© Timothy D. Easley/Associated PressGov. Matt Bevin's allegations of irregularities in the Kentucky governor's race echo the Trump playbook.
A few hours after polls closed in Kentucky last Tuesday, a Twitter user writing under the handle @Overlordkraken1 posted a message to his 19 followers saying he had "just shredded a box of Republican mail-in ballots."
It was clear that the Kentucky governor's race was going to be excruciatingly close, and that the Republican incumbent, Matt Bevin, could be headed to defeat. But just in case anyone missed the significance of the destroyed-ballots claim, @Overlordkraken1 added a final touch to his tweet: "Bye-Bye Bevin," he wrote.
For those eager to cry fraud as a reliably red state leaned blue, the fact that @Overlordkraken1 did not appear to be in Kentucky - Louisville was misspelled in the location tag on his tweet, for one thing - was not going to get in the way of a useful narrative. Nor was Twitter's decision to suspend his account.
Within hours of @Overlordkraken1's tweet, as it became apparent that Mr. Bevin was trailing in the vote tally, hyperpartisan conservatives and trolls were pushing out a screenshot of the message, boosted by what appeared to be a network of bots, and providing early grist for allegations of electoral theft in Kentucky. High-profile right-wing figures were soon tweeting out their own conspiracy theories about the election being stolen - messages that were in turn pushed by even more trolls and bots - and the Bevin campaign began talking about "irregularities" in the vote without offering any specifics or evidence.
The talk has only intensified in the days since, though it has yet to be matched by any evidence of actual election rigging. But with Mr. Bevin's choosing not to concede, and Kentucky authorities' preparing to recanvass all of the votes at his insistence, Kentucky is shaping up to be a case study in the real-word impact of disinformation - and a preview of what election-security officials and experts fear could unfold a year from now if the 2020 presidential election comes down to the wire.
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Since his election four years ago, Mr. Bevin has hitched himself to President Trump, and his allegations of irregularities echo the Trump playbook. Mr. Trump has sown doubts about a "rigged election" system since before his own election, including openly questioning the mail-in ballot process in Colorado. He then contended that fraud had lost him the popular vote (which Hillary Clinton won by 2.9 million votes). And he has amplified similar theories while in office, tweeting at least 40 times about unfounded voter fraud allegations, according to an analysis by The New York Times, including a claim after the midterm elections last year that "many ballots are missing or forged" in Florida.
Such divisive rhetoric after close elections has always risked shaking public faith in essential democratic institutions. But in a profoundly polarized country where narrow margins are hardly uncommon, sophisticated networks of social media users - human and bot - can quickly turn partisan rancor into grave threats, rapidly amplifying disinformation and creating an initial veneer of vast discord that can eventually become self-fulfilling.
"It shows how the same divisions that the Russians sought to expose in 2016 remain real vulnerabilities in our democracy," said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan group in Washington focused on election security. "The ugly partisanship that is dominating our democratic discourse continues to create openings for those who want to weaken our institutions and use the online space to fuel conspiracies or advance their own agenda."
Mr. Bevin has not elaborated on the nature or source of the perceived irregularities, and his campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The campaign of Attorney General Andy Beshear, who is leading the governor by roughly 5,000 votes, said in a statement that "it's deeply concerning to see shady coordinated disinformation campaigns trying to undermine our democracy."
The Kentucky secretary of state's office said federal law enforcement officials were investigating both the tweet about shredding ballots and the subsequent rapid amplification. The United States attorney's office for the Eastern District of Kentucky did not respond to a request for comment.
Twitter, in response to questions from The Times, said the trolling and spread of disinformation about the Kentucky race appeared scattershot and haphazard, but largely appeared to originate in the United States. The company described @Overlordkraken1, whose profile said his name was Luis, as a user with a history of small-time trolling.
Graphika, a company that specializes in analyzing social media, agreed with the conclusion that much of the activity around the Kentucky vote was domestic and not likely to have been pushed by any foreign power. Graphika said the tweets about electoral fraud appeared to land in what it calls a "Trump core" - a large number of highly interconnected social media accounts, many run by real people, that are typically reactive and loud and can keep a conversation going for days at a time.
