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Viral Sloganeering: Hammer and Scorecard

By
Nicole Leaver and Joan Donovan

Overview

The 2020 US presidential election was riven by unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud, a constellation of lies pushed by former president Donald Trump that has come to be known as “the big lie.” One of the many conspiracy theories that animated the big lie during the election period pertained to a made-up government-run supercomputer called “Hammer” and an alleged software program called “Scorecard.” The theory alleged that the “Hammer and Scorecard” operation was used to manipulate vote counts nationwide in favor of President Joe Biden. While related theories about the malicious supercomputer date back to 2013, the particular Hammer and Scorecard misinformation campaign was pushed in October 2020 by a host of prominent partisan Trump supporters, conspiracy theorists, influencers, and conservative media outlets, who used the wedge issue of contested election results to further their agenda. 

STAGE 1: Manipulation campaign planning and origins

In 2013, a former intelligence contractor and self-proclaimed confidential police informant named Dennis Montgomery began circulating rumors about an alleged secret deep-state supercomputer called “Hammer.” 1Montgomery claimed he had worked for the CIA on a project called Hammer, that enabled him to hack into various databases and collect information on millions of U.S. residents.2 He brought this information to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio,3 who at the time was embroiled in a federal lawsuit that accused him of racial profiling and illegally detaining Latinos and immigrants.4 With the data he had collected, Montgomery alleged to Arpaio that he could prove that the federal judge in Arpaio’s case was colluding with the Justice Department and former-Attorney General Eric Holder against the sheriff.5 In the end, Montgomery failed to materialize any evidence of collusion and Maricopa County settled the three-year legal battle, paying nearly $1 million in attorney fees and costs.6 Additionally, Arpaio affiliate Mike Zullo secretly recorded related conversations over several years, revealed in 2015.7 This audio would be released on Soundcloud by The American Report in March 2017.8

In June 2017, Montgomery and Larry Klayman, the founder of Judicial Watch, filed a joint lawsuit against three federal agencies — the FBI, CIA, and NSA — as well as James Comey, Barack Obama, and other high-level federal government officials.9 Montgomery referred to himself as an “NSA/CIA contractor turned whistleblower.”10 At the time, Montgomery and Klayman alleged that there was evidence of widespread surveillance by the federal government, including against prominent Americans such as Donald J. Trump and Chief Justice John Roberts.11 In a story published by Communities Digital News covering the lawsuit, conspiracy theorists Mary Fanning and Alan Jones reported that: “HAMR [or Hammer] appears to be a massive supercomputer system” that can wiretap phone calls “by deploying or ‘throwing’ malicious plug-ins at targeted computers and smartphones to collect the intercepts and then sends the data back to the master supercomputer framework.”12

A few months prior to the filing of the lawsuit, in March 2017, Newsmax published an op-ed by Klayman claiming that Montgomery had managed to “leave the NSA and CIA with 47 hard drives and over 600 million pages of information, much of which is classified.”13 Following Klayman’s op-ed, retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney joined Dr. Dave Janda on his “Operation Freedom” talk show, claiming that if Hammer is verified, it will be “worse than Watergate.”14 Throughout his presidency, Trump repeatedly alleged that Obama had used the NSA and CIA to spy on his campaign in 2016, a theory based on the Hammer conspiracy.15

In the years to follow, McInerney continued to fan the flames of the Hammer conspiracy. On November 10, 2019, Fanning and Jones published another story — this time on the news blog The American Report — claiming that U.S. Navy Admiral James A. “Ace” Lyons told McInerney on his deathbed: “THE HAMMER is the key to the coup.”16

On October 31, 2020, The American Report published an article by Mary Fanning and Alan Jones, claiming the leaks recorded by Zullo, released by U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow and published by The American Report in 2017, were “The Whistleblower Tapes,” and that these tapes revealed that “Scorecard was deployed by the Obama team against Florida election computers to steal the 2012 presidential election on behalf of President Barack Obama and VP Joe Biden.” And now it is “being activated to steal the vote on behalf of Joe Biden once again.” This marks the first instance of Scorecard being introduced into the complex voter fraud conspiracy narrative, soon deployed in a seeding campaign. In this article, “hammer” and “scorecard” were exclusively capitalized, appearing this way in the headline and repeated many times over in the text, emphasizing and effectively keyword squatting this unique combination of words.

