(Reuters) – The story had a bombshell headline: “Thousands of fake votes” had been discovered in Madison, Wisconsin, two weeks after Democrat Joe Biden narrowly beat then-President Donald Trump in the state.
The bogus report from the far-right website Gateway Pundit drew attention to a set of initials – MLW – inscribed on what it claimed were “fake” ballots. Then a reader posted a comment on the story correctly identifying MLW: Maribeth L. Witzel-Behl, the Madison city clerk, whose duties include administering elections.
Other commenters soon called for Witzel-Behl’s execution. She found one post especially unnerving. It recommended a specific bullet for killing her – a 7.62 millimeter round for an AK-47 assault rifle.
Witzel-Behl was stunned by the threats and the angry calls that poured into her office. Contrary to the story’s insinuation that the initials meant the ballots were fake, in reality she and her staff wrote her initials on all absentee ballots, before they were given to voters, as a matter of policy.
Witzel-Behl is among 25 election officials and workers targeted by more than 100 threatening and hostile communications that have cited the Gateway Pundit since last year’s election, according to a Reuters review of the materials, which included emails, letters and phone messages, as well as comments posted on the website’s stories.
The messages targeted officials and staff in four jurisdictions that featured repeatedly in false or misleading Pundit reports on voter-fraud claims: the Wisconsin cities of Madison and Milwaukee; Fulton County, Georgia; and Maricopa County, Arizona.
At least five of the officials, including Witzel-Behl, received threats they considered serious enough to report to law enforcement. Among those targeted were a municipal election director in Milwaukee and a Republican supervisor in Maricopa County. The targets also included Ruby Freeman and Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, a mother and daughter who staffed a ballot counting operation in Fulton County; their ordeal was detailed this week by Reuters.
After Gateway Pundit ran an Aug. 14 story about them, a commenter posted below the piece: “The two women are traitors to the country and should be hung by the neck until dead.”
Two additional officials, a Fulton County election commissioner and another Maricopa county supervisor, blamed the Gateway Pundit for inciting serious threats of violence they received after the site implicated the officials in baseless claims of election-rigging. Those threats did not reference the website by name.
Most of the 25 officials received harassing messages that were less violent but often intimidating, racist or misogynistic. Many messages accused officials of treason, for instance, or called for their imprisonment.
The threats and harassment inspired by the Gateway Pundit illustrate the central role of disinformation in a campaign of fear being waged by Trump supporters against the frontline administrators of American democracy.
“The Gateway Pundit brought your betrayal of Wisconsin and America to my attention,” said one threat emailed to Claire Woodall-Vogg, the Milwaukee elections director. “I hope you know there are consequences for your actions. I know a lot of information about you. I will have to think about what comes next.”
The harassing communications linked to the Gateway Pundit are among more than 800 menacing messages to election officials documented by Reuters this year, including more than 100 threats that legal experts said could meet the legal threshold for federal criminal prosecution. Such threats are considered crimes if they instill fear of imminent violence or death. Law enforcement, however, has held almost no one accountable.
In more than 10% of those 800 messages, the harassers cited the Gateway Pundit as the source of the information that caused them to lash out at election officials. No other media outlet or social-media platform was mentioned more than a handful of times.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation declined to comment on whether it was investigating any of the Gateway Pundit-inspired messages but said it “takes all threats of violence seriously.” No arrests have been made. The Department of Justice, which in June launched a task force to address threats against election workers, did not respond to a comment request.
The Gateway Pundit has emerged as a major player in an expanding far-right media universe that includes TV broadcasters One America News Network and Newsmax, along with the video-sharing site BitChute and social media platforms Parler and Gab. Since the 2020 election, the Pundit has bolstered Trump’s false stolen-election narrative with coverage that generated outrage and helped grow its audience.
