This story is a collaboration with Mother Jones.
On the evening of Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, the 35-year-old attorney who would jump-start the #StopTheSteal hashtag says he was meeting with Trump campaign officials in Philadelphia.
The city was a Democratic stronghold in a state Donald Trump won to secure the presidency in 2016 and needed to win again to remain in the White House. It was also a city long dogged by Republican accusations of election fraud. Will Chamberlain had driven up from Washington, D.C., to chase these allegations as a last-minute volunteer with the group Lawyers for Trump.
But Chamberlain wasn’t merely a lawyer. Although he had briefly worked at a commercial litigation firm in Los Angeles after passing the bar, he left that job in the spring of 2016, moved to D.C. and spent the Trump years running MAGA Meetups, relaunching a right-wing magazine and generally reinventing himself as a pro-Trump social media figure. When the campaign realized he had roughly 150,000 followers on Twitter, his role changed. “They figured out I’d be more useful doing stuff that wasn’t just legal,” Chamberlain told me.
He would still be on the lookout for “irregularities” – broken machines, verbal abuse of Republican officials, violations of law – but he wouldn’t be collecting affidavits or filing legal briefs. “If anything bad happened,” Chamberlain recalled, “we would put it out on social media.”
The next morning, at 8:19 a.m. on Election Day, he tweeted a video of a confrontation outside a polling place that would succeed beyond his wildest dreams. He wasn’t the first to make use of the #StopTheSteal hashtag, but according to an analysis conducted for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting by the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, his tweet was the first to go viral. When it did, it took a little-known slogan of far-right activists and, in a matter of hours, transformed it into a ubiquitous rallying cry of what would become a nationwide movement to overturn the 2020 election.
Looking back, Chamberlain calls the movement that led to the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 “disappointing,” “frustrating,” and “scary,” but he is also quick to disown any personal responsibility.
“We weren’t thinking we were setting the stage for this massive campaign. All we were thinking was, like, this is a catchy hashtag,” he recalls. “I guess I underestimated how crazy certain people could get.”
It’s now clear that the ramifications of what’s become known as the Big Lie didn’t end with the events of Jan. 6. Far from it. A year later, a persistent, overwhelming majority of Republicans continue to believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. That false belief has been used to justify a wave of new voting restrictions, with the Brennan Center for Justice documenting 33 laws in 19 states, many of which experts say disproportionately disenfranchise people of color, college students, elderly voters and disabled voters. At least 10 Republicans who questioned the election results are seeking to oversee future elections in battleground states as candidates for secretary of state. A recent CNN poll found that a majority of Americans believe it is at least somewhat likely that an elected official will overturn an upcoming election to favor their political party. Only 6% say our democracy is not in danger.
This state of affairs wasn’t created by a single tweet. The edifice of #StopTheSteal was constructed on a foundation of false claims of widespread election fraud that predates Trump’s candidacy. But by tracing the convoluted journey of the tweet that started #StopTheSteal, you can see exactly how these long-standing beliefs, the singular rhetoric of Trump, and the evolving online and offline organizing tactics of the far right came together to create an unprecedented misinformation cascade. The dynamics that made this possible haven’t gone away. In fact, in some ways, the prospects for our upcoming elections are even worse.
On Election Day in Philadelphia, Will Chamberlain was paired with another volunteer, a local GOP activist and former state Senate candidate named Gary Feldman. As a Philadelphia resident, Feldman was able to register as an official Republican poll watcher, allowing him to legally enter voting locations to observe the process firsthand – he’d later say he was “the eyes and the ears of the president.” The plan was for the two of them to spend the day driving around Philadelphia, looking for what Chamberlain calls “shenanigans.” Should they see anything that fit that description, Feldman would investigate while Chamberlain would wait outside, taking pictures and videos and broadcasting his findings on Twitter.
Philadelphia has a long history of this kind of semi-official partisan videography. In 2008, when Barack Obama was running against John McCain, a recent college graduate working for the local GOP shot a video of a member of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense standing outside a polling place holding a nightstick. No voter claimed to be intimidated and no criminal charges were filed, but the video was endlessly replayed on Fox News after right-wing operative Mike Roman posted it to his Election Journal website. The idea of reviving this approach at the Philadelphia polls in 2020 came directly from Trump himself.
It happened at the end of the first presidential debate in September, when moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News tried to pin Trump down on a question he’d been publicly evading: “Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest?” Wallace asked. “And will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified?”
