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Trump's 'big lie' fueled a new generation of social media influencers – The Washington Post

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Three days after the 2020 election, Kyle Becker, a former Fox News producer with a modest 15,000 Twitter followers, began tweeting feverishly about election fraud.
“BOMBSHELL,” he wrote on Nov. 6, sharing purported revelations that software glitches could have tipped millions of votes from President Donald Trump to challenger Joe Biden.
Becker’s tweetstorm quickly went viral, drawing more than 5,000 additional followers to his account in just four hours. By the time a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol two months later, Becker had vaulted into influencer territory, supercharging his Twitter audience to 177,000.
Since Becker, 46, left Fox in fall 2020, he has built his brand as a right-wing pundit. These days, he curates his own online news site; appears as a guest on conservative podcasts and TV shows; and writes a steady stream of viral, often misleading tweets on a range of topics including coronavirus vaccines, the war in Ukraine and the FBI raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.
Spreading election fraud claims helped Kyle Becker become an influencer
Becker’s following skyrocketed in the six-month period before the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack.
20 tweets with the most retweets
Jan. 6
insurrection
240k
followers
2020
Election
180k
Followers declined after Jan. 6 as Twitter removed QAnon adherents and other users.
120k
All of Becker’s most popular tweets were focused on the election.
60k
Becker’s “BOMBSHELL” tweet on Nov. 6.
0
July 2020
Jan. 2021
July
Jan. 2022
June
Note: Follower data is unavailable for Kyle Becker before October 2020. Number of retweets may be undercounted on deleted tweets.
Spreading election fraud claims helped Kyle Becker become an influencer
Becker’s following skyrocketed in the six-month period before the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack.
20 tweets with the most retweets
Jan. 6
insurrection
240k followers
2020
Election
180k
Followers declined after Jan. 6 as Twitter removed QAnon adherents and other users.
120k
All of Becker’s most popular tweets were focused on the election.
60k
Becker’s “BOMBSHELL” tweet on Nov. 6.
0
July 2020
Jan. 2021
July
Jan. 2022
June
Note: Follower data is unavailable for Kyle Becker before October 2020. Number of retweets may be undercounted on deleted tweets.
Spreading election fraud claims helped Kyle Becker become an influencer
Becker’s following skyrocketed in the six-month period before the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack.
20 tweets with the most retweets
Jan. 6
insurrection
240k followers
2020
Election
Followers declined after Jan. 6 as Twitter removed QAnon adherents and other users.
180k
120k
All of Becker’s most popular tweets were focused on the election.
60k
Becker’s “BOMBSHELL” tweet on Nov. 6.
0
July 2020
Jan. 2021
July
Jan. 2022
June
Note: Follower data is unavailable for Kyle Becker before October 2020. Number of retweets may be undercounted on deleted tweets.
Becker is not alone. The 2020 election and its turbulent aftermath fueled a powerful generation of online influencers, a Washington Post data analysis has found, producing sky-high follower counts for an array of conservatives who echoed Trump’s false claims of election fraud, known as the “big lie.” Some doubled or tripled their audiences on Twitter, while others saw even larger gains — catapulting, like Becker, from relative obscurity to online fame.
These accounts amassed followers despite vows by Big Tech companies to police election disinformation, The Post found. And they have gone on to use their powerful megaphones to shape the national debate on other subjects, injecting fresh waves of distortion into such culture-war topics as transgender rights and critical race theory.
“Once they’ve gained a level of influence, they can continue to leverage that influence going forward,” said Kate Starbird, a leading expert on disinformation at the University of Washington. “Manipulation becomes embedded in the network.”
The unseen machine pushing Trump’s social media megaphone into overdrive
To conduct its analysis, The Post identified 77 of the biggest spreaders of disinformation about the 2020 election, tracked how they built large audiences online and then analyzed how they used their new power to fuel debate on other divisive topics.
The list of 77 was drawn from research by disinformation experts at Stanford, Harvard and Cornell universities, as well as the University of Washington. While the details of their methodologies differed, the researchers all culled Twitter for posts that spread misperceptions about the election and then determined which accounts had racked up the most retweets, spreading the “big lie” most widely.
The list includes many well-known figures, such as Trump himself, his sons Eric and Donald Jr., Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon and others close to the administration. It includes Trump allies who gained fame specifically for their false claims of voter fraud, such as attorneys L. Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, and prominent media figures such as Fox News’s Sean Hannity, Jim Hoft of Gateway Pundit and Josh Caplan of Breitbart News.