The Pundit’s U.S. web traffic approached 50 million monthly visits in the weeks after Trump’s November loss, up from about 15 million a year earlier, according to Similarweb, an internet-traffic intelligence service. More recently – from July through September – the audience settled at an average of 33 million monthly visits. That’s nearly double the 17 million monthly visits averaged over the same period by the website for MSNBC, the cable news channel known for left-leaning hosts.
The Gateway Pundit describes itself as a publisher of news and commentary. Launched in 2004 as an opinion blog, it established itself as one of Trump’s most dogged promoters in the 2016 presidential race. During the campaign, Trump regularly cited or retweeted Gateway Pundit stories. Once elected, he quickly granted the site White House press credentials.
A Trump spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
The U.S. Constitution’s free-speech and free-press provisions give news outlets – even those that publish false stories that spur threats – broad protections against any legal liability, especially criminal charges. Media can be sued for defamation, but such cases can be especially challenging to win for public officials, including many election workers and administrators.
Officials must prove not only reputational damage but “actual malice.” That standard, established by the U.S. Supreme Court, means plaintiffs must prove not only that they were harmed by the publication of false information, but also that the publisher either knew the information was false or operated with “reckless disregard for the truth,” said Roy Gutterman, a Syracuse University media law professor.
“Defamation is difficult to win for everybody, but it’s more difficult for public figures like most of these plaintiffs,” Gutterman said.
The Gateway Pundit currently faces at least three defamation suits filed by people who allege they faced numerous threats after being vilified in false stories. The first two suits don’t involve public officials; the site is contesting both, asserting it broke no laws and had no responsibility for the threats of violence. The third was filed yesterday by Freeman and Moss, the election workers in Georgia. A lawyer for Gateway Pundit had no comment on that suit.
The Pundit has faced some commercial blowback for its false and incendiary content. In September, it lost a major revenue source when Google stopped placing ads on the site, citing its publication of “demonstrably false” election stories. Over the previous 10 months, the Pundit earned an estimated $1.3 million from ads placed through Google’s AdSense program, according to an analysis by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which combats online extremism.
The Pundit has retained other advertising, mostly “clickbait” promotions placed by ad networks on behalf of hundreds or thousands of companies and products. The site gets paid based on the number of ads clicked.
Reuters asked five ad networks that have appeared prominently on Gateway Pundit if they were concerned about its content. Two, Jeeng and ZergNet, said they reviewed the site in response to the Reuters inquiry and decided to stop placing ads on it. Two others, Revcontent LLC and MGID, said they are reconsidering their relationships with the site. A fifth, LockerDome, did not respond to comment requests.
Gateway Pundit’s owner and editor, Jim Hoft, is an Iowa native with a college biology degree and no previous journalism background. Hoft writes many of the articles, along with his twin brother, Joe Hoft, and a half-dozen or so contributors. After a mass shooting in 2016 killed 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Hoft wrote a Breitbart News column in which he came out as gay. Noting that the shooter sympathized with radical Islamist groups, he argued that the best way to protect gay people from more attacks was to re-elect Trump because he would be tough on extremists.
Jim Hoft did not respond to interview requests sent to him and his lawyer. Joe Hoft also had no comment.
“We never support any violence,” Jim Hoft said in an August deposition for a lawsuit. The suit alleged that his site defamed and incited threats against a former staffer of Dominion Voting Systems, a voting equipment maker often featured in the Pundit’s coverage. “We report on different individuals every day, and we always consider their safety.”
Hoft is seeking reader support through several online fundraising campaigns on GiveSendGo, a crowdfunding site. Those campaigns have raised more than $250,000 to date, according to the site. On the Pundit site, Hoft urges readers to show support by buying subscriptions. “There’s a battle for survival of the Gateway Pundit,” he says in the message.
“WE’RE COMING FOR YOU, CLAIRE”
The threat that came to Milwaukee election chief Woodall-Vogg – citing the Gateway Pundit on her “betrayal’’ – was sent to the private email address she reserves for friends and family. The subject line: “Hello Marxist Bitch.”