STAGE 2: Seeding campaign across social platforms and web

In the lead up to the 2020 election, the Hammer conspiracy theory was repurposed and leveled against the Democratic Party, and it changed slightly to include a specific “exploit,” the so-called Scorecard software, which campaign participants alleged was a way that Hammer could be used to switch votes on voting machines. 

On October 29, Twitter user @SongBird4Trump, posted, “BEWARE OBAMA’S HAMMER & USE OF “SCORECARD” to electronically & seamlessly transfer votes to Democrats,” and tagged General Michael Flynn, his lawyer Sidney Powell, as well as three of President Trump’s children and other government and media accounts, such as OANN.

Screenshot of @SongBird4Trump’s post about the alleged use of Hammer and Scorecard by the Democratic party. Credit: TaSC.

Screenshot of @SongBird4Trump’s post about the alleged use of Hammer and Scorecard by the Democratic party. Credit: TaSC.

The following day, on October 31, Mary Fanning and Alan Jones, released another story, this time, this time using the keyword “scorecard,” as well as “hammer.” By combining “hammer and scorecard” into one phrase, campaign participants created a viral slogan and hashtag that was novel enough so as to dominate on search engines and on social media platforms. “Biden Using SCORECARD and THE HAMMER To Steal Another Presidential Election - Just Like Obama and Biden Did in 2012,” they wrote.1 The article was accompanied by a photo collage of President-Elect Joe Biden, a server, and Joseph Stalin. 

The authors, who would go on to write dozens of conspiratorial articles in The American Report and a book titled: “The Hammer is the Key to the Coup,”2 alleged that Hammer and Scorecard were “being activated to steal the vote on behalf of Joe Biden once again,” with particular reference to the elections in Florida, Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, and Arizona. 

Screenshot of The American Report’s image collage of President Joe Biden, a server, and former Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. Credit: TaSC.

Screenshot of The American Report’s image collage of President Joe Biden, a server, and former Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. Credit: TaSC.

On November 1, 2020, McInerney appeared on Janda’s show once again to discuss “The Deep State Vote Fraud Operation.”1 On the show, he warned listeners of “Operation Scorecard,” describing it as the elusive “covert technology” determining the fate of the election. On November 2, Hammer and Scorecard posts, including links to The American Report articles, were initially seeded on 4chan’s “Politically Incorrect” message board.2

On the eve of the election, the Hammer and Scorecard conspiracy was amplified through multiple distribution platforms. Conservative news outlet NOQ Report amplified the interview, emphasizing how “after the closing of the polls in Pennsylvania and other swing states, the voting machines will be intercepted and then altered using complex algorithms to alter the votes in a way that evades detection, handing a victory to the pre-designated ‘winner’ (Joe Biden).”3 That same day, the Hammer and Scorecard conspiracy theory was launched further into the limelight when it was traded up the chain with two interviews featuring McInerney. 


The first interview appeared on the podcast Two Mikes with Michael Scheier and Col. Mike.4 In the episode, McInerney contended that a government computer system called “Hammer” and a software program known as “Scorecard” are capable of altering the central tabulating software in particular voting machines, resulting in widespread election fraud. McInerney elaborated that the change in voting outcomes was purposefully minimal, “under 3%, to keep it from triggering any alarms.”5 

The second interview was hosted by Steve Bannon on his popular YouTube show and podcast “The War Room.”6 The episode also featured Sidney Powell — an appellate lawyer who represented Flynn in his legal proceedings and is a regular ring-wing political commentator7 — who would soon become a central node in the barrage of false claims of voter fraud.8 During the episode, Bannon asked McInerney about the whereabouts of Dennis Montgomery and the hard-drives he had collected, in which McInerney swiftly replied: “He is a genius. And he loves America. Dennis invented Scorecard, he is the programmer that made all this happen, and he is on our side.”9