Instead of encouraging calm and making the pledge, Trump famously replied: “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it. As you know, today there was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia.”
While Trump had been summoning the specter of fraud in Philadelphia since his first campaign, the “big problem” he was referring to happened that morning. It was opening day for a number of satellite election offices the city of Philadelphia had created to help its residents register and turn in ballots as part of a newly expanded mail-in voting program. Someone had walked into one of these offices, camera rolling, seeking to “observe,” and been politely turned away.
Andrew Wellbrock, now deputy attorney general in New Jersey and recently assistant district attorney in Philadelphia and leader of the city’s Election Task Force, says this was clearly the right move. Under Pennsylvania law, poll watching is something that only credentialed observers do, and only on Election Day at polling locations set up to ensure voter privacy. The video showed someone with no relevant credentials showing up at an office neither logistically nor legally set up to accommodate them. “It would be like someone saying they have a poll watcher certificate to come watch me do my work in my office,” Wellbrock says. “It’s just not how the law works.”
The video was tweeted out by Roman, who was Trump’s Election Day operations director. He offered a very different analysis. “TRUMP observers are being blocked entry to all of the satellite voting locations in Philly!! What are they hiding?” he tweeted. Trump and his two adult sons’ retweets went further. “This is Biden’s only hope to cheat you out of an election by preventing a fair and honest election,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr.
The Trump campaign followed up the tweets and debate complaints with a lawsuit, but it was thrown out eight days later. But the courtroom loss did nothing to extinguish the excluded-poll-watcher narrative, as the reaction to Chamberlain’s tweet would soon make spectacularly clear.
Does it shock anyone that poll watchers are being blocked and kicked out of voting locations in Philly? We are in court right now! This corruption must end! https://t.co/94d90P7KTW— Eric Trump (@EricTrump) September 29, 2020
Chamberlain told me that the first tip he and Feldman got on Election Day was that a polling site at a funeral home in South Philadelphia wasn’t admitting Republican poll watchers. Chamberlain and Feldman raced to the scene.
When they arrived, Feldman walked inside, only to be promptly ejected while Chamberlain recorded video on his phone. “I have a citywide watcher’s certificate,” Feldman says in the video, holding up the slip of yellow paper. “Not for this location,” one of the poll workers responds.
As it turned out, Feldman was right, and the poll workers were wrong. “It was all a mistake,” the election judge who denied Feldman’s entry told me when I reached him by phone. (Reached by email, Feldman declined to answer my questions.)
It was the kind of misunderstanding that happens at every election without affecting the outcome and that the Philadelphia district attorney’s Election Task Force typically resolves over the phone. Feldman and Chamberlain needed only to call the Election Task Force’s hotline, and one of the more than 90 lawyers on call could have directed the poll workers to let Feldman in. But, as Chamberlain told me and the Election Task Force confirmed, they didn’t call.
“That’s not what they wanted,” Wellbrock says. “They wanted a show. They wanted that headline.”
Or more to the point: They wanted that tweet.
The tweet went out at 8:19 a.m.
Two minutes later, its viral journey began, with a retweet from Jack Posobiec.
Posobiec was a correspondent and host at the pro-Trump cable network One America News, but his real power came from Twitter, where he regularly posted hundreds of times a day.
“I would argue that Jack is the worst actor in the history of that website,” says Michael Edison Hayden, an investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who wrote a series of articles on how Posobiec built an audience by spreading conspiracy theories, inspiring harassment campaigns and working with White supremacists. Posobiec is “very good at setting the right-wing media agenda,” says Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. “He tends to have a very loyal and dedicated fan base that knows what to do when he tweets something.”
By the 2020 election, Posobiec had amassed a Twitter following of 1.2 million that included right-wing influencers such as Trump himself – a fact that Posobiec leveraged to maximum effect. “Remember, folks, the President watches this space closely,” Posobiec tweeted months before the election. “That’s right Jack,” Trump tweeted in response. “Keep up the good work!”
When Posobiec tweeted Chamberlain’s video, his pro-Trump Twitter network sprang into action, with immediate retweets from a Trump campaign staffer and from Paul Joseph Watson, aka @PrisonPlanet, the British protege of Trump ally and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Kate Starbird, faculty director of the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public, says in an email that this was a typical beginning for viral election misinformation. “We’ve talked about that kind of effect as a ‘spotlight’ tweet (where a user with a larger following casts a spotlight on a tweet/user with a smaller following and helps it take off).”
