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Conspiracy, lies and social media: AP finds state, local GOP officials promoting online disinformation

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After the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, investigative reporters Garance Burke, Martha Mendoza and Juliet Linderman wanted to know if local, county and state Republican officials across the country were continuing to amplify online messages similar to those that had inspired the riot, and what they hoped to accomplish by doing so.

To find their answer, the trio turned to data journalism. When the right-wing aligned social media platform Parler was taken offline, Burke reached out to confidential sources and obtained a comprehensive Parler archive ahead of other media competitors. Then, data journalist Larry Fenn built a framework to ingest the 183 million posts and 13 million user profiles. Burke, Mendoza and Linderman turned to AP statehouse reporters for help and quickly built a spreadsheet of hundreds of names of local, county and state-level GOP officials to check against profiles on the social platforms.

Meanwhile,Burke got in touch with an artificial intelligence company that worked with AP to build an algorithm that could match those lower-level officials to Parler accounts,each hand-verified by AP reporters,allowing an unprecedented look at GOP officials’ unfiltered and archived posts on Parler.

But the team did not stop at Parler. Burke,Mendoza and Linderman mined the officials’ accounts on Gab,Telegram and other alternative platforms to which they had migrated, soon identifying a faction of lower-level Republican officials that have pushed lies,misinformation and QAnon conspiracy theories echoing those that fueled the violent U.S. Capitol siege. One recent Facebook post,for example, declared all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45 are part of the militia and should arm themselves.

The reporters turned to experts who discussed how the messaging formed part of a broader debate over free speech online,and contextualized it to show why these elected and appointed officials’ influence matters: They recruit and promote GOP candidates to run for local office and help control the party’s messaging.

The trio reached out to many Republican officials for comment for both print and video,seeking to understand their perspective on online censorship,how they reach their constituents and whether they think their posts could incite violence. The reporters’ approach was rewarded: Some officials who were recently visited by the FBI,or who expressed sympathy toward a militia group whose members were arrested in the alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, agreed to speak with AP.

As the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warn of more domestic terrorism and violent extremism,the reporters have shined a crucial light on a vocal and highly visible segment of the Republican Party. The story,which ran in English and Spanish, was widely circulated globally and across the U.S.; PBS NewsHour did a segment on the story interviewing Burke on air.

For harnessing the power of social media analysis,data science and AP’s state-level expertise in government accountability to reveal how lies and misinformation from the 2020 election have reached deep into the GOP’s state apparatus,Burke,Mendoza, Linderman and Fenn win AP’s Best of the Week award.

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