How Pro-Trump Local News Sites Keep Pushing 2020 Election Misinformation
If you don't follow politics in Georgia closely — or even if you do — you might be forgiven for not knowing much about The Georgia Star News.
Founded just after the November election when President Biden narrowly flipped the state by about 12,000 votes, it looks like a regular news website with a lifestyle section, a widget for the weather and stories about local and national goings-on.
But the site is more than just a local news outlet. It's part of the Star News Network — an expanding network of pro-Trump sites seeking to influence local politics with conservative opinion by mimicking the look and feel of local newspaper sites. The group operates eight state-focused news sites, including in key Electoral College states such as Michigan, Arizona, Ohio and Florida.
Steve Bannon, a former strategist for former President Donald Trump, described The Georgia Star News in a radio interview as content "you can't get anywhere else."
"We're not Conservative Inc.," he said. "It's very populist, it's very nationalist, it's very MAGA, it's very American First."
Pro-Trump media ecosystem
The Star News sites are part of a larger pro-Trump media ecosystem that emerged over the course of his four years in office. Since last year's election, some of those sites have spent months churning out false content suggesting Trump won the election and claiming that massive electoral fraud will be uncovered.
Many of the Star News sites have been around for a while, but the 2020 election — and an intense focus on swing states like Georgia — has helped the sites' stories reach a much a larger audience.
Georgia's fledgling website gets a boost from publisher John Fredericks' talk radio show that has featured numerous figures from Trump's orbit, including Bannon and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. His show also regularly features Georgia Republican politicians who have pushed false claims of election fraud or are challenging those who did not work to overturn the election.
Fredericks, who most recently hosted his talk show from Virginia, came to Georgia ahead of last January's dual Senate runoffs as part of an effort by conservatives (and conservative media) to support then-Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue's reelection campaign. He also hosts a TV show on the Real America's Voice network that also features Bannon's "War Room: Pandemic" podcast popular with many election skeptics.
So there was a ready-made audience when the Georgia Star published a misleading story mid-June questioning the legitimacy of nearly 20,000 absentee ballots placed in Georgia drop boxes — slightly more than the margin of Biden's victory there.
The story said that Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, could not produce crucial chain of custody documentation for ballots returned in drop boxes, suggesting that the ballots may not have been legitimate.
"The most explosive thing"
But in the conservative alternate media sphere, the story began to pick up steam. On Fredericks' radio show, Bannon called it "the most explosive thing that I think has happened in the entire process."
From there it ricocheted across the pro-Trump mediasphere to TV networks like One America News and conspiracy sites such as The Gateway Pundit.
But the story was not limited to the fringe of Republican politics: several pro-Trump lawmakers and primary challengers in Georgia demanded an investigation. Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — himself a frequent target of misinformation, attacks and death threats because of these sites — did too. That led mainstream outlets to run with Raffensperger's response, pushing the story further into the spotlight.
Just a few days after the original Georgia Star story, Trump issued several statements linking to a One America News segment about the misleading story and praising the Georgia Star writer by name for "the incredible reporting you have done."
The Georgia Star hasn't updated its original story, or several follow-up pieces, with Fulton County's release of the data.
In an interview, the story's author, Laura Baigert, blamed the county for providing incomplete documents and information.
"Not our problem to solve"
"If they can't tell us how many forms they have and how many ballots they have, that's an issue for people who are administering an election," she said. "That's not our problem to solve that for them."
At the time, a Fulton County spokeswoman said that the county followed proper procedures in collecting the drop box ballots and the county was continuing to research the few remaining missing chain of custody forms. The county elections director said that staff spent more than 200 hours that week locating the "missing" forms before they were provided to Georgia Public Broadcasting.
But the story breathed new life into Trump's false claims, which he repeated at length during a rally last Saturday in Ohio.
"The biggest tragedy of all is millions of Americans have lost confidence in their vote," he said. "We can't let that happen. And that's why I say you have to know what took place in 2020 before you can vote in 2022 or 2024."
After the rally, Baigert snagged an exclusive half-hour interview with the former president as he rode back to the airport. The next day, an all-caps headline appeared on The Ohio Star, Georgia Star and sister sites in battlegrounds like Michigan and Arizona, touting the conversation and its key takeaway.
"There's no more important issue than the 2020 election," Trump said.
Fredericks defended the outlet's coverage in an interview and said that the Georgia Star is a credible news service for Georgians that acts as an alternative to "fake news" mainstream media. "Our goal is to speak truth to power in the world of fake news, and that's really what we're dealing with, that's why we're here," he said. "That's why we have an audience."
Less than seven months into existence, Fredericks said that the website was profitable, thanks to a crush of advertising from local Republican candidates and conservative groups.
"We work very hard to fund our operation through legitimate advertising of all kinds, people that want to reach our expanding audience," he said. "And if somebody needs to reach informed, motivated readers that want the truth, advertising is a great opportunity for them, is a great [return on investment] potential."
Copyright 2021 Georgia Public Broadcasting