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False Claims Fuel Trump's Election Result Disinformation Campaign

NOEL KING, HOST:

The call between President Trump and Georgia's secretary of state lasted a little more than an hour. The president pushed Brad Raffensperger to find him votes so he could win. Raffensperger said, essentially, but you didn't win. Throughout that call, the president kept talking, apparently earnestly, about voter fraud. What he was saying, though, was based on conspiracy theories. Listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It doesn't pass the smell test, though, because we hear they're shredding thousands and thousands of ballots. And now what they're saying - oh, we're just cleaning up the office, you know. I don't think that plays.

BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: Mr. President, the problem that you have with social media, they can - people can say anything...

TRUMP: No, this isn't social media. This is Trump media.

KING: So where is the president getting this stuff? NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny covers conspiracy theories and where they originate. She's with us now. Good morning, Brandy.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

KING: In the first 15 minutes on that call, the president has mentioned ballot stuffing. He's mentioned shredding ballots. This is not coming from election officials. It's not something that law enforcement says happened. Where is it coming from?

ZADROZNY: Well, luckily, we know where it's coming from for Trump because he says it. He cites the Internet as his main source of these claims. Now, the Internet that he's speaking of isn't the Internet that you or I go to. These theories have really spawned on extremist forums, and they were spread by sort of far-right, radical-right, junk-news sites like Gateway Pundit and others. And these are where most of these claims originate.

KING: So as we heard in that clip, to your point, Brad Raffensperger says, well, folks can say anything on social media, and the president says, oh, this isn't social media; this is Trump media. What is he referring to?

ZADROZNY: Trump's referring to - we call it a misinformation pipeline or, really, a feedback loop. And what it is - is, you know, over the last four years, he has built a really impressive machine. And what it does - it's, you know, made up of social media, of cable news sites like Newsmax and OAN, talk radio and websites on the Internet that are all sort of under his influence. So the president can make some outlandish claims, and then all of these websites and news outlets parrot those claims back and then expand them with more conspiracy theories. And then the president can say, look at all of this proof, look at all of these people that think this, as evidence for his original claims.

KING: It does seem like there are a lot of Americans, maybe even half-ish, who believe a lot of what the president is saying. Are they being influenced by him being influenced by this media? Like, what is the knock-on effect here?

ZADROZNY: It's really hard to say. I think when I speak to people who are not, you know, deep into QAnon conspiracies, who are just normal folks - folks like, you know, my parents...

KING: Yeah.

ZADROZNY: ...Or lots of parents, right? So I think they have a general idea. They see or they hear, oh, the election was stolen, and they don't realize, you know, the deep, dark places on the Internet where these theories have originated.

KING: OK.

ZADROZNY: They just get a general idea that it was stolen - I heard something about, you know, illegal ballots or some such - but they don't really have a strong idea of where these things originate. That's what was so alarming about this call - is that you got, in one fell swoop, just the distillation of all of the Internet's most insane theories coming from the mouth of the president of the United States.

KING: In fact, 18 times on that call, he mentioned the name of an election worker. Now, we're not going to use this person's name because they did not do what the president claims they did - commit fraud. How did this random person in Georgia end up getting the president's attention? And what happens when the president of the United States is calling you out publicly?

ZADROZNY: Yeah, this is one of the most insidious lies that we heard on the president's call, and that's because it targeted an election worker who actually sells vintage clothes and seems like a really nice person as far as we can tell, who wanted to, you know, do good and be an election worker. This theory was posited by a far-right website called Gateway Pundit. It claimed that, you know, she took ballots out of a suitcase when, really, they were just loading up ballots in the approved carrier for the evening to go home, and then they were taking them out when they decided - when they were told they had to keep counting ballots. So it's not insidious. It's, again, from these junk-news websites. And it's just dangerous because, as you said, you know, now this person is being targeted by some people with really wild ideas.

KING: Brandy Zadrozny of NBC News covers conspiracy theories and where they originate. Thanks, Brandy.

ZADROZNY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.