The Pundit began targeting Woodall-Vogg days after the election, when she informed the Wisconsin Elections Commission that a flash drive used with the city’s vote-tabulating machines was inadvertently left at a processing center on election night. The drive was retrieved within minutes and was never unattended, she explained in a letter to the commissioners. The county district attorney reviewed the matter and found no evidence of tampering.
The Gateway Pundit responded with a story headlined: “Milwaukee Elections Chief Lost Elections Flash Drive in Morning Hours of November 4th When Democrats Miraculously Found 120,000 Votes for Joe Biden.”
Woodall-Vogg began getting angry emails almost immediately. The messages continued as multiple audits and reviews confirmed Milwaukee’s results, which had helped Biden win Wisconsin.
In late July, another Pundit headline sparked a new wave of intimidation: “BREAKING EXCLUSIVE: Uncovered Email Shows Milwaukee Elections Executive Woodall-Vogg Laughing About the Election Steal on Election Night.” The evidence: a joking email exchange between Woodall-Vogg and Ryan Chew, a staffer with The Elections Group, a nonprofit organization that provided free pre-election guidance to localities on improving 2020 voting processes.
Shortly after Milwaukee’s final votes were reported late on election night, Chew wrote: “Damn, Claire, you have a flair for drama, delivering just the margin needed at 3:00 a.m. I bet you had those votes counted at midnight and just wanted to keep the world waiting!” Woodall-Vogg replied: “Lol. I just wanted to wait to say I had been awake for a full 24 hours.”
Chew and Woodall-Vogg told Reuters the exchange was an unfortunate but meaningless joke. Chew said it would have been “absurd” for Woodall-Vogg to stay up late to add drama. “That absurdity was the essence of the joke,” Chew said.
The Pundit characterized the exchange as evidence that Woodall-Vogg was part of a multi-state fraud to manufacture a late-night “drop” of Biden votes. Woodall-Vogg’s inbox exploded with more than 70 furious messages. Many cited the Pundit. Some called for her execution. One asked if she had private security. Some people left threatening voicemails. One said: “We’re coming for you, Claire.”
Woodall-Vogg left town with her two children, working remotely for 10 days. She referred a half-dozen threatening messages to Milwaukee police. The department told Reuters it had referred the communications to the FBI after police determined they could not be prosecuted under state or local law.
At the elections office, security glass and other protections are being added.
“The threats where I truly was concerned – the ones specific to me and my family – those didn’t happen until the Gateway Pundit article,” she said.
‘TICK, TICK, TICK’
In June, Vernetta Nuriddin, a Democratic member of Georgia’s Fulton County election board, was starting her summer vacation when her inbox filled with two dozen hostile emails. One subject line: “Tick, Tick, Tick.”
“Not long now…,” the email read.
Nuriddin said she found the email “frightening,” suggesting a bomb or other “imminent danger.”
That morning, the email addresses of Nuriddin and other board members were published in a Gateway Pundit report that said they were named in an activists’ lawsuit seeking a review of county absentee ballots. The suit was later dismissed.
Other outlets had reported on the suit days earlier, but the hostile messages to Nuriddin and other board members didn’t start until the Pundit published their email addresses. Some of the messages cited the Gateway Pundit specifically; others, including the tick-tick email, did not. Nuriddin, who left the board this summer when her four-year term ended, said the Pundit’s reports often sparked messages from “people wishing the absolute worst on you, who don’t even know you.”
Nuriddin referred the tick-tick email to the Fulton County Police Department. It dropped the case after deciding the message was not an “articulated threat” that constituted a crime under Georgia law, said Fulton’s chief, Wade Yates.
Reuters identified the sender of the “Tick, Tick” threat: Brian Lohman, of Jacksonville, Florida. He was among nine people who said in interviews for a Nov. 9 Reuters report that they had harassed or threatened election officials.
