WEST CHESTER, Pa. — Disinformation has long been a feature of American politics. Mudslinging, smear campaigns, dirty tricks. Yet wading through the muck ahead of this year’s midterm elections in one fiercely contested state, Pennsylvania, shows just how thoroughly it now warps the American democratic process.
In July, a tweet made the rounds spreading a falsehood about voting. “BREAKING: Pennsylvania will not be accepting mail-in ballots,” declared someone using an account called the Donald J. Trump Tracker.
In September, mysterious letters began arriving in mailboxes in Chester County, on the old Main Line west of Philadelphia, falsely telling people that their votes might not have been counted in the last election.
No, the Democratic candidate for United States Senate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, does not have tattoos of the Crips, the notorious street gang from Los Angeles, as Newt Gingrich said on Fox.
contentious primaries, Pennsylvanians have experienced a deluge of false or misleading posts, photographs and videos on social media, as well as increasingly partisan, bitter and at times unhinged claims on television, radio and live streams to a degree that no one recalled seeing before.
“I’m not saying the politics was ever, you know, perfect,” Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia from 2008 to 2016, said in an interview, lamenting the seemingly bottomless depth of the problem.
“I think what’s changed is you go back 100 years and you’d have had to put a whole lot more effort into spreading lies,” he said. “Now, you can just push a button.”
A lot of attention has focused on a stroke that Mr. Fetterman suffered in May, just as he clinched the Democratic nomination. The stroke left him with an auditory processing disorder, a condition that affects the brain’s ability to filter and interpret sounds, which Republicans have said makes him unfit for office. His speech has also become more halting, and he stumbles over his words, as he did multiple times in the debate last week against his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, the television personality known as Dr. Oz.
Opponents used his verbal gaffes in misleading ways. A video montage by a Republican campaign operative, Greg Price, exaggerated the effects of the stroke, while a Twitter account impersonating BuzzFeed falsely claimed that Mr. Fetterman had apologized for urinating on a campaign staffer. Mr. Price did not respond to requests for comment.
Other false claims have, again, questioned the machines that count votes, while a recent flurry of posts on Telegram, the app created in Russia, have incorrectly accused the state’s top election official of not complying with legal rulings about mail-in ballots. ActiveFence, a cybersecurity company, said that these claims have spread across platforms, garnering tens of thousands of impressions.
Jill Greene, the state representative for Common Cause, the national good-government organization, said that the many unfounded and untruthful claims posed a challenge for voters.