Cease the Steal’s huge disinformation marketing campaign related to Roger Stone and Steve Bannon

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However whereas Cease the Steal might sound like a brand new 2020 political slogan to many, it didn’t emerge organically over widespread considerations about voting fraud in President Donald Trump’s race towards Joe Biden. It has been within the works for years.

Its origin traces to Roger Stone, a veteran Republican operative and self-described “soiled trickster” whose 40-month jail sentence for seven felonies was reduce quick by Trump’s commutation in July.

Stone’s political motion committee launched a “Cease the Steal” web site in 2016 to fundraise forward of that election, asking for $10,000 donations by saying, “If this election is shut, THEY WILL STEAL IT.”

He first trotted out the slogan through the 2016 primaries — claiming a “Bush-Cruz-Kasich-Romney-Ryan-McConnell faction” was trying to steal the Republican nomination from Donald Trump — earlier than re-upping Cease the Steal for the overall election.

“Donald Trump thinks Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are going to steal the subsequent election,” his web site stated that October.

Cease the Steal briefly resurfaced across the midterms in 2018 — with Republicans using the hashtag throughout a recount in a neck-and-neck Florida race for U.S. Senate — however it wasn’t till 2020 that it actually caught hearth.

A Cease the Steal Fb group was managed by a free coalition of proper wing operatives, a few of whom have labored with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. The group amassed a whole lot of hundreds of followers in little greater than a day earlier than Fb shut it down on November 5 — the day after it was launched.

Additionally on November 5, Bannon began his personal “Cease the Steal” Fb group; he modified the identify to “Personal Your Vote” the next day. It was not eliminated by Fb, however the social media firm did later take away a number of different pages affiliated with Bannon.

“We have eliminated a number of clusters of exercise for utilizing inauthentic habits techniques to artificially enhance how many individuals noticed their content material,” stated Andy Stone, a Fb spokesman. “That features a group that was initially named Cease the Steal, which later turned Homosexual Communists for Socialism and misled individuals about its goal utilizing misleading techniques.”

Spinoff pages sprung up quickly after like brush fires, with Fb struggling to shortly snuff out the spreaders of bogus data.

All of the whereas, Roger Stone and Bannon have been in full disinformation mode. Stone has appeared on the present of far-right radio commentator Alex Jones to trumpet groundless claims that Biden is making an attempt to steal the election; Bannon is echoing related conspiracy theories on his podcast, calling the election “a mass fraud.”

“We’re calling it a fraud or we’re calling it a steal — cease the steal,” he stated on a November Four episode.

Regardless of efforts by Fb to close down the deceptive content material, it was too late. The cluster of teams and pages — which altogether had amassed 2.5 million followers, based on an evaluation by activist group Avaaz — had seeded a jungle of misinformation that’s being shared — and believed — by hundreds of thousands of People.

“I might not think about this a grassroots motion by any means,” stated Ben Decker, the CEO and founding father of Memetica, a digital investigations consultancy. “Cease the Steal is a extremely coordinated partisan political operation intent on bringing collectively conspiracy theorists, militias, hate teams and Trump supporters to assault the integrity of our election.”

The motion has additionally migrated to in-person occasions, Decker stated, manifesting itself “in a wide range of offline rallies and protests that includes quite a few individuals which are usually armed.”

Among the violent rhetoric related to the marketing campaign has come from its personal leaders.

“Clear your weapons,” stated Dustin Stockton, one of many directors of the Fb Cease the Steal group, on a Fb Stay Stream video to his followers. “Issues are going to worsen earlier than they get higher.”

Stockton acknowledged CNN’s request for remark however did not reply to questions. Stockton beforehand advised CNN he didn’t see any messages inside the group “calling for violence exterior of what’s frequent political hyperbole.” He stated Fb’s elimination of the web page was “out of line and they need to restore it instantly.”

Cease the Steal triggered voter-intimidation lawsuits in 2016

When Stone launched Cease the Steal in 2016, it wasn’t only a marketing campaign slogan and fundraising web site — it additionally turned a self-described “vote protectors” venture that sought volunteers to observe polling locations. Stone advised CNN this week that the aim of the group was “to insure the integrity of the vote.”