But it includes many lesser lights as well — conservative pundits, self-described citizen-journalists and others famous mainly for being online. Commentator Candace Owens, right-wing activist Jack Posobiec and YouTuber Tim Pool are on the list. So are QAnon proponent Tracy Diaz (a.k.a. “Tracy Beanz”), the anonymous @catturd2 account and an Arizona man who went by the handle @prayingmedic before Twitter suspended him following the Jan. 6 insurrection.
By tracking follower counts on Twitter and Facebook, The Post found that this group rose steeply in popularity in the six months before the Jan. 6 riot, gaining a stunning 25 million followers on the two platforms. For those who already boasted massive audiences, most grew their followings by at least 50 percent by posting about election fraud. For those with more modest audiences — about 1 in 5 on the list — the payoff for sowing doubt in the election was even bigger.
Some surged in status: Becker’s Twitter audience grew by more than 1,000 percent. Like him, some have turned selling outrage into a day job or lucrative side hustle, collecting ad dollars, donations and speaking fees for disseminating their views.
How the ‘big lie’ created a new class of mega-influencers that outlasted Trump
Follower counts stagnated after the Jan. 6 insurrection, but jumped again when Elon Musk announced his Twitter purchase.
Rapid gain in
followers
Stagnating
followers
Renewed
gains
Jan. 6
insurrection
1m more
Musk
announcement
2020
Election
500k more
Follower count
on Jan. 6
Average
500k fewer
Many lost followers as Twitter removed QAnon adherents and other users after Jan. 6.
1m fewer
1.5m fewer
July 2020
Jan. 2021
July
Jan. 2022
June
How the ‘big lie’ created a new class of mega-influencers that outlasted Trump
Follower counts stagnated after the Jan. 6 insurrection, but jumped again when Elon Musk announced his Twitter purchase.
Rapid gain in
followers
Stagnating
followers
renewed
gains
1m more
Jan. 6
insurrection
Musk
announcement
500k more
2020
Election
Follower
count on
Jan. 6
Average
500k fewer
Many lost followers as Twitter removed QAnon adherents and other users after Jan. 6.
1m fewer
1.5m fewer
July 2020
Jan. 2021
July
Jan. 2022
June
How the ‘big lie’ created a new class of mega-influencers that outlasted Trump
Follower counts stagnated after the Jan. 6 insurrection, but jumped again when Elon Musk announced his Twitter purchase.
Renewed
gains
Rapid gain in
followers
Stagnating followers
1m more
Jan. 6
insurrection
Musk
announcement
2020
Election
500k more
Follower
count on
Jan. 6
Average
500k fewer
Many lost followers as Twitter removed QAnon adherents and other users after Jan. 6.
1m fewer
1.5m fewer
July 2020
Jan. 2021
July
Jan. 2022
June
How the ‘big lie’ created a new class of mega-influencers that outlasted Trump
Follower counts stagnated after the Jan. 6 insurrection, but jumped again when Elon Musk announced his Twitter purchase.
Renewed
gains
Rapid gain in followers
Stagnating followers
Jan. 6
insurrection
Musk
announcement
1m more
2020
Election
500k more
Follower
count on
Jan. 6
Average
500k fewer
Many lost followers as Twitter removed QAnon adherents and other users after Jan. 6.
1m fewer
1.5m fewer
July 2020
Jan. 2021
July
Jan. 2022
June
Most members of the 77, including Trump, either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to be interviewed. Of those who did respond, several defended their behavior online, saying they merely raised questions about complex topics worthy of public scrutiny. Some criticized the tech companies for banning users who tried to engage in public debate about controversial topics.
Pool, for example, sidestepped questions about a litany of tweets pointing out instances of election fraud. In an email exchange, he noted that he has said he believes Biden won the election and that he has repeatedly stated on his podcast “that [Trump is] wrong, that the claims are unproven, and many are easily debunked.” He added: “Evidence of fraud is not proof that fraud changed the election.”
Becker defended his messages online and denied knowingly spreading misinformation about the election or other topics. Via LinkedIn messages, he criticized The Post’s efforts to scrutinize influencers who discuss election fraud, saying it “furthers the persistent media bias that ‘right is bad’ while ‘left is good.’ ”
“I never used the words the ‘election was stolen’ or that ‘Trump won, Biden lost’ or anything like that. I highlighted articles that appeared to be evidence of election malfeasance,” Becker wrote. “ ‘Rigging an election’ can mean many things, by the way, and that includes changing laws without the proper legal channels.”
The tech companies say they took action to penalize spreaders of election misinformation, especially those who promoted the insurrection. But Twitter banned only 12 of the 77 “big lie” influencers in the period around the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 riot, The Post found, including Trump. (Eight others already had been banned or were banned later.) YouTube — the only major tech company to prohibit claims that the 2020 election was rigged — banned just four of the 77, while Facebook banned only two: Trump and Bannon.
