It is an internet battle cry: Stop the Steal has swept across inboxes, Facebook pages and Twitter like an out-of-control virus, spreading misinformation and violent rhetoric – and spilling into real life, like the protest planned for DC this weekend.
But while Stop the Steal may sound like a new 2020 political slogan to many, it did not emerge organically over widespread concerns about voting fraud in President Donald Trump’s race against Joe Biden. It has been in the works for years.
Its origin traces to Roger Stone, a veteran Republican operative and self-described “dirty trickster” whose 40-month prison sentence for seven felonies was cut short by Trump’s commutation in July.
Stone’s political action committee launched a “Stop the Steal” website in 2016 to fundraise ahead of that election, asking for $10,000 donations by saying, “If this election is close, THEY WILL STEAL IT.”
He first trotted out the slogan during the 2016 primaries – claiming a “Bush-Cruz-Kasich-Romney-Ryan-McConnell faction” was attempting to steal the Republican nomination from Donald Trump – before re-upping Stop the Steal for the general election.
“Donald Trump thinks Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are going to steal the next election,” his website said that October.
Stop the Steal briefly resurfaced around the midterms in 2018 – with Republicans employing the hashtag during a recount in a neck-and-neck Florida race for U.S. Senate – but it wasn’t until 2020 that it really caught fire.
A Stop the Steal Facebook group was managed by a loose coalition of right wing operatives, some of whom have worked with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. The group amassed hundreds of thousands of followers in little more than a day before Facebook shut it down on November 5 – the day after it was launched.
Also on November 5, Bannon started his own “Stop the Steal” Facebook group; he changed the name to “Own Your Vote” the following day. It was not removed by Facebook, but the social media company did later remove several other pages affiliated with Bannon.
“We’ve removed several clusters of activity for using inauthentic behavior tactics to artificially boost how many people saw their content,” said Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman. “That includes a group that was originally named Stop the Steal, which later became Gay Communists for Socialism and misled people about its purpose using deceptive tactics.”
Spinoff pages sprung up soon after like brush fires, with Facebook struggling to quickly snuff out the spreaders of bogus information.
All the while, Roger Stone and Bannon have been in full disinformation mode. Stone has appeared on the show of far-right radio commentator Alex Jones to trumpet groundless claims that Biden is trying to steal the election; Bannon is echoing similar conspiracy theories on his podcast, calling the election “a mass fraud.”
“We’re calling it a fraud or we’re calling it a steal – stop the steal,” he said on a November 4 episode.
Despite efforts by Facebook to shut down the misleading content, it was too late. The cluster of groups and pages – which altogether had amassed 2.5 million followers, according to an analysis by activist group Avaaz – had seeded a jungle of misinformation that is being shared – and believed – by millions of Americans.
“I would not consider this a grassroots movement by any means,” said Ben Decker, the CEO and founder of Memetica, a digital investigations consultancy. “Stop the Steal is a highly coordinated partisan political operation intent on bringing together conspiracy theorists, militias, hate groups and Trump supporters to attack the integrity of our election.”
The movement has also migrated to in-person events, Decker said, manifesting itself “in a variety of offline rallies and protests featuring a number of participants that are often armed.”
Some of the violent rhetoric associated with the campaign has come from its own leaders.
“Clean your guns,” said Dustin Stockton, one of the administrators of the Facebook Stop the Steal group, on a Facebook Live Stream video to his followers. “Things are going to get worse before they get better.”
Stockton acknowledged CNN’s request for comment but didn’t respond to questions. Stockton previously told CNN he did not see any messages within the group “calling for violence outside of what is common political hyperbole.” He said Facebook’s removal of the page was “out of line and they should restore it immediately.”
Stop the Steal triggered voter-intimidation lawsuits in 2016
When Stone launched Stop the Steal in 2016, it wasn’t just a campaign slogan and fundraising website – it also became a self-described “vote protectors” project that sought volunteers to monitor polling places. Stone told CNN this week that the purpose of the group was “to insure the integrity of the vote.”
The project triggered a slew of federal lawsuits just before Election Day by Democratic parties in six battleground states accusing Stone and affiliates of trying to intimidate minority voters in the cities where he intended to send volunteers.
A federal suit filed in Ohio, for instance, accused Stone’s Stop the Steal project of violating the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by “conspiring to intimidate, threaten, harass, or coerce voters on Election Day.”
A judge granted a temporary restraining order against the group, but it was lifted on appeal.
Today, StopTheSteal.org redirects to Stone’s personal web page, “StoneColdTruth.com,” where Stone has been posting conspiracy theories about “widespread voter fraud.”
This week, he appeared on Alex Jones’s show, where Stone groundlessly pronounced that Biden’s election was a “hoax” and made a plug for Stop the Steal.
“I think our headline is Join the Patriots in Washington, D.C. this weekend to protest the hoax that is the theft of this election and demand that we Stop the Steal,” he said, adding, “hashtag Stop the Steal.”
In an email, Stone responded pugnaciously to a question from CNN about whether the current Stop the Steal movement is a recycled version of the false narrative of mass voter fraud he led years before.
“As for the lack of evidence that is the mantra of all you flying monkeys,” he wrote. “It’s like denying the Holocaust. The evidence is overwhelming and compelling, despite the framing of your question.”
Stone defended the recycling of the slogan in his email, attempting to draw a parallel to other mass protests that share a theme, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963 and The Million Man March – a gathering of Black men in Washington, DC, in 1995.
