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Conservative News Sites Fuel Voter Fraud Misinformation

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In the final stretch of the 2020 campaign, right-leaning news sites with millions of readers have published dozens of false or misleading headlines and articles that effectively back unsubstantiated claims by President Trump and his allies that mail-in ballots threaten the integrity of the election.

The Washington Examiner, Breitbart News, The Gateway Pundit and The Washington Times are among the sites that have posted articles with headlines giving weight to the conspiracy theory that voter fraud is rampant and could swing the election to the left, a theory that has been repeatedly debunked by data.

On Sept. 25, Gateway Pundit posted an article headlined “EXCLUSIVE: California Man Finds THOUSANDS of What Appear to be Unopened Ballots in Garbage Dumpster — Workers Quickly Try to Cover Them Up — We are Working to Verify.” The envelopes turned out to be empty and discarded legally in 2018. Gateway Pundit later updated the headline, but not before its original speculation had gone viral.

The Right Scoop published an article on Oct. 7 headlined “DESTROYED: Tons of Trump mail-in ballot applications SHREDDED in back of tractor-trailer headed for Pennsylvania.” The material was actually printing waste from a direct mail company. The publication later changed the headline to reflect that the claim had been debunked.

Another right-wing site, Daily Wire, posted a Sept. 24 article about ballots in Pennsylvania under the headline “FEDS: Military Ballots Discarded in ‘Troubling’ Discovery. All Opened Ballots were Cast for Trump.” Headlines on the same issue in The Washington Times were similar: “Feds investigating discarded mail-in ballots cast for Trump in Pennsylvania” and “FBI downplays election fraud as suspected ballot issues found in Pennsylvania, Texas.” A Washington Times opinion piece on the matter had the headline “Trump ballots in trash, oh my.”

Several days after the reports, neither Daily Wire nor The Washington Times appeared to follow up with articles on the announcement from Pennsylvania’s elections chief that the discarded ballots were a “bad error” by a seasonal contractor, not “intentional fraud.” Mr. Trump cited the discarded Pennsylvania ballots several times as an example of fraud, including in last month’s presidential debate.

Major polls have shown Mr. Trump lagging the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., in an election that will have significantly more people than usual voting by mail because of the coronavirus. False claims about mail-in voting have been a staple of the president’s campaign. At last month’s debate, he claimed without evidence, “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”

In June, Mr. Trump posted on Twitter that “Mail-In Ballots will lead to a RIGGED ELECTION!” He linked to a Breitbart article that included a transcript of Attorney General William P. Barr’s telling the Fox News host Maria Bartiromo that voting by mail “absolutely opens the floodgates to fraud.”

In August, The New York Post published an article that relied on one anonymous source, identified as a Democratic operative, who claimed that he had engaged in voter fraud for decades. The Blaze, Breitbart, Daily Caller, FoxNews.com and The Washington Examiner posted their own versions of the article. It was also promoted by Donald Trump Jr. and his brother Eric, the Trump campaign’s communications team, the “Fox & Friends” television program and Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, according to a recent Harvard University study.

The Harvard researchers described a “propaganda feedback loop” in right-wing media. The authors of the study, published this month through the school’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, reported that popular news outlets, rather than social media platforms, were the main drivers of a disinformation campaign meant to sow doubts about the integrity of the election.

So far in October, Breitbart has published nearly 30 articles with the tag “voter fraud.” President Trump has posted links to several Breitbart articles on Twitter, including one in August in which a Republican-appointed poll challenger estimated that up to 20,000 absentee primary ballots had been improperly counted in Detroit, a city “known for voting heavily Democrat,” the article said. The Detroit News later reported that election officials in Michigan said the problems “weren’t examples of fraud and don’t call into question the integrity of the results.”

ImageCounting bail-in ballots this month at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department.
Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

As the country faces a third wave of Covid-19 cases, tens of millions of Americans plan to mail their ballots, and more than 25 states have expanded access to universal mail voting. The voting system, stressed by greater demand, has struggled in places with ballots sent to incorrect addresses or improperly filled out. But intentional voter fraud is extremely uncommon and rarely organized, according to decades of research.

That’s true even though specific totals vary depending on the source. Among the billions of votes cast from 2000 to 2012, there were 491 cases of absentee-ballot fraud, according to an investigation conducted at Arizona State University’s journalism school. Election experts have calculated that, in a 20-year period, fraud involving mailed ballots has affected 0.00006 percent of individual votes, or one case per state every six or seven years.

In June, The Washington Post and the nonprofit Electronic Registration information Center analyzed data from three vote-by-mail states and found 372 possible cases of double voting or voting on behalf of dead people in 2016 and 2018, or 0.0025 percent of the 14.6 million mailed ballots.

Some conservative publications have nodded at the scarcity. In an Oct. 1 article about Facebook’s bans of ads that promote a narrative of widespread voter fraud, The Blaze noted “isolated reports of voter fraud in America in recent months.” A Fox News article on the same day pointed out a “false claim” by Mr. Trump that a mail worker in West Virginia had sold ballots. The Fox News article quoted a state official who said the incident had never happened.

Mr. Trump’s effort to discredit mail-in voting follows decades of disinformation about voter impersonation, voting by noncitizens and double voting, often promoted by Republican leaders.

Voting by mail under normal circumstances does not appear to give either major party an advantage, according to a study this spring by Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy Research. But many conservative outlets have promoted the idea that fraud involving mailed ballots could tip the scales in favor of Democrats.

Stephen J. Stedman, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford, said he thought “about disinformation in this country as almost an information ecology — it’s not an organic thing from the bottom up.”

Last month, sites including The Gateway Pundit, The Washington Examiner and Breitbart followed a report from a Fox affiliate in Wisconsin about mail that had been found in a ditch and reportedly included absentee ballots. The story was promoted by the Trump adviser Jason Miller; the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany; the Fox News host Tucker Carlson; and the president himself.

After the outcry, all but unnoticed, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the batch of mail hadn’t included absentee ballots from Wisconsin and that it was unclear if there had been ballots from other states. The liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America traced several other examples.

In a similar cycle, the Fox News host Sean Hannity and conservative publications magnified the reach of a deceptive video released last month by Project Veritas, a group run by the conservative activist James O’Keefe. The video claimed without named sources or verifiable evidence that the campaign for Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, was collecting ballots illegally.

Mr. Stedman said right-leaning outlets sometimes conflated fraud with the statistically insignificant administrative mishaps that occur in every American election.

“The pandemic is making this a true administrative nightmare, where administrators who have never done this on this scale have just a few months to do it, and they now also have the Trump administration trying to take advantage of every single mistake to say, ‘See, that’s fraud,’” Mr. Stedman said. “It can’t end well.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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