If Posobiec’s followers missed his initial tweet, no matter; he would spotlight the poll-watching video three more times in the space of three minutes. After the last of these, at 8:32 a.m., Donald Trump Jr. took notice and tweeted it, twice, to his 6 million followers.
Thanks to these prominent retweets, by 20 minutes after its release, Chamberlain’s video had been viewed nearly 200,000 times; in an hour, it was approaching half a million. In their analysis for the Election Integrity Partnership, researchers at the Center for an Informed Public documented more than 600,000 tweets related to Chamberlain’s video. That doesn’t include posts on other platforms where it was quickly reproduced, such as Instagram, Facebook and TikTok.
The engine powering this viral spread was what the Center for an Informed Public calls “repeat spreaders”: a small number of influencers with large follower counts who disseminated not one but many false or misleading narratives about the 2020 election. Their analysis ranked Posobiec, Trump Jr. and Roman among the 21 most prominent, alongside right-wing media figures like @BreitbartNews and Sean Hannity, as well as Twitter-specific influencers like “Cat Turd” and the QAnon account @prayingmedic.
Throughout the 2020 election season, these accounts acted as misinformation tastemakers, taking tweets from more obscure accounts like Chamberlain’s and then broadcasting them to their larger followings. While Posobiec happened to be the first to find Chamberlain’s tweet, it was their collective action that made them potent. One researcher I spoke with compared the swarm of influencers retweeting a new nugget of conspiratorial content to a flock of crows descending on a single french fry.
“You just need to hit one person in this network of right-wing influencers, and then it will spread to all the others,” says Center for an Informed Public graduate researcher Andrew Beers.
As Chamberlain’s video spread, the claims attached to it grew increasingly detached from the mundane reality it depicted. The first of Trump Jr.’s tweets amplified a quote tweet that prefaced it by saying, “Look, we don’t need any pesky poll-watchers interfering with the result that has already been preordained by Democrat officials.” The second: “They’re straight up stealing Philadelphia.” The front page of Breitbart News soon read: “ ‘The Steal Is On’ in Pennsylvania: Poll watchers denied access.”
It’s a pattern Starbird calls “participatory disinformation,” and it would occur again and again all across the country on Election Day and in the days and weeks and months thereafter. Trump voters who’d been primed for months with MAGA-world narratives of hacked voting machines, dead voters and rampant mail fraud, while being urged by the president to “watch very carefully,” ventured out to collect “evidence” that appeared to support their suspicions. Influencers, in turn, found these fragments and repackaged them into more compelling posts, which they then spread to their much larger audiences. If you were glued to far-right media, you saw not just scattered anecdotes, but a ubiquitous, consistent narrative repeated across social media, TV and radio. “(It) starts to take on the character of something that must be true because a lot of people are saying it,” Donovan says. “And that’s really what media manipulators and disinformers bank on. That’s what their strategic advantage is.”
The ultimate manifestation of this shows up at the end of Chamberlain’s tweet in the form of a hashtag.
“Stop the Steal” was not invented by Chamberlain. Its first incarnation was in 2016 when longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone picked up on Trump’s talk of a “rigged election” and founded an organization called Stop the Steal to prevent Ted Cruz from “stealing” the Republican primary. In the general election, Stop the Steal turned its attention to Hillary Clinton, signing up activists to monitor “key precincts” to thwart an alleged Democratic plot to hack voting machines and “flood the polls with illegals.” Posobiec was Stone’s point person in Philadelphia, where, in a haphazard premonition of 2020, he drove around the city with a local GOP staffer while telling his livestream followers that he was documenting “voter fraud.” (A Reveal producer was riding shotgun, so you can hear this play out firsthand.) The stunt had limited reach, and when Trump won the election, it was quickly forgotten.
The name and strategy were revived in 2018 by associates of Stone, including Posobiec and future Stop the Steal protest ringleader Ali Alexander, to claim election fraud in Broward County, Florida. In September 2020, Alexander said on a livestream, “I’m thinking of bringing ‘Stop the Steal’ out of retirement.” (He also insisted, “Every precinct in the country needs a Republican poll watcher. Every precinct in the country needs a Republican poll watcher.”) That same day, Posobiec sent a tweet (later deleted) that said simply, “#StopTheSteal 2020 is coming …” In a brief phone conversation, Posobiec said of this and other tweets about #StopTheSteal and false election fraud allegations, “I share things for my followers that they might find interesting,” before declining to comment further.