But much like the Russian-backed networks of bots and trolls that impersonated Black Lives Matter activists in 2016, or more recently seized on divisive issues like gun rights after a mass shooting, the accounts that quickly amplified doubts and disinformation about the Kentucky election seemed ready for the occasion.
The tweet about the shredded ballots was first noticed by the secretary of state's office, which alerted law enforcement officials and Twitter. The tweet was quickly taken down, but by then it had already been captured in a screenshot and would be widely shared.
Data compiled by VineSight, a start-up that detects disinformation on social media, showed that many of the accounts that tweeted the screenshot of @Overlordkraken1's ballot-shredding claim appeared to be bots. Their tweets, in turn, were spread by other bots.
Of the more than 3,800 accounts that VineSight detected tweeting the screenshot, at least 2,350 appeared to be bots, based on an analysis of the accounts' activities, including how quickly and how often they tweet.
One was an account that went by the handle @ConservaMomUSA and had both human and bot characteristics. @ConservaMomUSA's post about the ballot shredding was retweeted about 1,300 times, and nearly 60 percent of that traffic was from bots, VineSight found.
The volume of bot-like tweets of the vote-shredding screenshot prompted VineSight to alert the Democratic Governors Association in Washington. Despite growing fears about national disinformation campaigns, the news startled some officials there.
"I was a little surprised," said David Turner, the group's communications director. He noted that while some small-scale bot activity had been detected after the 2017 elections in Virginia, "we didn't see any of that in our close elections last year."
The disinformation quickly grew beyond the allegation of shredded ballots. The conspiratorial hashtag #StopTheSteal, which had been prevalent in the 2018 midterm elections, then silent for nearly a year, spiked late on election night, tweeted more than 1,200 times, largely by accounts with bot-like characteristics.
Tweets explicitly claiming that the election had been "rigged" were also picked up. A quick sample of nine tweets decrying a "rigged" election were retweeted roughly 1,800 times, with nearly 60 percent of the retweets coming from bot-like accounts, according to data compiled by VineSight.
Other bot-like accounts were resurfacing unfounded allegations of "voter intimidation" by George Soros, the billionaire Democratic donor and favorite boogeyman of the far right.
Talk of possible electoral fraud was not limited to the fringes of online discourse. Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, a prominent right-wing activist group, tweeted that Kentucky had weak voter ID laws and "dirty election rolls," though he was careful not to make any direct allegation of wrongdoing.
Michael Coudrey, an entrepreneur and activist with more than 180,000 Twitter followers, posted a message on Wednesday that Kentucky had switched to machines that scanned votes and provided no paper backup, and "oddly enough the entire state turns blue."
In an email responding to questions from The Times, Mr. Coudrey said warnings from federal officials about possible foreign interference in elections made Kentucky's use of scannable voting machines a cause for concern. Still, he later deleted the tweet after it became apparent that Republicans had scored significant wins in the state.
But by then it had been retweeted hundreds of times.
"Now we see as a reality that Kentucky was prime fertile breeding ground to amplify tactics that have previously been used in the 2016 election, and try out new tactics that I do believe will most likely continue to be used in the 2020 election," said Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully in 2014 against Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader. She said it foreshadowed "what is to come in elections not only here in the Commonwealth, but all across this nation."
By Thursday, the online campaign was melding with real-world action. A supporter of Mr. Bevin, Frank Simon, had set up a robocall network telling people to "please report suspected voter fraud" to the state Department of Elections.
There are no indications of any voter fraud in Kentucky, according to Ms. Grimes.
"Beyond the routine calls that we field, up to and on Election Day, there are no irregularities that would substantiate a 5,000-vote difference margin that now separates unofficially Governor-elect Beshear with Governor Bevin," she said.
While the Kentucky election, held in an off-year, remains a sideshow to most people outside the state, election security experts see in it a worrying sign of what Americans may be forced to contend with next November.
A situation like Kentucky's, but on a national scale, would at the very least leave the government "paralyzed in terms of any real policy, domestically or abroad," said George Beebe of the Center for the National Interest, a conservative think tank in Washington.
"We are not going to be able to actually do things," Mr. Beebe said. "It's going to be a challenge, I think, to hold things together. Where this is pointing is a crisis of systemic legitimacy."
Follow Matthew Rosenberg on Twitter @AllMattNYT and Nick Corasaniti @NYTnickc
Ben Decker contributed research.