How a dubious tweet about illegal votes found its route to Trump’s megaphone

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An obscure Republican official traced as the source of an evidence-free assert that millions illegally voted says in an interview he has received menaces and abuse

When Donald Trump tweeted that millions of people voted illegally in the presidential election, headline novelists were quick to point out that he had no evidence .

The US president-elect had not given his source but fact-checking websites and newspapers traced it to a two-week-old random tweet by a little known former Republican party official in Texas. Gregg Phillips claimed on 12 November to have found more than three million elections cast by non-citizens but he too failed to provide data.

Accused of the very topical sin of spreading fake news, all the way to the White House, Phillips is unrepentant. He stands by his original affirm, though he still offers no evidence, and is denying that he was Trumps inspiration in any case.

The tweet that I put out had died down; nothing else was being said, Phillips told the Guardian on Tuesday. And then when Mr Trump came out with his tweet, it seemed to erupt again because somebody erroneously connected me to Mr Trumps tweet. The campaign “re coming out” and cleared that up: what he was talking about was a Washington Post article.

Indeed, when asked to explain Trumps claim of illegal voting, his transition team pointed journalists to a 2014 article in the Washington Post by two academics which the Post website has since prefaced with a disclaimer along with a 2012 Pew Research study. Neither proved that non-citizens voted in 2016.

Media analysts still believe, however, that Phillipss Twitter-born conspiracy theory, as the Washington Post put it, is the most likely rationale for Trumps unsubstantiated outburst on 27 November.

The episode offers a study in the power of lone activists to make claims that soon become reported with the trust of facts on myriad websites. It also illustrates the blowback they can suffer when, rightly or wrongly, Trump is perceived as having recycled those claims to serve his dangerously selective worldview .

Phillips, a 56 -year-old grandfather based in Austin, Texas, said: Im on the edge and you can probably hear it in my voice. In the last couple of days Ive been called a child molester. Somebody posted something up there that Ive been arrested for armed robbery; it turned out that if you drilled into that it was some black guy that was 15 years younger than me. Theyve accused me of being a Nazi, a fascist, a Russian spy, an Israeli spy theyve called me all sorts of words that I wont even repeat on here.

Phillips is no political novice. The former Republican official in Alabama and Mississippi was managing director of a Super Pac that supported Newt Gingrichs 2012 campaign for chairman. He has worked for the state governments of Mississippi and Texas and now operates a company that provides data analytics and fraud protection to healthcare providers.

He has also long taken an interest in the issue of voter fraud and says he is on the board of trustees of the True the Vote , a conservative campaigning organisation focused on US electoral standards . So it did not come out of the blue when Phillips tweeted four days after the election: Completed analysis of database of 180 million voter enrollments. Number of non-citizen elections outstrips 3 million. Consulting legal team.

Gregg Phillips (@ JumpVote)

Completed analysis of database of 180 million voter registrations.

Number of non-citizen elections outstrips 3 million.

Consulting legal team.

November 11, 2016

Phillips did not provide any data to subsistence his assertion and still deteriorations to do so. The website PolitiFact rated the claim of 3 million illegal aliens casting vote in the election as false. Other fact-checkers concurred.

But a tweet can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. On 14 November Infowars, a conspiracy-laden site run by Austin-based shock jock Alex Jones , ran a story that has been initiated :~ ATAGEND Three million referendums in the US presidential election were cast by illegal foreigners, according to Greg Phillips of the organisation.

An exact text search for the phrase according to Greg Phillips of the organization in Google shows it has been incorporated into hundreds, if not thousands, of versions of the story.

Dan Cassino, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said the involvement of Infowars devoted the Phillipss assertion the momentum of a runaway develop. There are whole parts of the internet where it then becomes accepted by lots of people. It basically becomes non-falsifiable at that point.

The Infowars story attained it to the top headlines on the hugely influential Drudge Report :~ ATAGEND CLAIM: 3 Million Votes in Presidential Election Cast by Illegals …

Finally Trump, stung by his 2 million popular referendum deficit to Hillary Clinton and endeavours for a recount in three countries, lashed out by apparently recycling the tale for his own aims. In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular referendum if you subtract the millions of people who voted illegally, he tweeted .

Articles by the the Washington Post, Austin American-Statesman and others described a causal link between Trump and Phillips, who was bewildered to find himself in the eye of a storm.

US election voters in Georgia. Donald Trump is currently more than two million behind in the popular election. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/ EPA

Im just an ordinary guy who has an interest in free and fair elections, he said on Tuesday. This has been a passion in my life. This is not something I decided to do on 12 November. Im not a public figure, Im not an elected official, I have no authority in the world about this. Im doing this on my own dime.

Phillips, who voted for Trump, is denying that what happened is an example of the so-called post-truth era in which mainstream media is distrusted. This is not false news, he said. Just because you havent considered it and only because the haters on Twitter havent insured it doesnt make it false.

Some of these nutbags who already talking about killing me; if I release the data does that mean theyre really going to do it? Who knows, right? This is absurdity. This is the land of the absurd. But this stuffs real. This is not a joke. Ive been doing this for seven years. Its real.

Phillips claims to have started building a database in 2009 of all voter enrollments in the US with details including geocoding. We know where everyone lives, we can look at it on a map, we can see changes, we can see how things go, move and operate. If Im incorrect, its a matter of degree: is it bigger, is it smaller. What we know is that non-citizens voted. If only people would set the passion theyve had about my tweet into agreeing to sit down and fix the frigging problem.

Until Phillips can back his claims, fears will persist that Twitter rumours can start a rightwing media firestorm that bears little relation to reality and engulfs even the White House. Cassino said: Its incredibly difficult to counteract because the ones to whom it appeals the most are the ones who least trust the mainstream media who are doing the debunking.

It needs media on the right, people like Rush Limbaugh, to take a stand about the truth so those people will listen. The establishment media has been declawed as a fact checker.

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