For his part, Chamberlain admits that he had discussed using the hashtag in advance of the 2020 election with other right-wing Twitter users, including Posobiec. But he claims that when he employed #StopTheSteal, he didn’t mean to imply that the election was actually being stolen. “In that context,” he explains, “the ‘steal’ is shenanigans. Basically Election Day shenanigans.”
This is, needless to say, not how it was understood online.
The handful of #StopTheSteal tweets that preceded Chamberlain’s hadn’t gotten any traction, but as soon as his caught fire, people borrowed its hashtag and attached it to a rapidly multiplying mass of conspiracy theories, from dead people voting to ballots invalidated by Sharpies.
“(Chamberlain’s) one original tweet pretty much sets the “#StopTheSteal” hashtag into motion,” Starbird says. “Where it begins with that one incident and then starts to snowball and pick up/incorporate other incidents/narratives as it goes.”
In a brief, punchy, alliterative phrase, it grouped these disparate stories together, implied they were proof of a plot to “steal” the election and called Twitter users to action to “stop the steal.”
At its Election Day peak, tweets tagged #StopTheSteal were posted more than 10,000 times an hour. Riding the wave of the hashtag’s viral success, the next day, Alexander would launch a #StopTheSteal website – StopTheSteal.us – and Women for America First would launch a Stop the Steal Facebook group to organize on-the-ground protests. The last of these protests would take place at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. “To use a favorite term that all of you people really came up with: We will stop the steal,” Trump told the crowd. And the crowd roared.
While the Stop the Steal movement mutated and metastasized, Chamberlain’s tweet and the narrative attached to it continued to shape right-wing election-related discourse and policy.
As the vote totals in key swing states began to favor Joe Biden, the real-world protests that sprung up in Phoenix, Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta and elsewhere focused their “Stop the Steal” chants on those doing the counting. The story of wrongfully excluded Republican election observers lived on – only now, it was the tabulation of ballots they claimed to be unable to witness.
Two days after the election, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) went on Fox News and falsely claimed, “By throwing the observers out, by clouding the vote-counting in a shroud of darkness, they are setting the stage to potentially steal an election.”
“THE OBSERVERS WERE NOT ALLOWED INTO THE COUNTING ROOMS,” Trump tweeted that Saturday, after the Associated Press declared him the loser in Pennsylvania and the nation as a whole. “BAD THINGS HAPPENED WHICH OUR OBSERVERS WERE NOT ALLOWED TO SEE.”
Even after the votes had been fully counted and certified in Pennsylvania (with Republican poll watchers observing), Republican legislators held a hearing at a Wyndham hotel in Gettysburg that used the stories of poll watchers to hint at more elaborate conspiracies. “The issues are galore,” Doug Mastriano, a Republican state senator representing south-central Pennsylvania, said in a lengthy opening statement that compared the election to the Civil War. “You’re going to hear about poll watchers being denied access, where election software vendors refuse to testify before the General Assembly. What do they got to hide?” Among the witnesses called were Republican observers of both Election Day voting and the subsequent counting of votes. One of those witnesses was Gary Feldman.
Feldman’s appearance was brief, and news coverage of the event focused instead on the rambling false claims made by Rudy Giuliani and Trump himself, who participated by phone. But on the conspiratorial fringe, the hearing was treated as a pivotal event, with Trump’s recently indicted ex-adviser Steve Bannon referencing it repeatedly on his podcast, and Mastriano capitalizing on it to elevate his own profile.
Mastriano would gain infamy as an early champion of so-called private “audits” of election results, like the Cyber Ninjas in Arizona, hunting for fake ballots with telltale “bamboo fibers” (and still finding that Biden won the election). On Jan. 6, Mastriano joined the pro-Trump mob on the Capitol grounds and even chartered buses for his constituents.
By April 2021, Mastriano went on to co-sponsor all four Pennsylvania Senate bills on the Brennan Center’s list of restrictive voting bills, as well as the Poll Watcher Empowerment Act, which, among other provisions, seeks to penalize “any election officials who block, impede, or otherwise intimidate a poll watcher while performing his or her official duties on Election Day.” If passed, it would mean that an election judge could be jailed for months for making the same mistake that briefly kept Feldman out of a polling place.