The venture triggered a slew of federal lawsuits simply earlier than Election Day by Democratic events in six battleground states accusing Stone and associates of making an attempt to intimidate minority voters within the cities the place he meant to ship volunteers.

A federal go well with filed in Ohio, as an example, accused Stone’s Cease the Steal venture of violating the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by “conspiring to intimidate, threaten, harass, or coerce voters on Election Day.”

A choose granted a short lived restraining order towards the group, however it was lifted on attraction.

At this time, StopTheSteal.org redirects to Stone’s private net web page, “StoneColdTruth.com,” the place Stone has been posting conspiracy theories about “widespread voter fraud.”

Roger Stone, former adviser and confidante to President Donald Trump, was sentenced on February 20 to 40 months in prison. Trump later commuted Stone's sentence.

This week, he appeared on Alex Jones’s present, the place Stone groundlessly pronounced that Biden’s election was a “hoax” and made a plug for Cease the Steal.

“I believe our headline is Be a part of the Patriots in Washington, D.C. this weekend to protest the hoax that’s the theft of this election and demand that we Cease the Steal,” he stated, including, “hashtag Cease the Steal.”

In an electronic mail, Stone responded pugnaciously to a query from CNN about whether or not the present Cease the Steal motion is a recycled model of the false narrative of mass voter fraud he led years earlier than.

“As for the shortage of proof that’s the mantra of all you flying monkeys,” he wrote. “It is like denying the Holocaust. The proof is overwhelming and compelling, regardless of the framing of your query.”

Stone defended the recycling of the slogan in his electronic mail, trying to attract a parallel to different mass protests that share a theme, such because the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963 and The Million Man March — a gathering of Black males in Washington, DC, in 1995.

A whistleblower holding an envelope.

Stone distanced himself from Bannon, referring to him as an “enemy of the individuals.” Bannon did not reply to messages from CNN searching for remark.

This fall, because the 2020 election drew nearer, there was discuss in proper wing circles of dusting off the Cease the Steal marketing campaign once more — however not by Stone.

“I am fascinated with bringing Cease the Steal out of retirement,” stated proper wing activist Ali Alexander, previously often called Ali Akbar, in a video he circulated on social media in September. “Within the subsequent coming days we’re going to construct the infrastructure to cease the steal.”

Alexander, a controversial determine on the fitting whose tweets about Jewish journalists have raised eyebrows, says he employed a profitable Cease the Steal marketing campaign through the 2018 midterms in Florida.

This yr, Alexander’s firm registered one other Cease the Steal web site — StoptheSteal.us — on November 4.

Alexander didn’t straight reply to CNN’s questions for this story.

Additionally on November 4, the Cease the Steal Fb group was launched by a company led by a girl with ties to Stone’s ex-wife and managed by a group of a number of conservative activists, some with shut connections to Bannon.

Amy Kremer is the chair of Ladies for America First — a company which created the Cease the Steal Fb group, based on Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a London-based suppose tank that screens on-line polarization and extremism. Kremer was a lead Tea Celebration organizer who additionally began an excellent PAC with Stone’s ex-wife, Ann Stone, referred to as Ladies Vote Trump.

In an emailed response to a set of questions from CNN, Kremer didn’t deny that Cease the Steal is a deliberate, recycled model of an identical gambit. She declined to reply a query in regards to the extent to which she was coordinating the Cease the Steal efforts with high-profile proper wing operatives, however stated: “We welcome the help and involvement of any particular person who is anxious in regards to the integrity of our elections and who helps President Trump.”

The directors for the Cease the Steal Fb group additionally included Dustin Stockton and Jennifer Lawrence, a pair who’ve each written for Breitbart — the place Bannon as soon as served as government chairman, based on ISD. Each additionally had been a part of Bannon’s core group for We Construct the Wall, an ill-fated crowdfunding marketing campaign for Trump’s border wall that led to the arrest this summer season of Bannon and three associates on suspicion of utilizing a whole lot of hundreds of {dollars} in proceeds for private bills. Stockton and Lawrence weren’t amongst these arrested and indicted in August, however their leisure automobile was raided by federal brokers as part of the probe. Bannon pleaded not responsible to the costs.