On election night, with the winner not yet called, Bannon welcomed McInerney back onto the show. McInerney reaffirmed his previous claims about the deployment of Hammer & Scorecard and added that: “These are all treasonous activities…and we cannot let them do it tonight. When the count starts coming in is when they put this software, Scorecard, on it. And that’s the danger that we’re facing.”10 In the following days, the two interviews were circulated on Twitter and Facebook, including by conservative and right wing influencers such as Jimmy Lakey,11 John Schneider,12 Dr.Steven Hotze,13 and Dr. David Janda,14 as well on various public Facebook pages and groups, including ABC15 Arizona15 and Liberty Loving American Patriot Christians.16 Allegations of widespread voter fraud were also amplified by the Qanon community on YouTube, with some videos amassing upwards of 6,900 views.17 

After November 3 and before the race had been formally called, these claims grew exponentially, muddying the waters about the election results and increasing media exposure. On November 6, Powell appeared on FOX Business with Lou Dobbs to discuss how Hammer and Scorecard had interfered in the 2020 election.18 During the interview, Powell repeated McInerney’s previous claims about the “likelihood that 3% of the vote total was changed” by using Hammer and Scorecard.19 The video was shared by Twitter user The Election Wizard, garnering over 5.5K retweets.20

Powell’s claims about Hammer and Scorecard amplified and worked in concert with a larger narrative around general voter fraud. Powell has claimed Hammer and Scorecard were “tools” run on voting machines made by Dominion Voting Systems Corporation — a company that sells electronic hardware and software, including voting machines and tabulators used in the U.S. — to switch votes.21 She falsely alleged that Dominion was “created in Venezuela to rig elections for former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez” and that “secret algorithms in Dominion machines were used to manipulate votes in favor of Biden in 2020.”22 

The Venezuela detail was important because it suggested communism, which campaign participants also brought up when comparing “Hammer and Scorecard” with “Hammer and Sickle” on social media.23

Screenshot of @johncardillo tweet comparing Hammer and Scorecard to Hammer and Sickle (a communist symbol). Credit: TaSC.

Screenshot of @johncardillo tweet comparing Hammer and Scorecard to Hammer and Sickle (a communist symbol). Credit: TaSC.

On November 7, conservative media outlet The American Thinker published a piece titled: “Two so-called conspiracy theories about the election may be true!”1 The article suggested that there were defective voting machines that granted the Democratic Party the ability to hack the election using Hammer and Scorecard. The writer, Andrea Widburg, concluded that: “Sidney Powell is one of the smartest people in America. If she believes in Hammer and Scorecard, I’m going to take the claim darn seriously.”2 

That same day, former Trump advisor George Papadopoulous3 declared on Twitter: “‘Hammer’ and ‘scorecard’ get familiar with these terms as they will be impacting this election big time.”4 This claim, which remains on Twitter as of February 4, 2021, would go on to be retweeted over 11K times during the election period.

Screenshot of @GeorgePapa19’s tweet announcing that Hammer and Scorecard may impact the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Credit: TaSC.

Screenshot of @GeorgePapa19’s tweet announcing that Hammer and Scorecard may impact the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Credit: TaSC.

