity. Individual disinformation campaigns like this one, which sowed doubt in the election process, bolstered Trump’s claim that the election was disputed after Biden won.

In December, more than a month after Biden won the election, the quote from the video, as well as the video itself, still circulated on social media, as evidence that the election was rigged.2

December 4: Conservator influencer Rogan O’Handley tweets the quote, writing “Biden isn’t making “gaffes” when he says he has the “most extensive and inclusive voter fraud organization in the history of American politics” or that he’ll say he has a disease and resign to bring in Kamala as POTUS.”3 As of December 8, the tweet had more than 8,000 interactions.

Cite this case study

Emily Dreyfuss, "Recontextualized Media: Biden “Voter Fraud Organization”," The Media Manipulation Case Book, February 10, 2021, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/recontextualized-media-biden-voter-fraud-organization.