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Conspiracy theories swirl over canceled Iowa poll, pushed by Sanders and Yang supporters

Image: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign event in Des Moines
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 2, 2020.   -   Copyright  John Locher AP
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Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Andrew Yang pushed false conspiracy theories on Twitter over the weekend tied to the canceled Des Moines Register poll, effectively commandeering a trending hashtag to convey the idea that their candidates are more successful than the public has been led to believe.

The Des Moines Register poll, a closely watched indicator of the Iowa race, was canceled after at least one interviewer apparently omitted Pete Buttigieg's name from the randomized list of candidates the surveyor read. The political website Axios reported that the reason for the error was that an interviewer increased the font size of the questionnaire on a computer screen, leaving the bottom choice invisible.

But supporters of Sanders and Yang decided, without evidence, that the reason for the poll's cancellation had to be that their candidates had high poll numbers, which the newspaper or the polling company wanted to suppress for some reason. (The Des Moines Register poll is actually one of the most respected polls in the country, known for its integrity and accuracy.)

Sanders and Yang supporters flooded the hashtag, "#ReleaseThePoll," which was one of the top trends on Saturday night. Data collected by the open-source Twitter analytics tool Hoaxy showed that the primary drivers of the hashtag were Sanders fans alleging conspiracy theories about the poll, followed by Yang fans pushing one of their own.

Tech companies and government agencies have dedicated significant resources to fighting foreign election interference, including foreign disinformation campaigns. But recent discussions around the race for the Democratic presidential nomination highlight how social media remains easily manipulated by passionate Americans and even political voices who mean well.

A recent hashtag about a supposed split between Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was boosted significantly by people who sought to downplay the idea of tension between the campaigns.

The news of the poll's cancellation was immediately seized on by Sanders supporters. Two minutes after the Des Moines Register announced on Twitter that its poll would not be released, a user named @JonnyBoyCA tweeted "BERNIE'S SURGING! #ReleaseThePoll" Another user, @TroyRudd, tweeted "Didn't the Des Moines Register endorse Joe Biden? Must be embarrassing. #ReleaseThePoll! #BernieWillWin." The Des Moines Register endorsed Elizabeth Warren, not Joe Biden.

Still, those two tweets received more retweets and likes than any other post using that hashtag in the hour after the poll was released. The engagement with early tweets using #ReleaseThePoll was enough to catapult the hashtag into Twitter's trending topics section — and onto the screens of more American Twitter users.

The trending topic was pushed even further up the trending topics leaderboard by supporters of Yang, who hopped onto the hashtag 45 minutes later with an identical conspiracy theory, claiming with no evidence that the poll was pulled because it showed Yang jumping up several points. Some even claimed, also without any evidence, that Yang had taken the lead in the unreleased poll.

"I'm going to be tweeting #ReleaseThePoll tonight. If anyone wants to join me you can. This is clearly another attempt to stop a favorable @AndrewYang poll from coming out ahead of the vote. @DMRegister knows it will make him look electable," wrote an Andrew Yang fan page with over 14,000 followers, who received hundreds of retweets. "This never happens. RELEASE THE POLL!"

Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse who focuses on content moderation and social media, said that those moments during a campaign that don't live up to voters' expectations are "ripe for exploitation" by those looking to push narratives strengthening the idea that there is an elaborate conspiracy against their chosen candidate.

"Conspiracy theorists are looking for unusual events such as this," Grygiel said of the poll being canceled. "They have a history of happening a certain way. An unusual media event already primes the public because it's unusual."

Grygiel said that academic studies have shown for decades that unexpected outcomes tend to drive more news coverage and attract more news consumer attention and, in turn, baseless speculation.

"Once a conspiracy theory launches, alternative conspiracy theories could quickly surface to counter them," Grygiel said. "The result is a toxic disinformation soup."

Grygiel said that Yang and Sanders both have dedicated "very online" fan bases including large evangelizing wings on platforms that are conducive to online organizing and, in some cases, trolling.

Yang's supporters, which refer to themselves as the "Yang Gang," work together on the chat app Discord, sometimes imploring one another to post unique hashtags during debates to boost Yang's odds of being visible in Twitter's trending topics.

Sanders has the largest community on Reddit of any candidate outside of President Donald Trump.

On Saturday night, other users on Twitter with high engagement used the #ReleaseThePoll hashtag to fold 2016 talking points about election rigging into a new conspiracy theory.

"There is virtually no way this is not a coverup. The corruption in the@DNC is real. #ReleaseThePoll#BernieSanders2020," one user with three followers tweeted three times, receiving dozens of retweets. The user's account was created in January.