In new election, Big Tech uses old strategies to fight ‘big lie’
Twitter and Facebook declined to comment on The Post’s findings. The companies have said they use other means, short of full bans, to penalize problematic accounts and maintain a strikes system to deal with repeat offenders.
YouTube spokeswoman Ivy Choi provided a statement: “We remove videos that spread violative ‘Stop the Steal’ narratives and terminate channels that receive three strikes in a 90-day period. As a result, we’ve removed tens of thousands of videos and terminated a number of channels for violating our Community Guidelines and Terms of Service.”
Of the 77 figures, 57 remain active on Twitter. To gauge their ongoing influence since Jan. 6, The Post measured their follower counts on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms, along with shares and retweets of posts containing misinformation on an array of topics that have shaped the national conversation since the 2020 election.
The analysis found that the massive megaphones built by posting about election fraud have given the 57 an outsize role in pushing other false and divisive narratives. For example, members of this group wrote five of the top 20 most-shared tweets about “grooming,” a homophobic meme that falsely equates teaching children about sᕮxuality with befriending them for purposes of sᕮxual abuse.
‘Big lie’ influencers drove public conversation on topics that have divided the U.S. since 2020
Top 20 tweets by topic, defined by the
number of retweets, during the month of
peak popularity
Tweet by a “big lie” influencer
Ballot harvesting
19,249
retweets
32,037
retweets
Grooming
Critical race theory
5,409
47,966
Biolabs
25,447
‘Big lie’ influencers drove public conversation on topics that have divided the U.S. since 2020
Top 20 tweets by topic, defined by the number of
retweets, during the month of peak popularity
Tweet by a “big lie” influencer
Ballot harvesting
Biolabs
19,249
retweets
25,447
32,037
retweets
Critical race theory
Grooming
47,966
5,409
‘Big lie’ influencers drove public conversation on topics that have divided the U.S. since 2020
Top 20 tweets by topic, defined by the number of retweets, during the month of peak popularity
Tweet by a “big lie” influencer
Ballot harvesting
Biolabs
19,249
retweets
25,447
32,037
retweets
Critical race theory
Grooming
47,966
5,409
‘Big lie’ influencers drove public conversation on topics that have divided the U.S. since 2020
Top 20 tweets by topic, defined by the number of retweets, during the month of peak popularity
Tweet by a “big lie” influencer
Ballot harvesting
Critical race theory
Biolabs
Grooming
5,409
19,249
retweets
25,447
32,037
retweets
47,966
In March, Owens had the fourth-most-shared tweet on the subject, a post that urged her 3.1 million followers to #boycottDisney because the company’s opposition to a Florida law banning teachers from discussing sᕮxuality amounted to support for “Child groomers and pedophiles.”
She added: “They have now openly admitted they have a not so secret agenda with your children. This is the death of Disney.” Owens declined to comment.
Claim that sex ed ‘grooms’ kids jolted Nebraska politics a year before it swept the nation
Also in March, members of the group of 77 produced eight of the top 20 tweets about “biolabs,” a pro-Russian conspiracy theory that falsely alleges the United States developed dangerous bioweapons in Ukraine. The U.S. State Department has acknowledged funding biological research in the region to prevent disease outbreaks, but in a statement called the bioweapons narrative “outright lies.”
And in June 2021, this group helped shape the critical race theory narrative, which involved conservative attacks on public school offerings about America’s history of racism. A tweet from Benny Johnson, creative director of the pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA, was the sixth-most popular on the topic that month. Johnson claimed he had obtained “LEAKED DOCUMENTS” showing Iowa teachers being forced to classify Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan as racism.
Another tweet by Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk about Virginia parents “being arrested” for opposing critical race theory was the 21st-most popular, with 3,700 retweets. Neither Johnson nor Kirk responded to requests for comment.
How the right embraced Russian disinformation about ‘U.S. bioweapons labs’ in Ukraine
All told, these 57 figures have composed roughly a quarter of the most-shared tweets across Twitter on those hot-button topics plus two others — drag queens and ballot harvesting The Post found. On Facebook, those still active posted more than 10 percent of the top posts on those issues.
Members of the group also continue to seed unproven claims about election fraud, writing about a quarter of the most-retweeted posts on that topic since January 2021, The Post found. The issue continues to resonate with the public: A recent Monmouth University poll found that 29 percent of Americans say Biden won the election because of voter fraud.
