Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Using his social media megaphone, President Trump has pushed once-fringe beliefs into the consciousness of everyday Americans.

The big picture: The coronavirus "infodemic" that has flooded the internet with misinformation and conspiracy theories has worn down people's already faltering trust in institutions, making it easier for fringe ideas spread by the president to go viral ahead of the election.

Where it stands: "Long-term trends about how fast fringe information moves into the mainstream have accelerated" says Jonathon Morgan, CEO of Yonder, an artificial intelligence startup that monitors mis- and disinformation.

  • "This is a moment we've been building to for over a decade. But what we thought might unfold over the next 5–10 years, we're actually seeing unfold over a matter of months," Morgan says.

Driving the news: The president has ramped up his attacks on mail-in voting, claiming Democrats will use it to rig the November election by voting multiple times or other means, all illegal and most unprecedented or outright impossible.

  • On Sunday, Twitter flagged a Trump tweet on the subject as violating its rules on election integrity. Facebook simply affixed a link to its election information hub, just as it does for all posts on voting from federally elected officials.

Trump's claims seem to be catching on, despite the lack of evidence to support them.

  • While polling suggests people mostly support mail-in voting, a recent Gallup survey finds that nearly half of all Americans now believe it is vulnerable to fraud.
  • Research this week from Yonder shows that fringe internet trolls right now exert the most influence on the online conversation on mail-in voting.

Several fringe ideas and conspiracy theories have been pushed further mainstream by the president, often via tweets to his 85 million followers.

  • Unproven cures for the coronavirus have grown in popularity after the president has promoted them. Many Trump supporters remain convinced hydroxychloroquine is a miracle COVID-19 cure but that there's a conspiracy to obscure its efficacy in fighting the disease.
  • Birtherism has mutated from false claims that President Obama wasn't born in the U.S., an idea Trump built his political career on, to casting doubt on the eligibility of Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who was born to immigrant parents in California. The idea, which Trump promoted earlier this month before easing off of it, "isn't necessarily supposed to be believed by everybody" but still "muddies the waters and clouds clear facts about why she would be eligible," says Bryce Webster-Jacobsen of cyber intelligence firm GroupSense.
  • Tech censorship began as an idea most embraced by fringe online figures like Trump super-fans Diamond and Silk before becoming widely accepted in the GOP, with Trump as its top promoter. The idea that tech companies censor political speech they disagree with is now a commonly held belief among both Republicans and Democrats, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
  • QAnon continues to grow. President Trump, who praised supporters of the conspiracy theory last week, has retweeted QAnon followers at least 90 times since the pandemic began, and others in Trump's inner circle have also shared Q content. Nearly a dozen QAnon supporters are now 2020 Republican Congressional nominees.

Be smart: Conservative media outlets like Fox News, Breitbart and OANN are the end point in an established pipeline that takes fringe ideas from the internet and packages them for a presidential audience.

  • "By the time fringe information reaches the president, it's gone through sources of information that, to him, are very reliable," says Morgan.

The bottom line: The office of the president makes Trump a uniquely potent vector for spreading fringe beliefs, particularly as some Americans' trust in other institutions crumbles.

  • "When a figure that has inherent trust built into their position or role in society addresses a fact or idea, it provides validity to it," says Webster-Jacobsen.

Go deeper: The coronavirus conspiracy news cycle

Go deeper

Sep 25, 2020 - Technology

Exclusive: Majority polled back a social-media blackout for election

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Fifty-two percent of voters support shutting down social media platforms altogether for the week of the presidential election, according to a poll from GQR research shared exclusively with Axios.

The big picture: Tech companies have aggressively rolled out new guardrails around misinformation related to the election and taken down numerous foreign-led meddling campaigns this year, but critics continue to fear that social media is a vector for domestic and foreign deceit.

Christopher Wray: FBI has not seen evidence of national voter fraud effort by mail

FBI Director Christopher Wray responded to a question on the security of mail-in voting to the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Thursday by saying that the agency has "not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it's by mail or otherwise."

Why it matters: President Trump has ramped up his claims, without evidence, that widespread mail-in voting would rig the 2020 election against him. On Wednesday, after declining to say whether he would commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election to Joe Biden, Trump said that "the ballots are out of control."

Sanders: "This is an election between Donald Trump and democracy"

Photo: BernieSanders.com

In an urgent appeal on Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said President Trump presented "unique threats to our democracy" and detailed a plan to ensure the election results will be honored and that voters can cast their ballots safely.

Driving the news: When asked yesterday whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses, Trump would not, and said: "We're going to have to see what happens."