Lohman told Reuters he didn’t mean to suggest a bomb. He said he had read that Nuriddin was named in the lawsuit over Fulton County ballots and meant to suggest time was running out before she “had to go in front of a judge.” He declined to say whether he got the news – or Nuriddin’s email address – from the Gateway Pundit story.
‘HANGING OR GUILLOTINE?’
After the 2020 presidential election, the Pundit ran a slew of stories alleging voter fraud in Arizona’s Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, the state’s largest city.
Many of these reports were false, including a May 9 article claiming the county deleted voting-machine data needed for a state audit. An hour after the story was published, county Board of Supervisors Vice Chair Bill Gates and other members received an email with a link to the article.
“You dirty mother f***ing ass holes,” the subject line read. “You all have eyes in the back of your heads?” the message continued. “People have a limit.”
The Pundit continued publishing stories with false voter-fraud claims as multiple audits confirmed the results and Maricopa supervisors defended their accuracy. On Aug. 9, an email landed in the supervisors’ public inbox, asking: “Hanging or Guillotine?” The message cited a debunked Gateway Pundit story that claimed completed ballots from the 2020 election were shredded before they were counted.
Over the next month, Gates and his fellow supervisors would get at least nine more emails from the same sender, several of them citing Gateway Pundit stories and all repeating the warning: “TREASON Hanging or Guillotine?”
The supervisors were already on edge. Gates’ fellow Republican board member, Clint Hickman, had received a voicemail on Aug. 4 that warned: “People are going to be coming and visiting the homes of the board of supervisors and basically executing their families. Should be fun.”
The voicemail did not mention the Gateway Pundit. But Hickman and Gates said they blamed the Pundit’s bogus reporting for inspiring many of the threats and harassing messages against board members. “There’s no question this blog has generated threats toward me, my colleagues, and even my family’s 77-year-old business,” Hickman said, adding that the site conjures “ridiculous scenarios” with “no fact-checking.”
Gates told Reuters he has referred about a dozen hostile messages to police. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office said it has been assessing threats against the supervisors. It has made no arrests.
THREATS OF HANGING AND SHOOTING
Days after the election, Gateway Pundit posted a false story that targeted election officials in Rock County, Wisconsin, about an hour south of Madison.
The site reported that a software glitch led to 10,000 votes being “moved” from Trump to Biden “in just one Wisconsin county.” Such glitches, it said, were a Democratic scheme to “steal” the race.
That article was tweeted by Eric Trump, the former president’s son. He did not respond to an interview request sent through the former president’s office.
In reality, the vote count never changed. The Associated Press had made an error in an election-results table it published and quickly corrected it.
The next morning, County Clerk Lisa Tollefson got a call about the story around 7 a.m. and raced to work, finding the phone lines jammed with enraged Trump voters yelling at her staff. The furor lasted four days, and “was bad enough that we let the sheriff know, and he put protection on us,” Tollefson said.
Two weeks later, on Nov. 28, the Gateway Pundit turned its sights on Maribeth Witzel-Behl, the clerk in Madison, Wisconsin, whose initials appeared on the thousands of absentee ballots that the Pundit had wrongly characterized as “fake.”
Concerned by the story’s inaccuracies and the threats they provoked, she consulted with City Attorney Michael Haas, who sent Hoft an email requesting the Pundit correct the piece and remove the threatening comments.
“If there are additional threats or actual harassment against our employees we will be holding you accountable,” Haas wrote.
The next day, the story was updated: The references to “fake votes” were changed to “suspect votes.” All the comments also were removed from the page. The story was marked as “updated,” but contained no correction.
Joe Hoft, the brother of site founder Jim Hoff, wrote a follow-up story about Haas’s warning. Haas, he asserted, was attacking the Pundit’s free-speech rights.
“We found the City Attorney’s response threatening,” he wrote.
(Reporting by Peter Eisler and Jason Szep; additional reporting by Linda So; editing by Brian Thevenot)