STAGE 3: Responses by industry, activists, politicians, and journalists

As it became clearer and clearer that Trump had lost the election, but before the race was officially called, the conspiracy theory spread widely to a new audience. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) debunked the voter machine fraud and failure on its rumor control website, though did not name Hammer and Scorecard theories directly.1 In the wake of Papadopolous’ claims, CISA’s former election cybersecurity chief Chris Krebs emphasized that: “To be crystal clear, I’m specifically referring to the Hammer and Scorecard nonsense. It’s just that - nonsense. This is not a real thing, don’t fall for it and think 2x before you share. #Protect2020.”2

In spite of CISA’s efforts to squash Hammer and Scorecard conspiracy theories, right-wing journalists, politicians, and influencers continued to boost these election fraud allegations. Newsmax White House correspondent Emerald Robinson re-iterated Powell’s claims about Hammer and Scorecard on Twitter.3 The right-wing newspaper The Conservative Daily Post, did too, posting a recontextualized video from a 2019 Kentucky gubernatorial race claiming that viewers could watch Hammer and Scorecard work in real-time.4 The video, which was widely shared on Twitter by an account named BlueSky Report,5 has since garnered nearly 700,000 views on YouTube.6

On November 7, when the major news outlets had all called the election for Joe Biden but Trump had refused to concede, the NOQ Report published a story with the headline: “The Hammer and Scorecard smoking gun: 150,000 Michigan presidential ‘voters’ didn’t vote in for Senate” once again claiming that an alleged supercomputer and algorithm had fraudulently changed the outcome of the election.7 On November 8, The New York Post published an article claiming that: “There’s more evidence of voter fraud in the 2020 election than there ever was of Russia collusion.”8 Quoting Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, as well as Powell, the article amplifies Powell’s interview on FOX News that claimed Hammer and Scorecard flipped votes. 

Shortly after, conservative media outlet Newsmax interviewed McInerney on Hammer and Scorecard. During the interview, host Chris Saledo asked, “Is there verifiable information that the Trump administration can use to say that [Hammer and Scorecard] was deployed in this election against American voters?” Without hesitation, McInerney replied: “Yes.”9 

The following day, another conservative outlet, OANN, ran a segment featuring audio clips of McInerney’s interview on Janda’s radio show. The segment repeated a number of previous false claims, including that: “Hammer was originally created to keep tabs on international terrorists. Under former FBI James Comey and former CIA director John Brennan, it was re-designed to target American citizens, specifically the Left’s political opponents like Donald Trump...Scorecard was the other program and was designed as a vote manipulation application which alters votes as they’re being entered into the system.”10 

In the following days, Giuliani and Powell doubled-down on the claim that there was pervasive voter fraud in the 2020 election. On November 14, far-right international newspaper The Epoch Times published an article titled: “The Great Election Deception,” in an attempt to raise doubt about the credibility of the election once again. The article claimed that “software such as Dominion and other vote tabulating tools such as Hammer and Scorecard have been used throughout the country to change the vote...according to some experts, millions of votes being changed from Trump to Biden is a real possibility.”11 It is unclear who the alleged “experts” are in the Epoch Times article.

On November 16, an open letter was circulated that was signed by election security experts expressing concern about the White House pressuring CISA Director Chris Krebs to alter CISA’s reports on election security.12 The following day, on November 17, Krebs was fired. The following day, Brandon Wales, the executive director of CISA and a career civil servant, was installed as acting head of CISA effective immediately.13

Powell began filing lawsuit after lawsuit challenging the election results. One of those, filed on November 25, contained an affidavit from Navid Keshavarz-Nia, a cybersecurity expert who had supposedly done counterintelligence work for the CIA, NSA, and FBI.14 According to Keshavarz-Nia’s witness statement, the U.S. Intelligence Community had developed “Hammer and Scorecard tools, which were released by Wikileaks and independently confirmed by Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney (USAF, retired), Kirk Wiebe (former NSA official), and Dennis Montgomery (former CIA analyst).15 The affidavit stated that “These tools are used by nefarious operators to influence voting systems by covertly accessing Dominion Voting Systems (DVS) and altering the results in real-time and without leaving an electronic fingerprint.”16 

As many journalists noted, the affidavit was riddled with unfounded assertions and spelling errors. Despite the sloppy copy, right-wing media such as The Geller Report,17 The Panda Tribune,18 and The New American,19 continued to use Keshavarz-Nia’s affidavit to claim that Hammer and Scorecard had been used in the 2020 election. 

