Voter-fraud debunking journalist Isaac Saul talks about his viral election thread and why the conspiracy theories put poll workers in danger

Voter-fraud debunking journalist Isaac Saul talks about his viral election thread and why the conspiracy theories put poll workers in danger
Ballots are counted at the Allegheny County Election Division warehouse on the Northside of Pittsburgh, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020.AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
  • Since election night, journalist Issac Saul has been documenting and debunking as many voter fraud conspiracy theories as possible in an ever-growing Twitter thread.
  • "It took off immediately, and the new lies just kept pouring in," Saul told Business Insider Columnist Anthony L. Fisher.
  • Saul says these conspiracy theories are putting innocent poll workers lives in danger.
  • "These are people who didn't do anything wrong. They were performing a civic duty."
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Before the polls were even closed on Election Day, the fantastical and evidence-free conspiracy theories about voter fraud were flying fast and furious from various corners of Trumpworld.

That same day, the journalist Issac Saul began documenting and debunking as many voter fraud conspiracy theories as possible in an ever-growing thread that he continues to update more than two weeks later.

Business Insider Columnist Anthony L. Fisher spoke to Saul via Skype this week about why he embarked on a social media mission to correct widely-spread misinformation, and what he thinks is the most dangerous consequence of hoax voter fraud claims.
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This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

Debunking voter fraud claims seems like a pretty thankless job. Why did you take this on?

Before the election, I warned readers of my newsletter this was going to happen — an absolute avalanche of conspiracies about voter fraud from people who don't understand how elections work. So I was ready for it.
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As they first started popping up, I attacked them one by one, keeping a Google doc full of them. But they just kept pouring on, and I realized nobody was tracking or explaining them in one place, so I just found 20 to 25 of them and started this thread where I explained them.

It took off immediately, and the new lies just kept pouring in. Now the thread is approaching 350 tweets — which is about ten times what I thought it would hit. The last few days have been easier though, as I'm getting an assist from judges across the country punching holes in all the ridiculous stuff on social media. What made you think it was going to happen?
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The obvious point is that Trump won in 2016 and still claimed that 3 million people voted illegally. That was the giveaway that regardless of what the outcome was, if it didn't look exactly how he wanted it to look, then we were going to hear some claims about dead people voting or Democrats working to get "illegals" to the polls or whatever. With all the mail-in voting, Trump was claiming repeatedly that the systems were insecure.

But if you listened to Republicans in Florida and other states that have had mail-in voting for some period of time, they were all saying, "Please stop. A lot of our Republican base votes by mail, and this is going to hurt us. If you convince all these people, they have to go to the polls and then they show up to vote on election day and there's a five-hour line, they might just not vote at all."

Which debunked story got the most traction?
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At first, it was the video showing Detroit poll workers papering up the windows so people couldn't film them from outside — which was of course a totally reasonable thing to do when hundreds of uninvited poll watchers are barging in, banging on the windows, chanting "Stop the count" and filming.

What is absolutely mind boggling is just how much traction so many of these claims are getting before anyone can even refute them. Some individual claims have more shares than my thread, which has over 33,000 retweets. Millions of views on this stuff, thousands of retweets, all within minutes. I think the three biggest ones were the USPS postal worker story Project Veritas spread, the "Benford's Law" theory and the 118-year-old dead guy in Michigan who everyone said voted but actually didn't.

Voter-fraud debunking journalist Isaac Saul talks about his viral election thread and why the conspiracy theories put poll workers in danger
Chester County, Pa., election worker Kristina Sladek opens mail-in and absentee ballots for the 2020 General Election in the United States at West Chester University, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in West Chester, Pa.AP Photo/Matt Slocum
Have any of your debunks been debunked?
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I've had to update a few that I explained because another, better explanation popped up — like the update on the claim that 23,000 Biden votes were suspiciously dumped all at once.

I looked at past Philadelphia elections, including 2012 when Romney got 0 of 19,000-plus votes across a few dozen voting wards, and then reached out to some Philadelphia reporters and asked what they thought. They all basically said it's totally possible Trump didn't score any votes across a few neighborhoods that could have 23,000 people in them.

But later on FiveThirtyEight explained that some of the data in Philly was actually being sorted and released by candidate, which was actually why we saw 23,000 votes all for Biden at once.
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In your estimation, what was the most dangerous claim you came across?

The most dangerous ones to me are the ones that feature election workers in videos. Those are real people, people who decided to risk their health during a pandemic to volunteer and do something that I believe carries a great deal of weight and responsibility. They're participating in our democracy, being active citizens, and they get rewarded by having their faces plastered on the internet as alleged criminals. Millions of views on videos taken totally out of context of them doing completely normal election stuff like curing ballots. That kills me. Some of those people have already been threatened and gone into hiding and I'm sure more will be doxxed soon. That kind of stuff is reprehensible, and I will never forgive the folks who blindly spread those videos — some of them verified accounts and sitting members of Congress — without considering the repercussions.
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Voter-fraud debunking journalist Isaac Saul talks about his viral election thread and why the conspiracy theories put poll workers in danger
A poll worker talks to a voter before they vote on a paper ballot on Election Day in Atlanta on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.Associated Press/Brynn Anderson

The Trumpist voter fraud narrative offers no explanation for why so many down-ballot Republicans won in districts where Biden also won.

Yeah, exactly. You have to do some serious mental gymnastics to work from the premise that every election that was good for Trump was totally clean and every election that wasn't was corrupt.

Then the other thing you have to believe is that all this fraud is still happening right now because we are still counting votes. And in states like Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, where the vote count is still going on, the margins that are coming in are exactly the same as they were for Biden the day after the election when all the first fraud allegations came in.
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The reason is because Biden is literally just winning by that much among mail-in voters, because they're just mostly Democrats. And again, this was something Trump did to himself. He shot himself in the foot by telling everybody that mail-in voting was wasn't going to work and was fraudulent.

These are the most-watched vote counts we've ever had in American history. There's live streams of the vote count happening. There's all these lawyers descending on these counties and all the margins are still the same. They're not changing at all because they're just real votes and Trump's losing and that's pretty much it.

There's a feeling among Trump supporters that any instance of voter fraud is evidence that the problem must be widespread.
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I am not in any way proclaiming that voter fraud or election fraud don't happen. It does happen. And oftentimes people who attempt this stuff are caught. A big go-to talking point I'm seeing now is, "What's the harm in investigating and auditing this stuff and doing the recount?"

My answer is there's no harm in doing recounts. If there's fraud, I want there to be repercussions for that. And I want to know that the election was secure. I think everybody in America wants that.

But there are repercussions when some poor election worker being paid $10 an hour to sort mail-in ballots during a pandemic has their face shared all over social media.
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Someone posts a video online of that person saying they're throwing the ballots out because you see them sorting them in bins. And that video gets 5 million views, and that person's family sees it, their community sees it. Now they're a target of all these people who think that this person participated in stealing the election. That's really dangerous.

We have at least a few examples of poll workers who have been identified online, gotten death threats, and are now in hiding. There are real world repercussions to making these allegations that these people undermined the election. These are people who didn't do anything wrong. They were performing a civic duty.
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