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The truth in the 2020 election has become a matter of political belief

The Oct. 26 episode of Courthouse News' podcast Sidebar examines the ongoing rift among Americans a year after then-President Donald Trump made baseless claims of election fraud. Believers cling to conspiracy theories and perceive the truth as a matter of opinion.

(CN) — Say it started with fear. Joseph Oltmann, host of the Conservative Daily podcast, was afraid of what would happen if Joe Biden won the 2020 election.

After all, then-president Donald Trump told supporters in August 2020, “The only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”

As votes poured in, Oltmann remembered a call he listened in on more than a month earlier where he heard a guy referred to as “Eric from Dominion” say something along the lines of, “Trump won’t win, I made fucking sure of it.”

Internet research led Oltmann to Eric Coomer, a director of product strategy and security at Dominion Voting Systems in Denver. A friend relayed screenshots of political statements Coomer posted to his Facebook page and everything clicked for Oltmann.

On the Gateway Pundit and the Eric Metaxas Show, to Newsmax commentator Michelle Malkin and OAN White House correspondent Chanel Rion, Oltmann repeated his story. The Trump campaign retweeted the reported accusation of fraud. Trump attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell named Coomer in a press conference as they filed lawsuits questioning election results.

This screenshot of tweets from MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell appears in a Feb. 22, 2021, federal defamation complaint against Lindell and his company. Dominion Voting Systems wants $1.3 billion in damages from Lindell over his spread of election-fraud lies. (Image via Courthouse News)

These were among the 16 parties Coomer sued in December 2020 for defamation. By then Coomer was receiving death threats, according to his complaint, and had gone into hiding.

Dominion subsequently filed seven lawsuits in Washington and Delaware with similar allegations of defamation.

To be clear, Coomer said he wasn’t on the antifa — or leftist activist — phone call Oltmann described infiltrating in September. Even if his anti-Trump Facebook posts were taken at face value, Coomer was in no position to impact the results of any election. No person has that power. Nevertheless, Coomer became the “perfect villain” for the false narrative of election fraud.

Despite these facts, it has become a partisan statement to declare Oltmann’s story — along with other allegations of 2020 election fraud — false. There is no middle ground between what the left call the Big Lie and the right dubbed the Great Steal.

“If one of the fundamental tenets of the Republican Party is going to be that the election was stolen, despite the fact that there's no factual data for it then, how can we do fact checking?” asked Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor of public policy information and communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“If you're doing fact-checking, it's inherently going to be a political exercise, you're going to end up saying ‘we can't allow these people to speak on these platforms because what they believe isn't factually inaccurate,’” Zuckerman added. “We have what feels to me like an almost unsolvable political dispute.”

As of May, a Reuters/Ipso poll declared 53% of Republicans continued to believed Trump won reelection. To this group of millions, it doesn’t matter that Biden received 81 million votes from the people, 306 from the Electoral College and was inaugurated in January. 

The right-wing movement to Stop the Steal infamously grew out of QAnon, a cult driven by the belief that Trump would defeat an evil deep state cabal trafficking children, among other horrors.

FILE - In this Aug. 2, 2018, file photo, a protester holding a Q sign waits in line with others to enter a campaign rally with President Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Facebook says on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, it will restrict QAnon and stop recommending that users join groups supporting it, but the company is stopping short of banning the right-wing conspiracy movement outright. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Internet timestamps date QAnon to October 2017, when a user on the 4chan message board began leaving cryptic breadcrumbs claiming Hilary Clinton was about to be indicted. With a diehard ethos for free speech, websites like 4chan and 8chan hosted forums for everything from anime and game culture to white supremacy, Nazi memes and Trump saviorism.

But QAnon did not remain on the dark web for long. YouTubers and bloggers analyzed Q drops on mainstream platforms, spreading the theory across Twitter and Facebook where falsities are all too easily mistaken for news.

According to Pew Research Center, one in five Americans reports obtaining news from social media, a trend correlated with users having lower political knowledge and a higher exposure to conspiracy theories.

“People are anxious for information and there's a decline in trust,” said Daniel Birdsong, a senior lecturer at the University of Dayton’s department of political science. “QAnon has taken advantage of the new media landscape that's developed over the last 20 to 30 years: local journalism has declined which leaves an open space, and some of that has been filled in by getting information or news through social media.”

Throughout the 2020 pandemic, QAnon became a dragnet for other conspiracy theories providing an umbrella where millions of Americans gathered in opposition to mask mandates, lockdowns and vaccines.

One poll from the Public Policy Research Institute released this past May estimated 15% of Americans agreed with the core beliefs of QAnon, including the notion that "the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation," and "there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders."

While nearly a third of Republicans answered affirmatively to the poll questions, nearly 15% of independents and a nontrivial 7 to 14% of Democrats agreed.

“QAnon is not just your grandpa who got confused and got online. This is made up of a bunch of different people of varying ages, genders, races,” said Matthew Hannah, assistant professor of digital humanities at Purdue University. “This is not going away. This is ideology.” 

Rather than ushering in a new age of enlightenment, Hannah said the internet brought about an information dark age where citizens easily surround themselves with the sources and support needed to prop up and deepen beliefs.

“We have to acknowledge these conspiracy theories don't just come out of nowhere. It's not like these people are crazy, there is a real sense in America that something's wrong, and that our politicians aren't doing anything about it,” Hannah said. “Certainly QAnon is particularly unhinged about it because we're seeing that there are people willing to commit violent acts in pursuit of this conspiracy, and that's scary.”

The government added a red arrow (left) to highlight Brian McCreary in this photo of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, standing in frame with the QAnon shaman. (Image via Courthouse News)

Following the Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol in which five people died, Trump was banned from Twitter and Facebook but embraced on niche platforms like Gettr and Telegram. Q hasn’t posted since December 2020, leading some to say the worst has passed. Others fear a resurgence.

"When Trump left office, that was a moment where we would have had the best chance to of de-radicalizing as many as we could,” said Jitarth Jadeja, a former Q-believer. “But it was nowhere near enough and it's just spread into these different sects that operate on different platforms.”

While considering the web of disinformation presented by Coomer at a court hearing this month, a Denver judge questioned whether to consider testimony from QAnon expert Mike Rothschild at the motion to dismiss stage.

Though Oltmann denies following Q, Rochschild’s affidavit described Oltmann’s content as “deeply embedded in QAnon.”

Asked about the journalistic standards for the Conservative Daily, Oltmann pledged in a deposition "to tell the truth.” What Oltmann considers the truth, however, is also a sound rejection of the 2020 election as analyzed by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

While political boundaries are drawn and defended around chosen truths, the court is given no such luxury. Whether that leaves recourse for victims like Coomer — or even believers like Oltmann — remains to be seen.

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