On the messaging app Telegram this week, 300 people gathered in a channel devoted to Arizona politics to play an online game.
The rules were simple: Find examples of voter fraud and win virtual points. If members of the group had names of undocumented immigrants who intended to vote illegally in Tuesday’s midterm elections and posted details, they were awarded two points. If they identified people who might be organizing buses to transport those immigrants to voting stations, they got 50 points.
“I have a name for you,” one participant wrote in the Telegram channel on Monday. He submitted a common Latino name and said the person was undocumented and planned on voting. Though he didn’t provide evidence backing up his claim, he was given two points anyway.
The group erupted in congratulations. “One down, one million to go,” another participant responded, according to messages viewed by The New York Times. “Gotta find them all.”
That many of the posts, photos and videos used to score points have been widely debunked as misinformation did not slow down the group. Nor has it impeded the spread of the game to other social platforms, where dozens of private messaging channels are also engaged in a hunt for voter fraud.
The Times reviewed 26 such games being played on the messaging apps and social platforms Telegram, WhatsApp, Gab and Truth Social over the past two months. In each, players were granted a loose system of points or honorary titles if they shared supposed evidence of voting irregularities. Many of the participants were encouraged to post as much as possible, egged on by raucous carnival-like conversations and posts.
The games originated in online groups that purported to be about voter integrity and securing elections. It was unclear how long the games have existed, because many of the channels have changed names or cleared their digital histories. None appeared to turn up proof of voter fraud, which is exceptionally rare.
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But facts are often not the point of these games. Instead, they are part of a broader trend of “participatory misinformation,” in which people become more actively involved in sharing falsehoods and conspiracy theories. That leads to people integrating with a wider community and earning kudos, which makes them more likely to believe and invest in the misinformation, researchers said.
“There’s a feeling that you can participate in the construction of a narrative and have impact,” said Kate Starbird, a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Washington who studies misinformation. “It’s very empowering.”
The gamification of voter fraud on social media has implications for how the legitimacy of the vote will be seen in Tuesday’s midterm elections. Confidence in the electoral process has eroded in recent years, with former President Donald J. Trump casting doubt on the 2020 presidential election’s outcome by falsely claiming he was the victim of duplicitous voting practices.
In recent months, candidates such as Kari Lake, a Republican running for Arizona governor, have amplified voting misinformation on the campaign trail, such as questioning the accuracy of voting machines. Falsehoods about voting have circulated widely on Twitter, TikTok, Truth Social, Rumble and Gab.
Some people now are so suspicious of the voting process that they have set up watch parties to monitor ballot boxes and prevent tampering on Election Day. States such as Georgia have passed laws that require people to show new IDs to vote. On Wednesday, President Biden condemned Mr. Trump and other Republicans for imperiling American democracy with lies about voting and the 2020 election.
The voter fraud games add to the fraught atmosphere, Ms. Starbird said. They are “one more way that people are being pushed to spread, and even create, examples of voter fraud to fuel their false narratives and sow distrust in the midterms,” she said.
Participatory misinformation has a history of spurring online conspiracy theory movements, researchers said. QAnon, a movement that revolved around the falsehood that the world was run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping Democrats, was nurtured by people seeking clues online about the identities of those running the group and seeing hidden meanings in supposed symbols and coded messages.
After the 2020 election, the “Stop the Steal” movement, which falsely claimed that Mr. Trump had won, was also fueled by online participation. On Facebook, dozens of groups encouraged their followers to find examples that proved the election had been stolen from Mr. Trump.
Since then, claims of voter fraud have grown to include unsubstantiated theories that voting machines were rigged, that dead people and pets had voted and that corrupt election officials were not counting certain kinds of ballots.
In the voter fraud games on Telegram, WhatsApp and other platforms, the groups viewed by The Times ranged in size from a few dozen people to several hundred. Many players appeared to use pseudonyms and shared only scant personal information. While some of the games awarded points, others bestowed titles like “master” and “grand master” to those who posted multiple examples of purported voter fraud.
The points and titles do not appear to add up to any real-world prizes. Instead they gave participants online clout and bragging rights over fellow players.
In one Pennsylvania-based Telegram group, 200 people raced this week to find examples of “unverified ballots,” or ballots that were sent without verifying voters’ identities, after Mr. Trump falsely claimed on Tuesday that 250,000 of these ballots had been mailed to voters in the state.
“There are hundreds of thousands, makes them easy to find,” one person in the group wrote. “I say one point a person.”
In a WhatsApp group that was an offshoot of a larger Ohio-based Telegram group, nine participants recently kept a leaderboard as they played their game. At the top of the board was a member who the group said had uncovered cases of dead people who had voted. The player had not provided evidence of his accusations.
Not all of the games have a formal structure, or take place in dedicated channels. On Truth Social, the platform started by Mr. Trump, the gamelike approach of awarding points or acclaim to users participating in misinformation has spilled into the comments sections.
When Mr. Trump asserted to his 4.4 million followers on Truth Social on Monday that voter fraud was rife in Pennsylvania, for example, comments and links to his post included promises that those who found any alleged wrongdoing would be rewarded.
One person who shared Mr. Trump’s post said he would give “special status” to anyone who captured footage of the unverified ballots. Others said they would go door to door to verify voters themselves and “get a point” if they found the ballots.
On Telegram, some groups that have exhorted people to watch ballot boxes in Arizona to prevent voter fraud have also treated it like a game. “Ten points if you spend an hour” monitoring a ballot box, one person wrote in a Telegram channel with nearly 100 people. “1,000 if you catch them,” the person added, using expletives to describe undocumented immigrants.
Similar Telegram channels have popped up in other states. In New Hampshire and Wisconsin, groups dedicated to monitoring the elections next week were also conferring points to players for finding local cases of voter fraud.
In one Wisconsin-based Telegram group, where 100 people were engaged in scoring points by finding voter fraud, one participant, whose user name contained a racial slur, posted a video last week of someone claiming to burn ballots.
The player obtained 10 virtual points for the video. But the footage had already circulated widely on the internet after the 2020 election and was debunked as fake. The person shown in the video was burning sample ballots, not ones that voters had used.