Two months after Inauguration Day, President Joe Biden is fully immersed in the daily activities of the presidency. He’s signed bills, announced a flurry of executive orders and delivered a speech from the White House’s red-carpeted Cross Hall. Yet the false narrative that Biden was not duly elected lingers. That is, millions of Americans don’t believe the 2020 presidential election reflected the will of the people.

As the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol proved, belief that the election was not free or fair can be dangerous. While many pinned the riots to former President Donald Trump’s messaging, experts like Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth,” say the fact that Trump is out of office doesn’t mean that the conspiracy theories about the election will go away.

“Trump was a node in a very large international network,” said Rauch. “He’s not and never was the only node.”

Fighting disinformation will be a “long-term struggle,” he added.

More than half of Americans believe that either or both of the last two presidential elections were fraudulent, according to data reported by political analyst Scott Rasmussen in the Deseret News. His polling showed 26% believe Hillary Clinton was the legitimate winner in 2016 and 31% believe Trump was the legitimate winner in 2020.

While research like this shows disinformation is not new and comes from both sides of the aisle, Kathryn Olmsted, a professor of history at University of California, Davis, who studies anti-government conspiracies, says it’s a growing problem. Increasing distrust of election results and the use of disinformation as a political weapon could ultimately undermine our democracy, she said.

Now, Republican legislators in dozens of states are using the public perception of widespread election fraud to advocate for changes to voting laws, in what Berkeley Public Policy professor Robert Reich called “the biggest attack on voting rights since Jim Crow,” on Twitter. But with a majority of Americans supporting election system reform, other Republican states like Tennessee are seeking compromise bills that would increase the security of elections without raising unnecessary barriers to voting. Still, as lawmakers in states like Georgia, Florida and Arizona push to limit early voting, the use of ballot drop boxes or vote by mail (long-embraced in Utah), Olmsted worries that trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist could backfire and make it harder for more and more people to vote.

What is disinformation and why is it on the rise?

Misinformation is generally defined as false or misleading information, whereas disinformation specifically refers to false or misleading content that is spread intentionally to deceive. While both have been increasing for decades, Trump’s propensity for making false statements while president brought increased attention to the problem, said Olmsted. Then, the 2020 pandemic ratcheted up paranoia and fueled animosity toward institutions that imposed gathering restrictions and mask-wearing, in addition to giving people more time to spend online, she said.

In 2020, Pew Research Center reported that nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults said they got their political news primarily from social media. That subsection of the population was mostly under 30 and more likely to encounter conspiracy theories, the data showed. A December poll from NPR and Ipsos showed that 7% of respondents don’t think the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al-Qaida terrorists and 19% don’t believe former President Barack Obama was born in the United States.

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According to Olmsted, conspiracy theories, especially those targeting minorities, have always been a part of American life. But over time, the ease of spreading rumors and lies has increased via the internet. At the same time, it’s become more profitable for people to share information they know is not true but will attract views for advertising. Paul Horner told The Washington Post in 2016 that he earned $10,000 a month from making fake news websites and applying Google’s AdSense, then sharing the content on Facebook, which has a business model that amplifies shocking content.

“The more people click on stuff, the more money you make, and outrage is a great way to get people to click on stuff,” said Rauch.

But it’s not just domestic trolls, says Rauch. Internet rumors have been perpetuated by politicians, activists and foreign governments as well. QAnon, a discredited far-right conspiracy theory movement that warns of a worldwide Satanic pedophile ring, is one of the bigger and most well-known disinformation networks and played a significant role in the election fraud rumors of 2020, he said.

“We are all being targeted 24/7,” said Rauch. “That doesn’t mean we distrust everyone. That’s not the case. It does mean we need to be street smart about checking sources.”  

Do we need election reform?

Election officials in every state and federal officials from former Attorney General William Barr to head of election security, Chris Krebs, have repeatedly testified that there are no verified instances of fraud that would have swayed the results of the 2020 election. Myriad rumors that were spread online by the former president or his supporters have been debunked by fact-checkers, and courts have ruled against Trump in all his legal claims alleging fraud.

Still, doubt persists.

What Democrats have decried as “the big lie” — that Biden was not elected legitimately — has been repeated by multiple Republican lawmakers. Others have refused to deny the unfounded allegations. A December Washington Post poll showed 129 Republicans in Congress supported Trump’s “continuing efforts to claim victory.”

“Certainly, this might be the most dangerous conspiracy theory as far as the U.S. government is concerned,” Olmsted said.

“It took centuries to establish the commitment to democratic norms we take for granted today,” said Rauch. “We don’t actually have a way to magically enforce elections. We depend on people believing our elections are legitimate and that our presidents are there because the will of the people is reflected through the constitutional process. If you lose that, then it’s just a power struggle all the way down to see who can manipulate politics.”  

Currently, 43 states are considering 253 bills aimed at increasing the security of elections, many of which would raise barriers to voting, including reducing the number of early voting days and limiting the ability to vote by mail, according to The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

For example, the Georgia Senate recently passed SB241, which would end no-excuse absentee voting and require an additional ID and a witness signature for some vote-by-mail applications, among a number of other changes to the state’s election laws.

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Republican Utah is one of five states (the rest of which lean blue) that have had universal voting by mail for years, with leaders from both parties saying it increases turnout. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., which has recorded more than 1,300 cases of voter fraud dating back to the 1980s, has found no examples of mass absentee ballot fraud being used to influence a major election.

This all comes as Democrats in Congress are pushing their own voting reform bill, which passed the House of Representatives without a single Republican vote. Americans from both parties agree that changes are necessary, with 77% of all voters saying they want voting procedures reformed before the midterm elections in 2022, according to polling by Rasmussen. But how?

Election reform in Kentucky is getting bipartisan support. A proposed bill there includes provisions that appease Republicans, like prohibiting anyone other than a family member from dropping off a ballot for you, and making it easier to remove people who no longer live in the state from voter rolls. Democrats favor provisions including providing a short period for early voting and allowing mail-in ballots that were improperly signed to be corrected.

Olmsted said reform founded on the idea that the election was fraudulent could be dangerous, “especially if those solutions to the problem that doesn’t exist make it harder to vote.”

Rauch, however, says there’s a legitimate conversation to be had about election rules, including the timing and restrictions on absentee and mail-in ballots.

“Sure, let’s have a conversation about election rules,” Rauch said. “But you don’t get to come along after the election and say we don’t like the rules, so we are challenging the election. Decide the rules and that’s that.”