The art of diversion

On Sunday, the New York Times obtained Trump's tax returns, which revealed that he paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. But wait, look over there!

Project Veritas, an organization run by right-wing polemicist James O'Keefe, claims it has "UNDENIABLE VIDEO PROOF OF SYSTEMIC VOTER FRAUD." The right-wing media, including Breitbart, Sean Hannity, and the New York Post, quickly amplified O'Keefe's explosive claims. 

Here is how the New York Post summarized the story:

One alleged ballot harvester, Liban Mohamed, the brother of Minneapolis City Council member Jamal Osman, is shown in a bombshell Snapchat video rifling through piles of ballots strewn across his dashboard.

“Just today we got 300 for Jamal Osman,” says Mohamed, aka KingLiban1, in the video. “I have 300 ballots in my car right now…

...Under Minnesota law, no individual can be the “designated agent” for more than three absentee voters.

The Project Veritas video leads with this allegation, describing it as "illegal ballot harvesting." In the video, O'Keefe cites a Minnesota statute that says you can only help three people return your absentee ballot. 

But that law was challenged in court and, in July, a court enjoined the law. While that order was in effect during the primary election, it was legal in Minnesota to assist any number of voters in returning their absentee ballots. Here's an excerpt from the District Court of Minnesota's order:

The Secretary of State is temporarily ENJOINED from enforcing the prohibition under Minn. Stat. § 203B.08, subd. 1 that limits a person from assisting more than three voters in returning or mailing an absentee ballot. 

The Republican Party filed an emergency motion to stay the July order. But that motion was denied on August 11. That ruling was appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. But the Minnesota Supreme court denied the appeal on August 25.

On September 4, the Minnesota Supreme Court partially reversed the order, and reimposed the limitation for the general election. But the litigation around the law, which encompasses most the time period that the allegedly illegal activity took place, is not discussed. (The videos of the envelopes were allegedly shot on July 1 and 2.)

The only concrete "evidence" in Project Veritas' report is video of someone with a large number of envelopes. Assuming those envelopes are ballots, the video would only suggest something improper if Project Veritas is right about when it was filmed.

The Project Veritas video includes some allegations that, if true, would be illegal. For example, the video includes the allegation that people who work for Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) are paying people to sign blank ballots. But this allegation is made by an unidentified person, described only as a "ballot harvester," whose face is pixelated in the video. A similar claim is made by someone not shown on camera who is identified only as a "former political worker." Neither individual provides any proof for their claims. 

Project Veritas is known for numerous botched and misleading "sting" operations. In 2017, Project Veritas conspired with a woman who falsely told a reporter from the Washington Post that she was impregnated as a teenager by former Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. The reporter was not fooled. O'Keefe has been criticized, even from allies on the right, of using misleading edits to manufacture a story. Andrew Seaman, the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee, described O'Keefe as "not an ethical journalist." Rather, Seaman said, O'Keefe "goes directly to surreptitious reporting methods and has a history of distorting facts or context."

None of this prevented O'Keefe's latest flawed investigation from reaching massive audiences on social media. 

Project Veritas' flawed report quickly spreads on social media

Project Veritas published its investigation on Sunday night, and, with the help of the Trump family, it spread rapidly on Facebook and Twitter. Breitbart, the far-right website, wrote up Project Veritas' report and posted it to its Facebook page. The article accepts all the claims in the Project Veritas video as true and focuses on potential criminal penalties. In the first 15 hours, the post racked up 50,000 shares. 

The Breitbart post was published by Trump on his Facebook page at 7 AM. Trump claimed that Omar was guilty of "totally illegal" actions and called for her to be investigated by the U.S. Attorney. That post was shared another 18,000 times. 

Donald Trump Jr. uploaded the Project Veritas video directly to his Facebook page, where it was viewed more than 300,000 times in the first 18 hours. Trump Jr. also plugged the Project Veritas report during an appearance on Fox News. 

The Project Veritas video and right-wing media summaries of it act as if the anonymous interviews and allegedly surreptitious recordings are somehow self-substantiating—as if video can't mislead and anonymous sources only speak truth. Despite the lack of substantiation for the video's most attention-grabbing claims, as of this writing, neither the video itself nor the credulous reporting on it have been fact-checked by Facebook's third-party fact-checking network. Why? As Popular Information previously reported, most Facebook fact-checkers take days or weeks to evaluate a claim. By that time, the damage is done.

Project Veritas' report is also gaining a large audience on Twitter, where a two-minute edit of the video was viewed 4.5 million times in less than 24 hours. 

The Project Veritas story was also tweeted by Donald Trump (39K retweets), Eric Trump (9K retweets), and Donald Trump Jr. (10K retweets). 

On YouTube, the Project Veritas video was viewed more than 600,000 times in less than a day. 

CORRECTION (9/29, 12:15): This piece has been updated with information about the Minnesota Supreme Court’s September 4 decision and corrected an error about the current state of Minnesota law.

UPDATE (10/29): This piece has been updated to clarify the significance of the timing of the Minnesota injunction relative to the dates of the filmed conduct and to further clarify why Popular Information considers claims made in the Project Veritas video to be unsubstantiated.

Facebook pledged to remove misinformation about voting methods posted by Trump. It's not following through. 

In October 2019, Facebook said that attempts "to interfere with or suppress voting undermine our core values as a company," and therefore, it would prohibit "misrepresentation" or "whether a vote will be counted." Facebook explicitly said it would "remove this type of content regardless of who it’s coming from." That would include Trump.

On Monday morning, Trump posted to Facebook that "Ballots being returned to States cannot be accurately counted." This is absolutely false. There is no evidence that ballots that are currently being returned to states will not be counted accurately. 

But Facebook did not remove the post. Instead, it attached an "information label" to Trump's post. The label initially said, "Visit the Voting Information Center for election resources and official updates."

Later, Facebook changed the information label. It now reads, "Both in person and voting by mail have a long history of trustworthiness, and the same is predicted this year."

The new label makes clear that Facebook understands Trump is posting misinformation about whether votes are counted. But it is not fulfilling its stated policy to remove the post. Popular Information contacted Facebook about why it isn't enforcing its October 2019 policy but has not yet received a response.

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