Screenshot of @PandaTribune’s tweet that is accompanied by a screenshot of Keshavarz-Nia’s affidavit. Credit: TaSC.

Screenshot of @PandaTribune’s tweet that is accompanied by a screenshot of Keshavarz-Nia’s affidavit. Credit: TaSC.

The litany of lawsuits enabled the Trump administration and its allies to cast doubt on the election process and capitalize on the unsettled state of things. Between November 3 and January 6, the day congress convened to certify the electoral college votes, there were approximately 62 lawsuits filed in state and federal courts seeking to overturn the election results.1 The majority, however, were dismissed or dropped due to lack of evidence.2 While one lawsuit was successful in which a Pennsylvania judge ordered the state not to count some mail-in ballots that were missing proof of identification and cured during an extended deadline, this ruling affected very few ballots and did not change Biden's win in the state.3 Even so, election results continued to be contested by many conspiracy theorists, high-ranking political officials, Trump supporters, and conservative news outlets.4 

STAGE 4: Mitigation

Throughout November, a series of fact checks and debunks were issued by Buzzfeed,1 Snopes,2 Reuters,3 PolitiFact,4 FactCheck.org,5 Lead Stories,6 Media Matters,7 and The Washington Post,8 which wrote that there was a “complete lack of evidence for the existence of either Hammer or Scorecard.” The Daily Beast also published an in-depth profile on Dennis Montgomery, detailing his record of running a slew of grifts, from purporting to track al Qaeda for the Bush administration by using software that could “decrypt terrorist communication contained in Al Jazeera broadcasts”9 to tendering bad checks worth $1.8 million at casinos.10 Despite Montgomery’s tarnished record, the wave of critical press, and the overall lack of evidence to substantiate the existence of Hammer and Scorecard, the conspiracy theory continued to circulate. 

From within the government, CISA published a joint statement on November 12 with a number of other election integrity committees declaring that “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.”11 

During the election period, social media companies applied fact checking labels to some posts that contained the words hammer and scorecard, banned particular online groups and users, removed content, and attempted to slow the spread of unverified content by creating new features. One of Twitter’s new features was aimed at “encouraging more consideration” by recommending users to add commentary prior to re-tweeting content.12 Some of the claims about Hammer and Scorecard were labelled on Twitter as “disputed,” however, users were still able to engage with some content.13 For other more misleading claims, Twitter introduced new types of friction in information sharing by removing certain functions — such as seeing the metrics of a particular post.14 

Facebook deindexed the Hammer and Scorecard hashtag, though it is unclear when this action was taken as no statement from the platform was made on the matter. YouTube added a knowledge panel regarding the legal state of the US elections to search results for “Hammer and Scorecard,” though the date implemented is similarly unclear.

Screenshot of Facebook’s community standards page that temporally hid all posts containing #hammerandscorecard. Credit: TaSC.

Screenshot of Facebook’s community standards page that temporally hid all posts containing #hammerandscorecard. Credit: TaSC.

In January, many of the leading proponents of the Hammer and Scorecard conspiracy theory and election fraud were deplatformed from Twitter, including Powell1 and attorney L. Lin Wood.2

In addition to changes in the terms and services offered by social media platforms, voting machine companies — Smartmatic and Dominion Voting Systems — issued defamation letters against Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, Rush Limbaugh, L. Lin Wood, Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Newsmax, OANN, Epoch Times, The American Thinker, and others,3 asserting that their businesses had been defamed by the widespread claims that they had run Hammer and Scorecard on their machines to change the election results. 