In an interview final week, Stockton advised CNN that the Fb group had had no contact with Bannon previous to its November Four creation or whereas it was energetic.

“We have not been in a position to converse to anybody from that circle since August and the indictments,” he stated.

‘The horse has bolted’

Supporters of President Donald Trump hold "Stop the Steal" signs as they stand outside of the Clark County Elections Department in Nevada on November 7.

The Cease the Steal Fb group took off instantly. Its measurement swelled at a dizzying tempo, gaining some 300,000 followers in simply 24 hours.

Some commenters on that Cease the Steal Fb group and its knockoffs used “threatening rhetoric anticipating a civil conflict, or discuss from members about how they’re locked and loaded,” stated Ciaran O’Connor, a disinformation analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Citing probably the most excessive feedback he got here throughout, O’Connor stated a consumer on one of many Fb teams stated they’d die combating for what they consider.

“Since then, this thread has over 450 feedback in help of the unique assertion, with many saying that they’d fortunately do the identical,” he stated.

Decker of Memetica stated he watched the Fb group radicalize individuals in actual time through the peak of its virality.

“You had in any other case regular Trump supporters who out of the blue needed to grasp what was being finished towards President Trump on this election,” he stated. “And out of the blue you see feedback the place individuals are asking, ‘What is that this QAnon factor?’ ‘What’s pink pilling?’ And instantly you see all of those totally different customers have interaction and share dangerous, poisonous conspiracy theories that they in any other case would have by no means seen had they not joined the group.”

The Cease the Steal hashtag has additionally unfold extensively on Twitter.

Seeded by a spate of tweets by Ali Alexander and others not less than as early as September, the hashtag took off on Election Day — November 3 — with a tweet by a lawyer exhibiting a video of a ballot watcher in Philadelphia arguing with ballot employees who would not let him within the constructing. The person was certainly wrongfully turned away; metropolis officers advised information retailers it was an “sincere mistake” and that the ballot watcher went to a different polling website.
The tweet went viral, boosted by retweets from well-known conservative firebrands corresponding to Ann Coulter and Donald Trump Jr. Different conservative influencers choosing up the hashtag on Twitter had been Rudy Giuliani, Michelle Malkin and Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative activist and filmmaker who pleaded responsible to creating unlawful marketing campaign contributions and was pardoned by Trump.

All advised, the hashtag was tweeted 1.7 million occasions, principally after November 5, stated Darren L. Linvill, an affiliate professor within the division of communications at Clemson College who tracks the unfold of data on-line.

In the meantime, lots of these banned from or restrained by the 2 Huge Tech corporations have migrated to rising platforms corresponding to Parler, which turned the most-downloaded free app within the Apple app retailer on the weekend of November 8 — the day main media retailers referred to as the election for Biden.

Regardless of efforts by tech corporations and reality checkers, the bogus cost that the election has been stolen has entered the bloodstream of American democracy.

“There are nonetheless teams energetic with tens of hundreds of members, over 170 Fb Cease the Steal occasions, the final time I counted,” O’Connor stated. “The horse has bolted at this stage.”

The hyper-polarized rhetoric across the election worries Steven Levitsky, a Harvard authorities professor and co-author of the 2018 e book “How Democracies Die.”

“When individuals lose religion within the electoral course of and do not suppose elections are clear and bonafide, they’re much extra keen to just accept violence,” he stated.

The onus, Levitsky stated, is on Republicans in Congress to guarantee the general public that the election was reliable.

To this point, that hasn’t occurred. Senate Majority Chief Mitch McConnell has but to acknowledge Biden because the winner. Thus far solely a handful of GOP leaders in Congress have finished so.

CNN’s Scott Bronstein, Yahya Abou-Ghazala, Cybele Mayes-Osterman, Benjamin Naughton, Zachary Cohen and Amitoj Singh contributed to this report.

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