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Riled Up: Misinformation Stokes Calls for Violence on Election Day

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In a video posted to Facebook on Sept. 14, Dan Bongino, a popular right-wing commentator and radio host, declared that Democrats were planning a coup against President Trump on Election Day.

For just over 11 minutes, Mr. Bongino talked about how bipartisan election experts who had met in June to plan for what might happen after people vote were actually holding exercises for such a coup. To support his baseless claim, he twisted the group’s words to fit his meaning.

“I want to warn you that this stuff is intense,” Mr. Bongino said, speaking into the camera to his 3.6 million Facebook followers. “Really intense, and you need to be ready to digest it all.”

His video, which has been viewed 2.9 million times, provoked strong reactions. One commenter wrote that people should be prepared for when Democrats “cross the line” so they could “show them what true freedom is.” Another posted a meme of a Rottweiler about to pounce, with the caption, “Veterans be like … Say when Americans.”

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The coup falsehood was just one piece of misinformation that has gone viral in right-wing circles ahead of Election Day on Nov. 3. In another unsubstantiated rumor that is circulating on Facebook and Twitter, a secret network of elites was planning to destroy the ballots of those who voted for President Trump. And in yet another fabrication, supporters of Mr. Trump said that an elite cabal planned to block them from entering polling locations on Election Day.

All of the rumors appeared to be having the same effect: Of riling up Mr. Trump’s restive base, just as the president has publicly stoked the idea of election chaos. In comment after comment about the falsehoods, respondents said the only way to stop violence from the left was to respond in kind with force.

“Liberals and their propaganda,” one commenter wrote. “Bring that nonsense to country folks who literally sit in wait for days to pull a trigger.”

The misinformation, which has been amplified by right-wing media such as the Fox News host Mark Levin and outlets like Breitbart and The Daily Wire, adds contentiousness to an already powder-keg campaign season. Mr. Trump has repeatedly declined to say whether he would accept a peaceful transfer of power if he lost to his Democratic challenger, Joseph R. Biden Jr., and has urged his supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully.”

The falsehoods on social media are building support for the idea of disrupting the election. Election officials have said they fear voter harassment and intimidation on Election Day.

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“This is extremely concerning,” said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in Elon, N.C., who tracks extremists online. Combined with Mr. Trump’s comments, the false rumors are “giving violent vigilantes an excuse” that acting out in real life would be “in defense of democracy,” she said.

Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, said Mr. Trump would “accept the results of an election that is free, fair and without fraud” and added that the question of violence was “better put to Democrats.”

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In a text message, Mr. Bongino said the idea of a Democratic coup was “not a rumor” and that he was busy “exposing LIBERAL violence.”

Distorted information about the election is also flowing in left-wing circles online, though to a lesser degree, according to a New York Times analysis. Such misinformation includes a viral falsehood that mailboxes were being blocked by unknown actors to effectively discourage people from voting.

Other popular leftist sites, like Liberal Blogger and The Other 98%, have also twisted facts to push a critical narrative about Republicans, according to PolitiFact, a fact-checking website. In one inflammatory claim last week, for instance, the left-wing Facebook page Occupy Democrats asserted that President Trump had directly inspired a plot by a right-wing group to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan.

Social media companies appear increasingly alarmed by how their platforms may be manipulated to stoke election chaos. Facebook and Twitter took steps last week to clamp down on false information before and after the vote. Facebook banned groups and posts related to the pro-Trump conspiracy movement QAnon and said it would suspend political advertising postelection. Twitter said it was changing some basic features to slow the way information flows on its network.

On Friday, Twitter executives urged people “to recognize our collective responsibility to the electorate to guarantee a safe, fair and legitimate democratic process this November.”

Of the lies, Facebook said it was “removing calls for interference or violence at polling places” and would label posts that sought to delegitimize the results. YouTube said it was not recommending videos containing the false rumors, while Twitter said sharing links to disputed news stories was permitted if the tweets did not violate its rules.

Even so, the idea of a Democrat-led coup has gained plenty of traction online in recent weeks. It has made its way into at least 938 Facebook groups, 279 Facebook pages, 33 YouTube videos and hundreds of tweets, a Times analysis found.

The unfounded claim traces back to an Aug. 11 letter from two former military officers, John Nagl and Paul Yingling, to the country’s top military official, Gen. Mark A. Milley, according to researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based research organization. In their public letter, Mr. Nagl and Mr. Yingling asked General Milley to have military forces ready to escort President Trump from the White House grounds if he lost the election and refused to leave.

Some online commentators seized on the letter as evidence of a coming left-wing coup. “Bootlickers Nagl and Yingling suggest a violent military coup,” read one post on Facebook on Aug. 12, which got 619 likes and comments and linked to the letter. That same day, Infowars, a conspiracy theory website, also published a piece claiming that retired army officers were openly talking about a coup by Democrats.

Mr. Nagl and Mr. Yingling did not respond to requests for comment.

On Sept. 4, the right-wing outlet The National Pulse added to the conspiracy. It published a piece pointing to what it said were the “radical, anti-democratic tactics” of the Transition Integrity Project, a bipartisan group of former government officials who analyzed how to prevent a disrupted presidential election and transition. The group published a report on Aug. 3 about its efforts, but The National Pulse said the document showed “an impending attempt to delegitimize the election coming from the far left.”

Trey Grayson, a Republican former secretary of state of Kentucky and a member of the Transition Integrity Project, said the idea that the group was preparing a left-wing coup was “crazy.” He said the group had explored many election scenarios, including a victory by Mr. Trump.

Michael Anton, a former national security adviser to President Trump, also published an essay on Sept. 4 in the conservative publication The American Mind, claiming, “Democrats are laying the groundwork for revolution right in front of our eyes.”

His article was the tipping point for the coup claim. It was posted more than 500 times on Facebook and reached 4.9 million people, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool. Right-wing news sites such as The Federalist and DJHJ Media ramped up coverage of the idea, as did Mr. Bongino.

Mr. Anton did not respond to a call for comment.

The lie also began metastasizing. In one version, right-wing commentators claimed, without proof, that Mr. Biden would not concede if he lost the election. They also said his supporters would riot.

“If a defeated Biden does not concede and his party’s rioters take to the streets in a coup attempt against President Trump, will the military be needed to stop them?” tweeted Mr. Levin, the Fox News host, on Sept. 18. His message was shared nearly 16,000 times.

After The Times contacted him, Mr. Levin published a note on Facebook saying his tweet had been a “sarcastic response to the Democrats.”

Bill Russo, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, said in a statement that Mr. Biden would accept how the people voted. “Donald Trump and Mike Pence are the ones who refuse to commit to a peaceful transfer of power,” he said.

On YouTube, dozens of videos pushing the false coup narrative have collectively gathered more than 1.2 million views since Sept. 7, according to a tally by The Times. One video was titled, “RED ALERT: Are the President’s Enemies Preparing a COUP?”

The risk of misinformation translating to real-world action is growing, said Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy expert at Washington State University Vancouver.

“What we’ve seen over the past four years is an increasing capability” from believers to turn these conspiracy narratives “into direct physical actions,” he said.

Ben Decker contributed research.

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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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