Stone distanced himself from Bannon, referring to him as an “enemy of the people.” Bannon didn’t respond to messages from CNN seeking comment.
This fall, as the 2020 election drew closer, there was talk in right wing circles of dusting off the Stop the Steal campaign again – but not by Stone.
“I’m thinking about bringing Stop the Steal out of retirement,” said right wing activist Ali Alexander, formerly known as Ali Akbar, in a video he circulated on social media in September. “In the next coming days we are going to build the infrastructure to stop the steal.”
Alexander, a controversial figure on the right whose tweets about Jewish journalists have raised eyebrows, says he employed a successful Stop the Steal campaign during the 2018 midterms in Florida.
This year, Alexander’s company registered another Stop the Steal website – StoptheSteal.us – on November 4.
Alexander did not directly respond to CNN’s questions for this story.
Also on November 4, the Stop the Steal Facebook group was launched by an organization led by a woman with ties to Stone’s ex-wife and managed by a team of several conservative activists, some with close connections to Bannon.
Amy Kremer is the chair of Women for America First – an organization which created the Stop the Steal Facebook group, according to Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a London-based think tank that monitors online polarization and extremism. Kremer was a lead Tea Party organizer who also started a super PAC with Stone’s ex-wife, Ann Stone, called Women Vote Trump.
In an emailed response to a set of questions from CNN, Kremer did not deny that Stop the Steal is a planned, recycled version of a similar gambit. She declined to answer a question about the extent to which she was coordinating the Stop the Steal efforts with high-profile right wing operatives, but said: “We welcome the support and involvement of any individual who is concerned about the integrity of our elections and who supports President Trump.”
The administrators for the Stop the Steal Facebook group also included Dustin Stockton and Jennifer Lawrence, a couple who have both written for Breitbart – where Bannon once served as executive chairman, according to ISD. Both also were part of Bannon’s core team for We Build the Wall, an ill-fated crowdfunding campaign for Trump’s border wall that led to the arrest this summer of Bannon and three associates on suspicion of using hundreds of thousands of dollars in proceeds for personal expenses. Stockton and Lawrence were not among those arrested and indicted in August, but their recreational vehicle was raided by federal agents as a part of the probe. Bannon pleaded not guilty to the charges.
In an interview last week, Stockton told CNN that the Facebook group had had no contact with Bannon prior to its November 4 creation or while it was active.
“We haven’t been able to speak to anyone from that circle since August and the indictments,” he said.
‘The horse has bolted’
The Stop the Steal Facebook group took off immediately. Its size swelled at a dizzying pace, gaining some 300,000 followers in just 24 hours.
Some commenters on that Stop the Steal Facebook group and its knockoffs used “threatening rhetoric anticipating a civil war, or talk from members about how they are locked and loaded,” said Ciaran O’Connor, a disinformation analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
Citing one of the most extreme comments he came across, O’Connor said a user on one of the Facebook groups said they would die fighting for what they believe.
“Since then, this thread has over 450 comments in support of the original statement, with many saying that they would happily do the same,” he said.
Decker of Memetica said he watched the Facebook group radicalize people in real time during the peak of its virality.
“You had otherwise normal Trump supporters who suddenly wanted to understand what was being done against President Trump in this election,” he said. “And suddenly you see comments where people are asking, ‘What is this QAnon thing?’ ‘What is red pilling?’ And immediately you see all of these different users engage and share harmful, toxic conspiracy theories that they otherwise would have never seen had they not joined the group.”
The Stop the Steal hashtag has also spread widely on Twitter.
Seeded by a spate of tweets by Ali Alexander and others at least as early as September, the hashtag took off on Election Day – November 3 – with a tweet by a lawyer showing a video of a poll watcher in Philadelphia arguing with poll workers who wouldn’t let him in the building. The man was indeed wrongfully turned away; city officials told news outlets it was an “honest mistake” and that the poll watcher went to another polling site.
The tweet went viral, boosted by retweets from famous conservative firebrands such as Ann Coulter and Donald Trump Jr. Other conservative influencers picking up the hashtag on Twitter were Rudy Giuliani, Michelle Malkin and Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative activist and filmmaker who pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions and was pardoned by Trump.
All told, the hashtag was tweeted 1.7 million times, mostly after November 5, said Darren L. Linvill, an associate professor in the department of communications at Clemson University who tracks the spread of information online.
Meanwhile, many of those banned from or restrained by the two Big Tech companies have migrated to emerging platforms such as Parler, which became the most-downloaded free app in the Apple app store on the weekend of November 8 – the day major media outlets called the election for Biden.
Despite efforts by tech companies and fact checkers, the bogus charge that the election has been stolen has entered the bloodstream of American democracy.
“There are still groups active with tens of thousands of members, over 170 Facebook Stop the Steal events, the last time I counted,” O’Connor said. “The horse has bolted at this stage.”
The hyper-polarized rhetoric around the election worries Steven Levitsky, a Harvard government professor and co-author of the 2018 book “How Democracies Die.”
“When people lose faith in the electoral process and don’t think elections are clean and legitimate, they are much more willing to accept violence,” he said.
The onus, Levitsky said, is on Republicans in Congress to assure the public that the election was legitimate.
So far, that hasn’t happened. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to recognize Biden as the winner. To date only a handful of GOP leaders in Congress have done so.
CNN’s Scott Bronstein, Yahya Abou-Ghazala, Cybele Mayes-Osterman, Benjamin Naughton, Zachary Cohen and Amitoj Singh contributed to this report.