After reviewing The Post’s findings, Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters for America, a liberal group that tracks right-leaning accounts, compared the soaring popularity of the 77 figures to the reshaping of the information landscape in the late 1990s, when Rush Limbaugh and other Republican cable and radio stars rose to prominence.
“What was unleashed during the ‘big lie’ was nothing less than the next wave of right-wing media figures, influencers, leaders and organizers,” Carusone said. The “big lie” was like “a piñata bursting, and these figures were able to repurpose the candy they collected for the next big event.”
Recently, many have found a powerful new topic: Elon Musk’s on-again-off-again effort to acquire Twitter.
Since Musk announced plans to buy the social media platform in late April, most members of this group have gained at least 50,000 new Twitter followers apiece, The Post found. (Donald Trump Jr. has gained roughly 850,000.) Many have tried to entice Musk to spread their content, with six of them tweeting at him more than 100 times.
Musk doesn’t own Twitter yet, but conservatives are racking up followers
Until Musk’s Twitter takeover surfaced as an internet obsession, this group found it difficult to re-create the explosive audience-growing conditions of early 2020. Then, pandemic lockdowns and other emergency public health measures were driving online outrage. People flocking to anti-vaccine groups and the violent pro-Trump extremist ideology QAnon created what researchers have described as a mega-network for disinformation well ahead of Election Day.
Many on The Post’s list of 77 rode that momentum. Diaz, for example, initially gained notoriety by running a QAnon account. But she soon ventured into election fraud, calling Georgia a “straight banana republic” on Nov. 29, 2020, after a court ruled that state election officials could update voting machine software rather than preserve it for investigations of purported fraud. By the next day, she had gained 7,000 followers. She did not respond to requests for comment left with the Horry County, S.C., Republican Party, where she is a high-ranking official.
Trump was a huge help. His @realdonaldtrump Twitter account interacted with other members of the group of 77 more than 900 times in the frenzied period during and after the election, pushing their content to his 88 million followers. After Trump retweeted a Dec. 8, 2020, post calling for state legislatures to “do their jobs” and declare Trump the winner, its anonymous author, MajorPatriot, gained 7,000 followers in about seven hours. The Post was unable to find contact information for the account, which has since been suspended.
On Jan. 8, 2021, Twitter permanently banned Trump, citing “the risk of further incitement of violence.” Other major social media companies soon followed, purging not just Trump but others among the 77, including 8kun co-owner Ron Watkins, “Stop the Steal” activist Michael Coudrey, Powell, MajorPatriot and Beanz. Twitter also removed more than 70,000 accounts tied to QAnon, silencing others on The Post’s list, including Gateway Pundit’s Hoft and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.
Reaction to the purges was swift: Republican leaders decried “Big Tech censorship” and encouraged their supporters to switch to a growing crop of right-leaning social media services such as Gettr, Gab and Trump’s struggling Truth Social. But nearly two years later, virtually all of the election fraud influencers are more active on major platforms than on any of the right-wing services, The Post found.
Pro-Trump influencers flocked to alternative social networks. Their follower counts stalled soon after.
Among them is Benny Johnson, who publicly swore off Twitter in 2020 and asked fellow conservatives to defect to other platforms. Today, Johnson is a prolific Twitter user, typically tweeting 25 times a day to more than 812,000 followers.
Recently, some of the “big lie” influencers have returned anew to the topic of election fraud. In May, Dinesh D’Souza, himself a member of the 77, released “2000 Mules,” a documentary that purports to expose fraud in the 2020 election. As the film gained attention online, half of the 77 posted about it on Twitter or Facebook.
Joan Donovan, a leading disinformation expert with the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, said she worries that this group’s continuing influence on society transcends mere misinformation.
Kirk, for instance, has used a Turning Point live event, streamed on YouTube, to issue a “challenge” to “every man across America” to “intervene” at women’s sporting events and physically confront transgender athletes.
Meanwhile, several among the 77 have retweeted Chaya Raichik to their large audiences, helping fuel the meteoric rise of her Twitter account, Libs of TikTok. The account, which soared from fewer than 1,000 followers in early 2021 to 1.3 million today, criticizes teachers, medical providers and others who serve transgender children and teens. It was recently suspended after a post led to death threats against providers at Boston Children’s Hospital, and a bomb threat caused the hospital to be evacuated.
Twitter account Libs of TikTok blamed for harassment of children’s hospitals
Becker has retweeted, replied to or tagged Libs of TikTok over 300 times since August 2021. Via LinkedIn, he said: “I stand behind Libs of TikTok and her curation of the radical left’s extreme degradation of the culture and its attacks on children’s mental and physical health.”
