On the morning of September 21, 2020, three trays of United States mail were discovered in a ditch in Greenville, Wisconsin. The local sheriff’s office reported that the mail dump included several absentee ballots. When a U.S. Postal Service spokesperson made a similar assertion two days later, a local Fox affiliate, WLUK, reported the statement on its website. And then a national network of conservative commentators and influencers did something that happened again and again last fall: They picked up a bare-bones news story and made it sound nefarious.
Within hours, Jim Hoft, the combative founder and editor of The Gateway Pundit, a conservative media outlet, came across the story. A consortium of researchers working together on an effort called the Election Integrity Partnership (which included my team at the Stanford Internet Observatory) had by this point begun to track false and misleading voting-related information, particularly claims about ballot and mail fraud, as it moved across the social-media ecosystem.