Anonymous users dominate right-wing online discussions and spread false information

(Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press)

Anonymous users dominate right-wing online discussions and spread false information

Election 2024

Ali Swenson and Melissa Goldin

April 6, 2024

The reposts and expressions of shock from public figures followed quickly after a user on the social platform won the presidential election.

Extremely worrying, X owner Elon Musk replied to the post twice in the past week.

Do migrants register to vote using SSN? Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, an ally of the former president


Trump, asked on Instagram, using the abbreviation for social security number.

Trump himself posted within hours on his own social platform the question: Who are all these voters registering without a photo ID in Texas, Pennsylvania and Arizona??? What is happening???”

State election officials were quickly forced to respond. They said the user, who promises to fight, expose and mock wokeness, was wrong and had distorted Social Security Administration data. Actual voter registrations cited during the period were much lower than the figures shared online.

Stephen Richer, the recorder in Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix, refuted the claim multiple X messages. Texas Secretary of State Jane Nelson issued a statement saying it is completely false.”

But by the time they tried to correct the record, the false claim had spread widely. According to platform statistics, the pseudonymous users have amassed more than 63 million views on X in three days. A thorough explanation from Richer attracted a fraction of that and reached 2.4 million users.

The incident sheds light on how social media accounts that shield the identities of the people or groups behind them through clever slogans and cartoon avatars have come to dominate right-wing political discussion online, even as they spread false information.

The accounts enjoy enormous reach that is boosted by engagement algorithms, by social media companies significantly reducing or eliminating efforts to remove fake or harmful material, and by endorsements from high-profile figures like Musk. They can also generate significant financial rewards through X and other platforms by stoking outrage against Democrats.

Many such internet personalities identify as patriotic citizen journalists who expose real corruption. Still, the demonstrated ability to spread uncontrolled disinformation while concealing their true motives worries experts

with while

the United States


in a presidential election year.

They are exploiting a long history of trust in American whistleblowers and anonymous sources, said Samuel Woolley, director of the Propaganda Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.

With these kinds of stories, there’s an appeal of stealth, there’s the idea that somehow they might know something that other people don’t, he said. They adopt the language of real whistleblowers or democratically inclined leakers. What they are doing is actually contrary to democracy.

The claim, spread online over the past week, misused Social Security Administration data that tracks routine requests from states to verify the identities of people who registered to vote using the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. These requests are often made multiple times for the same person, meaning they don’t necessarily correspond one-to-one with people registering to vote.

The larger implication is that the data cited is representative


people who have entered the US illegally and are supposedly registering to vote using Social Security numbers they received for work authorization documents. But only U.S. citizens are allowed to vote in federal elections, and illegal voting by those who are not is extremely rare because states have processes in place to prevent it.

Accounts that do not reveal the identities of those behind them have flourished online for years, gaining followers for their content on politics, humor, human rights and more. People have used anonymity on social media to avoid persecution by repressive authorities or to talk about sensitive experiences. Many left-wing protesters adopted anonymous online identities during the Occupy Wall Street movement of the early 2010s.

But the rapid rise of a group of right-wing pseudonymous influencers acting as alternative sources of information is more recent. It coincides with a decline in public trust in government and the media due to the 2020 presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic.

These influencers often spread misinformation and otherwise misleading content, often in service of the same recurring narratives, such as alleged voter fraud, the woke agenda, or Democrats supposedly encouraging a wave of people through illegal immigration to steal elections or replace white people.


. They often use similar content and reshare each other’s posts.

The account that posted the recent disinformation has also spread false information about the war between Israel and Hamas, sharing a post-latest case that falsely claimed that a Palestinian crisis actor was “pretending to be seriously injured.”

Since taking over Twitter in 2022, Musk has fostered the rise of these accounts, regularly commenting on their posts and sharing their content. He also protected their anonymity. In March, X updated its privacy policy to prevent people from revealing the identity of an anonymous user.

Musk also rewards high engagement with financial payouts. The X-user who spread the false information about new voter registrants has amassed more than 2.4 million followers since joining the platform in 2022. The user reported in a post last July that he made more than $10,000 with X did not respond to a request for comment, which was followed by an automated reply.

Tech watchdogs said that while it is crucial to maintain space for anonymous voices online, they should not spread lies without accountability.

Companies should vigorously enforce terms of service and content policies that promote election integrity and information integrity in general, said Kate Ruane, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The success of these accounts shows how financially savvy users have used the online trolling playbook to their advantage, says Dale Beran, a lecturer at Morgan State University and author of It Came.

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from Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Measured Donald Trump into Office.

The art of trolling is to infuriate the other person,” he said. ‘And we now know that making someone angry really increases engagement and earns you followers and therefore gets you paid. So now it’s kind of a business.

Some pseudonymous accounts on X have used their brands to build a loyal audience on other platforms,

of inclusive



the video sharing platform Rumble and the encrypted messaging platform Telegram. The accounts themselves and many of their followers publicly promote their pride in America and its founding documents.

It’s concerning that many Americans place their trust in these shady online sources without thinking critically about who is behind them or how they intend to harm the country, said Kara Alaimo, a communications professor at Farleigh Dickinson University who has studied social media toxicity. has written. .

“We know that foreign governments, including China and Russia, are actively creating social media accounts designed to sow domestic division because they believe that weakening our social fabric will give their countries a competitive advantage,” she said. “And they are right.

Swenson and Goldin write for the Associated Press.


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