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By Marianna Spring
Specialist disinformation reporter

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  • US election 2020

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image captionSupporters of the president hold a post-election ‘Stop The Steal’ protest in Atlanta

President Trump alleged “fraud” even while votes were still being counted – the culmination of a strategy at least months in the making.

In the early hours of a frosty November morning in Connecticut, 49-year-old Candy snuggled into her bed after a long night shift.

She immediately unlocked her phone – and began scrolling through her social media feed, as she does most nights.

But this was different – it was election night. The result was still hanging in the balance. Candy scrolled, catching up on the night’s news while waiting for her favoured candidate to speak out. And just after 1 a.m., he did:

Candy agreed. She was frustrated and she wanted to do something – so when one of her best friends invited her to join a Facebook group called Stop the Steal, she jumped at the opportunity.

“The Democrats have said since the beginning of all this Covid stuff that they’re going to do whatever it takes to get Trump out – and I think that they have succeeded,” she later said.

Candy was expecting this. For months allegations of “rigged elections” and “voter fraud” have been punctuating her Facebook feed.

And she’s not the only American who had been exposed to voting disinformation for months before polling day.

Tweets and democracy

Research by the BBC’s Anti-disinformation unit reveals that disinformation about voter fraud has been plugged by influential accounts on social media repeatedly, for months.

And it came from the very top. President Trump first started tweeting allegations of fraud as far back as April.

Between then and the election, he mentioned rigged elections or voter fraud more than 70 times.

For example, he tweeted this in June:

It’s not a new theme. Mr Trump made claims of voter fraud back in 2016 – after an election he won.

But this time around, the evidence suggests many more people have been seeing unsubstantiated claims all over their social media feeds for weeks. Candy is just one of them. Hundreds of thousands joined big Facebook groups under the “Stop the Steal” banner.

image captionOne of the most groups that sprung up after the US Election

Our research found that influential right-wing accounts were instrumental in amplifying these claims – and were frequently retweeted by President Trump. That includes a number of figures with big followings who have gone on to be involved in a protest movement centred around the unsubstantiated idea of a “rigged” election.

Where did #StoptheSteal come from?

On election night the hashtag #StoptheSteal sprung up on Twitter after the first of many misleading videos about voter fraud went viral.

The video showed a poll watcher being denied entry to a Philadelphia polling station. It has almost two million views on Twitter, and was shared by multiple pro-Trump accounts. We investigated the video shortly after it was posted.

The man who features in it was asked to wait outside by officials – with a woman telling him that his poll-watching certificate was not valid at that particular polling station.

The video was authentic and, as it turns out, the woman was wrong. There was confusion over the rules. Poll watchers used to only be allowed into a particular station in Philadelphia, but they can now visit multiple sites across the city.

The situation was later clarified and the man was later allowed into the station, and given an apology. None of that was reflected in the video of course – and the hashtag had already gone viral.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe slogan went viral on election night

The Stop the Steal slogan was then used by those setting up large Facebook groups which, since election night, have cumulatively amassed more than a million members.

Several of these groups have been removed after users posted threats of violence and calls for “civil war”.

They have become a hotbed for more misleading videos and false claims – similar to that incident in Philadelphia – which have flooded social media feeds of people like Candy.

  • How I talk to the victims of conspiracy theories

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  • ‘QAnon might affect how my friends vote’

Sharpies, burned ballots and dead voters

“They were saying that we started the group to try to start riots in different places in the country, which wasn’t true,” Candy tells me, increasingly angry about her Stop the Steal Facebook group being closed down.

Candy, along with most of the members of these groups, aren’t calling for violence. She says she is simply pursuing what she thinks is the truth.

“Everybody was just out there putting out what fraud they were seeing going on with the election,” she says.

image copyrightFacebook
image captionCandy pictured with a Donald Trump cardboard cut-out

She admits to me that she spends too much time on Facebook – and though she says she doesn’t quite trust what she sees on the social network, at the same time it has been her main source of election information.

She mentioned a number of debunked or evidence-less claims: that certain types of pens were handed out that would invalidate ballots, or that ballots were being dumped or ripped up.

We investigated dozens of claims circulating online turned out to be made up, untrue or impossible to prove.

One example: A man said that he had thrown away Trump ballots in Wisconsin in a post that went viral on Facebook. But it turns out that he lives in the suburbs of Detroit – in a totally different state, Michigan.

The man, a 32-year-old butcher, revealed his real identity to BBC News, and insisted he had nothing to do with counting any ballots – in Wisconsin or anywhere else. The post, he said, was simply a joke.

There’s no concrete evidence of votes – for any candidate – being thrown away or ripped up.

Dead people don’t vote

“I saw a video somebody posted that a man had discovered that his wife voted this year,” Candy says, “but she died in 2017.”

Again, we’ve looked into these allegations. Many claims about dead voters have been revealed as misinformation or mistaken identities by the authorities. We found one case where a living person accidently submitted an absentee ballot that was sent to a dead parent.

There are others where the voters in question died before the election. Authorities in Michigan confirmed that when that is the case, the vote is thrown out.

Conspiracies fuel the fire

In the background – and occasional foreground – of this election is a series of increasingly popular conspiracy theories that encourage the idea everything is rigged, suspicious and not as it seems.

Professor Whitney Phillips of Syracuse University says the QAnon conspiracy theory may explain in part why these rumours about voting have spread like wildfire.

This is the baseless belief that President Trump is waging a secret war against Satanic paedophiles.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionQAnon flag features at recent Stop the Steal protests

“Journalists and commentators have focused on the satanic child sex ring elements of the theory,” she says. “But buried within that narrative was a deeper ‘deep state’ narrative,” which caused Trump supporters to question and doubt almost everything.

In her view, even before the first vote was cast there were “breadcrumbs and a whole narrative framework” that the Democrats were going to steal the election.

Her greatest fear is not about violence on the streets. She doesn’t think people like Candy who join Stop the Steal groups are going to riot because of fake news online.

Instead, Whitney Philips and other experts I speak to worry about the slow, gradual erosion of people’s faith in democracy.

Additional reporting by Olga Robinson

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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)

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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers


Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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