Apparently in response to these legal threats, on December 21, Fox News hosts Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo, as well as Newsmax, ran segments that walked back previous claims and ran fact checks on alleged voter fraud.4 The American Thinker also published a statement retracting claims that they had made regarding voter fraud, with particular reference to Andrea Widburg, who had written the Hammer and Scorecard article in which she stated she would take the “claim darn seriously.”5 In addition to the letters issued by Dominion’s defamation lawyers, the company also debunked falsehoods on its website, asserting that “it is technologically impossible to ‘see’ votes being counted in real-time and/or to ‘flip’ them,” and specifically referencing CISA’s earlier debunking of Hammer and Scorecard.6

STAGE 5: Adjustments by manipulators to new environments

As the environment shifted and Biden’s victory was cemented by legal proceedings, so too did the narratives about voter fraud. Early campaign drivers Mary Fanning and Alan Jones continued to push the Hammer and Scorecard conspiracy theory after the election.1 Likewise, retired Air Force General, Thomas McInerney, has amplified unfounded claims about election meddling by Hammer and Scorecard.2 

In spite of the letters issued by Smartmatic and Dominion, Powell remained defiant. The letter issued by attorney L. Lin Wood, to Smartmatic on December 20 stated: “Ms. Powell retracts nothing.”3 

In early January, Dominion filed a $1.3 billion lawsuit against Powell, asserting that “as a result of the viral disinformation campaign, Dominion has been unfairly subjected to the hatred, contempt, and distrust of tens of millions of American voters…”4 In response, Wood argued that the lawsuit was an attempt “to censor speech or try to intimidate people from telling the truth.”5 Having been blocked from Twitter, Wood joined Parler to request that the Trump administration “immediately declassify Hammer and Scorecard.”6 Calls to declassify Hammer and Scorecard were also been reiterated by The American Report,7 members of the Qanon community,8 and conspiratorial sites including the Worldview Weekend Broadcast Network.9 Archives and original videos of Hammer and Scorecard videos remain live on Bitchute and other smaller alt-tech platforms.

Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow and a personal friend of Trump’s, has also posted about the declassification of Hammer and Scorecard, and amplified false claims made by The American Report on Twitter.10 One January 15, one of his tweets included a screenshot of The American Report’s “evidence” that voter fraud had taken place.11 In response, Twitter flagged Lindell’s tweet as “disputed” and blocked users from seeing the metrics and engaging with the tweet.

That same day, Lindell met with Trump at the White House, where he claimed to have presented the former president with evidence gathered by The American Report writers Fanning and Jones. The authors claimed that they had gained exclusive access to the IP addresses that interfered with the 2020 election.12 At the bottom of the article, The American Report links to a website called “Blxware,” a software company that was founded in 2006 with known financial ties to Dennis Montgomery.13 Blxware alleged to have obtained limited datasets that could, if provided the necessary donations, “expose the truth about Hammer and Scorecard.”14

In the preceding days, Lindell appeared on the conspiratorial news site Worldview Weekend Broadcast Network alongside McInerney and American Report writers Fanning and Jones.15 The hour-long show reaffirmed previous claims amplified by the roster of Hammer and Scorecard influencers and conspiracists, and once again, reassured listeners that the truth would soon be exposed.

On February 2, after President Joe Biden had been sworn in, it was reported that Wood was under investigation for fraudulently voting in Georgia in the 2020 election.16 Both he and Powell face possible disbarment in Michigan over their involvement pushing Hammer and Scorecard and related election fraud conspiracy theories.17 Lawsuits continue to be filed related to similar voter fraud allegations.18

On February 5, Lindell, “begging to be sued” according to a Dominion representative,19 released a documentary20 on Vimeo, Facebook, and YouTube entitled “Absolute Proof,” which claimed to prove the Hammer and Scorecard conspiracy.21 It was removed from YouTube within hours for violating the terms of service. This late stage tactical adaptation was largely unsuccessful, and it was removed from YouTube within hours for violating the terms of service. OANN ran the video on its network, but with a long disclaimer stating that the video was opinion that had not been verified.22

The main purpose of the Hammer and Scorecard media manipulation campaign was to invalidate Joe Biden’s election victory, which it ultimately failed to do. However fallout from the campaign continues to be felt.

Cite this case study

Nicole Leaver and Joan Donovan, "Viral Sloganeering: Hammer and Scorecard," The Media Manipulation Case Book, February 12, 2021, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/viral-sloganeering-hammer-and-scorecard.