NPR: Shannon Bond

Baseless claims that voting machines made by Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic are being used to rig voting in Brazil are circulating online and in far-right media in the U.S. — even though neither company's hardware or software is being used in the current election there.

It's the latest example of how debunked election fraud narratives are going international. In many cases, the false claims about Brazil are being pushed in English to American audiences by right-wing influencers and conservative media sites who falsely assert that Donald Trump won the 2020 U.S. presidential election and appear to be planting the idea that similar fraud will occur in the upcoming midterms.

The deceptive narratives feature two companies that were targeted by American conspiracists, who falsely claimed their voting software was used to flip votes from Trump to Joe Biden in 2020.

Dominion and Smartmatic have filed multiple lawsuits against Trump supporters and right-wing media channels that advanced the falsehoods. But despite repeated debunkings, the companies' names have become shorthand for election fraud.

"It shows just how sticky these narratives are," said Lee Foster, senior vice president for analysis at Alethea Group, which helps companies detect and mitigate false and misleading claims.

"Once they gain traction in a particular place, like they did in the U.S. presidential election in 2020, people will start applying those [narratives] to other kinds of events and build out these broad conspiracy theories around them," he said.

Brazil's president attacks his country's voting system

In the first round of Brazil's presidential election on Oct. 2, leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva finished ahead of far-right incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro but failed to secure an outright majority. The two candidates are headed for a runoff on Oct. 30.

Bolsonaro, who has spent months alleging Brazil's elections are rigged and saying electronic voting machines can't be trusted, performed better in the first round than polling had predicted. But that didn't stop the former president from suggesting the results may have been manipulated.

"There's always the possibility of something abnormal happening in a fully computerized system," Bolsonaro said after the vote, according to the New York Times.

Online, commenters seized on well-worn conspiracy theories to cast doubt on the results. Alethea Group identified multiple false claims that Smartmatic and Dominion machines were used in Brazil's election across mainstream social media sites including Twitter, Facebook and Reddit as well as alternative platforms popular on the right such as Truth Social and Gettr.

Brazil's Superior Electoral Court, which oversees the nation's elections, first debunked falsehoods that Smartmatic machines or software were being used in the country in 2020, shortly after the U.S. election, and updated that fact check this month. Independent fact checkers in Brazil also investigated the claim and found it false.

"The Brazilian ballot boxes were designed by civil servants and technicians at the service of of the Electoral Justice and are produced, under their direct coordination, by companies selected through public bidding and wide competition, which guarantees even more security and transparency to the electoral process," the court said.

According to the court, Positivo Tecnologia, a Brazilian company, won the most recent bid to produce electronic voting machines for this year's election.

Smartmatic and Dominion also confirmed their equipment is not being used in Brazil.

Lies about Brazil also cast doubt on U.S. midterms

But the voting machine claims resurged this month, both in WhatsApp messages in Brazil about Smartmatic and in English-language posts on U.S. social media sites claiming, incorrectly, that Dominion or Smartmatic machines were used in Brazil.

Some pointed to Bolsonaro's early lead as the votes were counted, which Lula overtook as more results came in.

"The election showed similarities with the last US election, such as overtaking the leader by leaps and bounds," a Twitter account with more than 28,000 followers that describes itself as an independent international news agency posted on Oct 3. "Dominion was also used here," the account falsely claimed.

Many posters used the allegations to cast doubt on the U.S. midterm elections.

"Midterms are looking great," wrote one poster on pro-Trump message board "What do we do when the midterms are stolen?" another replied.

The claims are "being used to seed that ground in terms of expectations of purported fraud occurring in the midterms," Alethea Group's Foster said.

The iterative nature of the falsehoods underscores how conspiracy theories need to continually build on themselves to reinforce and validate their claims.

"It becomes this kind of self-feedback loop. It just continues to grow, almost like a snowball effect," Foster said.

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