The 2020 election and its turbulent aftermath fueled a powerful generation of online influencers, a Washington Post data analysis has found, producing sky-high follower counts for an array of conservatives who echoed Trump’s false claims of election fraud, known as the “big lie.” Some doubled or tripled their audiences on Twitter, while others saw even larger gains — catapulting, like Becker, from relative obscurity to online fame.
These accounts amassed followers despite vows by Big Tech companies to police election disinformation, The Post found. And they have gone on to use their powerful megaphones to shape the national debate on other subjects, injecting fresh waves of distortion into such culture-war topics as transgender rights and critical race theory.
“Once they’ve gained a level of influence, they can continue to leverage that influence going forward,” said Kate Starbird, a leading expert on disinformation at the University of Washington. “Manipulation becomes embedded in the network.”
To conduct its analysis, The Post identified 77 of the biggest spreaders of disinformation about the 2020 election, tracked how they built large audiences online and then analyzed how they used their new power to fuel debate on other divisive topics.
The list of 77 was drawn from research by disinformation experts at Stanford, Harvard and Cornell universities, as well as the University of Washington. While the details of their methodologies differed, the researchers all culled Twitter for posts that spread misperceptions about the election and then determined which accounts had racked up the most retweets, spreading the “big lie” most widely.
The list includes many well-known figures, such as Trump himself, his sons Eric and Donald Jr., Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon and others close to the administration. It includes Trump allies who gained fame specifically for their false claims of voter fraud, such as attorneys L. Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, and prominent media figures such as Fox News’s Sean Hannity, Jim Hoft of Gateway Pundit and Josh Caplan of Breitbart News.
But it includes many lesser lights as well — conservative pundits, self-described citizen-journalists and others famous mainly for being online. Commentator Candace Owens, right-wing activist Jack Posobiec and YouTuber Tim Pool are on the list. So are QAnon proponent Tracy Diaz (a.k.a. “Tracy Beanz”), the anonymous @catturd2 account and an Arizona man who went by the handle @prayingmedic before Twitter suspended him following the Jan. 6 insurrection.