The Pennsylvania bill is one of more than 40 pieces of proposed legislation in 20 states seeking to give poll watchers more power. The most infamous was the omnibus voting bill in Texas, which was delayed but not defeated when Democratic lawmakers took the dramatic step of fleeing the state.
The Texas bill was signed into law in September, and its poll-watching provisions go further than anything proposed in Pennsylvania. It explicitly grants watchers “free movement” at voting sites, specifying they should be able to get close enough to “see and hear” election workers’ actions. It not only makes it a crime for election workers to obstruct watchers, but it also prohibits them from removing watchers who violate the law, unless they personally witness the violation. Multiple federal lawsuits have challenged these provisions as unconstitutional and discriminatory, saying they will increase voter intimidation and curtail election officials’ ability to keep voters safe and their ballots secret. “That is a recipe for making elections more chaotic and less secure,” says Tommy Buser-Clancy of the ACLU of Texas.
The centering of partisan watchers also underlies even seemingly unrelated voting restrictions. The Texas law rolls back the drive-thru and 24-hour voting that boosted turnout in heavily Democratic Harris County in 2020. Those forms of voting were explicitly attacked as insecure because they couldn’t easily be observed by partisan poll watchers.
“Taking that argument to its logical conclusion, you can only have in-person Election Day voting,” says Alex Gulotta, All Voting Is Local Arizona state director. “It’s not about observing voting; it’s about stopping voting.”
There’s a certain historical irony to Republican legislators casting partisan poll watchers as election integrity’s last line of defense.
Two hundred years ago, poll watchers were called “party agents” and were anything but neutral referees. In a time before lists of registered voters, opposing party agents actively debated and horse traded their fellow citizens’ voting rights, according to Cornell University professor Richard Bensel, author of “The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” “Poll watching in the sense that the Republicans mean it today didn’t exist,” Bensel says.
In the modern era, partisan poll watching evolved to serve a different function. Republican “ballot security programs” enlisted poll watchers to show up in the 1960s to enforce state literacy requirements, challenging voters standing in line to read aloud passages from the Constitution and demanding they leave the voting line if they could not. In 1982, the Democratic National Committee filed a lawsuit alleging that Republicans in the 1981 elections had hired local law enforcement officers to patrol Black and Latino districts in New Jersey and question prospective voters about their qualifications. The lawsuit resulted in a consent decree that enjoined the Republican National Committee from similar activities until the decree expired in 2017. This meant the 2020 presidential election was the first in 40 years in which the Republican National Committee could openly sponsor and promote efforts to monitor the polls.
Many Democrats feared the result would be widespread voter intimidation, particularly after the Trump campaign claimed it would deploy a 50,000-strong Army for Trump led by Roman. When this “army” failed to materialize, voting rights historian J. Morgan Kousser was not surprised. He says the expense and challenging logistics, not to mention the possibility of a backlash, meant the rhetoric was always “puffery,” aimed more at fashioning a narrative than a genuine effort to recruit volunteers to do the boring work of observing the functioning of the country’s hundreds of thousands of voting locations. “For a long time, there has been a feeling in the election law community that these laws (allowing partisan poll watchers) had two purposes,” Kousser says. “One was to intimidate people, particularly Blacks and Latinos, from voting by giving them the idea that it is going to be difficult and may be dangerous to vote. And the other is that it’s simply one of the things that they’re doing to play to their base, to play up the idea that there is a lack of voter integrity.”
The RNC’s election integrity director, Josh Findlay, recently claimed the party would be stepping up its official poll-watching efforts in 2022. Even if this promise proves to be more “puffery,” as long as there are large numbers of Republican voters who believe election fraud is widespread, there will likely be some who will do their own unofficial poll watching. And if nothing else changes, there will also be a network of activists ready to transform their efforts into viral narratives on social media. Only five of the top 20 “repeat spreaders” of 2020 election misinformation identified by the Center for an Informed Public have been kicked off Twitter. The other 16 – including Posobiec, Trump Jr. and Roman – remain active and have millions more followers than they did last November.
In a recent report, the Center for an Informed Public pointed out that researchers and journalists have repeatedly found that a small number of influential “superspreaders” drive the spread of misinformation on social media. They suggested a solution could be for social media platforms to hold influential accounts to a higher standard, instead of doing the opposite. “It’s an incredibly obvious solution that they don’t want to do,” says Andrew Beers, a graduate researcher at Center for an Informed Public, “for I think very obvious political reasons.”
This story was edited by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, Nina Martin and Andrew Donohue.