“Telling lies and distortions, propagating hateful commentary around racial justice and trans rights, has become very profitable for a small group of people for whom disinformation is now a profession,” Donovan said. “You have to keep refreshing novelty and outrage to keep people engaged. You have to refresh the constant soap opera. You have to create the news cycle — without Trump.”
Jake Kara and Taylor Lorenz contributed to this report. Graphics by Leslie Shapiro.
The Post identified the 77 biggest spreaders of disinformation about the 2020 election, tracked how they built large audiences online and then analyzed how they used their new power to fuel debate on other divisive topics. Here’s how we did it:
Identifying the 77
The Post used a combination of names culled from databases built by prominent disinformation researchers, including:
* The Social Technologies Lab at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, which identified the top 20 influencers by examining a data set of 7.6 million tweets using terms and hashtags associated with election fraud and then identifying the accounts with the most retweets in the run-up to the 2020 election.
* The Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, which added three influencers whose Twitter bans prevented them from being included on Technion-Cornell’s list: MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and Trump advisers Stephen K. Bannon and Roger Stone.
* The Election Integrity Partnership, which is affiliated with Stanford University, the University of Washington, the Atlantic Council and Graphika. The Partnership collected 49 million tweets about 456 distinct incidents identified as “sowing doubt in the election.” Posts were tagged if they contained questions, opinions or factual content that “contributes to misperceptions” even if the information was not literally false. Accounts that had popular posts about five or more of those incidents were identified as “repeat spreaders.” That list was further winnowed to exclude accounts with fewer than 250,000 followers, or without a “blue check” verification of identity, resulting in a list of 84 widely followed Twitter accounts. Twelve that were left anonymous were excluded from The Post’s analysis.
Tracking audience growth
The Post tracked this group’s steep rise in popularity before Jan. 6, 2021, and stagnation after, through follower counts captured by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. We used Facebook’s CrowdTangle tool to find a similar trend on Facebook.
Analyzing ongoing influence
The Post examined posts written by the 77 and noted topics on which they appeared to have influence. Then we analyzed the top 20 most-retweeted tweets and most-shared Facebook posts on those topics in the month before interest in them peaked. We defined peak interest as the week that Fox News showed the term in on-screen text for the longest cumulative time, according to the GDelt Project’s AI Television Explorer. Posts were collected from Twitter’s advanced search tool and from Facebook’s CrowdTangle tool.
Here are the terms we used for each topic, along with its peak date.
For the analysis that found the influential spreaders’ tweets comprised roughly a quarter of the top 100 tweets about election fraud after January 2021, we examined tweets between Feb. 1, 2021, and July 22, a window designed to exclude the direct aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot and Joe Biden’s inauguration. We included tweets that contained any of the following terms: “ballot harvesters,” “2000 mules,” “ballot harvesting,” “voter fraud,” “election fraud,” “hand recount,” “hand count” and “voting machine.”
A separate analysis of the more recent focus on election fraud used a different method to define peak interest in the topic. Much of that discussion focused on Dinesh D’Souza’s film, “2000 Mules,” which was not discussed much on Fox News. So we defined peak interest as the movie’s May 9 release date and analyzed social media posts from the month prior. An additional analysis found that 36 of the figures on the list of 77 had mentioned the term “2000 Mules” since its release.
To examine each influencer across Facebook, Twitter and four “alt-tech” social media platforms — Gab, Gettr, Telegram and Truth Social — The Post manually built a list of each influencer’s accounts. We then created a database of their posts for the past two years, using the Algorithmic Transparency Institute’s Junkipedia tool to pull posts from the alt-tech platforms; the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy for Twitter; and CrowdTangle for Facebook.
The Post looked at most recent follower counts on each platform and at the total number of posts between May 1, 2022, and mid-July.
We used that same database to find that 83 percent of the members of the 77 who are still active on Twitter had discussed Elon Musk on the platform since his attempt to purchase Twitter was announced in April. To determine how often Musk had replied to members of our list, we used a database of his tweets from PolitiTweet and Twitter’s advanced search.
To determine how often former president Donald Trump had mentioned members of our list, we used data from the Trump Twitter Archive.
We also determined that members of the group who weren’t banned had 394 viral tweets with more than 20,000 retweets before Jan. 6, but only 90 after. For that analysis, we gathered retweet counts for tweets after Jan. 10, 2021, from the Twitter API. However, we treated tweets from Jan. 10, 2021, or before differently, because those were retweeted by many people who quit Twitter or were banned in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot, causing their retweets to disappear from Twitter’s published totals. For these tweets, we got the largest retweet count value of all archived versions from the Wayback Machine. Retweet counts for deleted or removed tweets from any time period were also obtained from the Wayback Machine.

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