House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

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The missing Pelosi laptop is the perfect cover for disinformation

Forged leaks are already appearing online, and many more may be coming.

Jan 14, 2021, 12:21 pm*

Tech

 

Mikael Thalen

A laptop that was reportedly stolen out of the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during last week’s Capitol siege is quickly becoming a major source of disinformation.

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The device went missing after supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the halls of government and ransacked Pelosi's office during an attempt to stop Congress from certifying the Electoral College votes.

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Since Election Day, a growing subset of Trump's followers have become increasingly radicalized by conspiracy theories that claim the 2020 presidential election was stolen due to widespread voter fraud.

The false claims, which originated on far-right forums and among prominent conspiracy theorists, have been repeatedly promoted by the president as well as other conservative lawmakers.

The misguided belief that democracy was crumbling before them ultimately led Trump's most ardent loyalists to breach the Capitol, resulting in the death of five people in the process. In reality, it was the group's actions that constituted the most substantial attack on democracy in modern memory.

Drew Hammill, an aide to Pelosi, stated on Twitter last week that the laptop in question, which was reportedly left in a conference room, had only been used for presentations.

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But with no other information available, uncertainty regarding who took the device and what it contained has given disinformation artists an opening. And fabricated leaks are already making their way online.

Although other electronic devices were stolen as well, including an iPad belonging to House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), Pelosi's status among far-right conspiracy theorists makes her the most likely target for false claims.

And just like clockwork, a letter supposedly written by Pelosi to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler appeared online over the weekend. The missive, which alleged to show Pelosi in August of last year providing instructions on how to blame the president for civil unrest, was shared by conspiracy theorists across social media.

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But the forgery was hastily made and picked apart just as quickly as it had been disseminated. Brendan Keefe, chief investigator at Atlanta's WXIA 11Alive, analyzed the photo and found that Pelosi's signature, as well as the seal at the top of the letter, had been copied from elsewhere.

Speaking with the Daily Dot, Keefe explained that he had altered the saturation and luminance levels on the fake letter, revealing the foreign prominence of numerous elements.

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Keefe traced both the signature and the seal back to a separate letter being sold on eBay for $175 after sifting through image results on Google. In the original letter, which was only a few sentences long, Pelosi thanked a man in 2007 for his support and noted that she had enclosed several autographed pictures.

Both letters also included a unique code in the bottom-right corner, another element that helped uncover the item's provenance. The code, FF74722, indicates that the document had been authenticated. It turns out the original letter's owner had the signature verified before putting it up for auction online.

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A record regarding the signature can be found on the website for James Spence Authentication, a leading autograph authenticator based out of Florida.

Overall, the letter was a poor fabrication at best. Despite being promoted on the now-defunct social media platform Parler by Lin Wood, the conspiratorial attorney who sought to overturn the election on behalf of Trump, many supporters of the president argued that the letter was too good to be true.

But whoever made the letter knowingly did so with the intention to deceive. Whether the purpose was to fool Trump supporters, create further division, or garner ad revenue for one of the many sites that prey on conspiracy theorists for financial gain remains unknown.

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Aside from digital manipulations, the missing laptop has already found itself at the center of a conspiratorial lore that stems back to the first allegations of voter fraud in early November.

Retired United States Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney, who has helped spread numerous debunked allegations surrounding the election, has likewise latched onto the story surrounding the laptop.

McInerney made headlines last month after falsely claiming that U.S. Army soldiers had been killed by CIA operatives in Germany tasked with guarding an alleged election server used to steal votes from the president. The entire theory originated from a single follower of the QAnon conspiracy theory on Twitter and quickly evolved as it made its way to prominent right-wing figures.

Now, McInerney, who is a prominent figure among followers of QAnon as well, has claimed that attempts to impeach Trump are rooted in the missing computer, which supposedly contains evidence so crucial that it would overturn the election.

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In a video shared widely across social media, McInerney alleges that U.S. Army Special Forces were able to secure the laptop after infiltrating antifa, a leaderless collective of far-left, antifascist activists, while the Capitol was being overwhelmed.

No evidence whatsoever exists to back up the claim. Individuals accused of having ties to antifa were quickly identified and found to be longtime Trump supporters. A spokesperson for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command also stated that no information shows that "anyone who is currently or was previously assigned to any USSOCOM organizations" was involved in the theft of property at the Capitol.

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Yet conspiracy-minded Twitter users have already begun pointing the finger at numerous groups on the ground in D.C. last week in an attempt to prove that such an operation took place. Others connected the missing laptop to a separate conspiracy by asserting that Trump was actually sifting through the device's contents in an underground bunker in either Texas or Colorado this week. In their minds, Trump would undoubtedly ascend from the fortified compound with enough evidence to secure a second term, despite the failure of all other similar predictions.

Although the main conspiracy centers around special forces soldiers obtaining the laptop, another offshoot being spread on Facebook claims that the device was actually taken by a protester who died by suicide shortly thereafter.

The story, as with the most effective conspiracy theories, contains some accurate information. A man from Georgia, 53-year-old Christopher Stanton, was found to have died by suicide at his home on Saturday after being charged for his involvement in the Capitol insurrection.

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However, the claims that Stanton had entered Pelosi's office and that his wife had deemed his death suspicious are both false.

Now, the latest conspiracy to emerge has asserted that the laptop also contained evidence of Pelosi's plan to sell General Electric (GE), the American multinational conglomerate, to the Chinese government.

The claim appears to stem from a rumor that began circulating online last week that alleged Chinese company Haier had purchased GE for $5.4 billion. The truth, however, is that Haier only purchased GE's appliance business, not the entire company. And the purchase actually took place in 2016. The assertion that GE is in the midst of being sold to the Chinese government is patently untrue.

With news of the missing laptop still marinating online, it's only a matter of time before more forgeries appear. And while the fabricated letter was largely unsuccessful in convincing wide swathes of conspiracy theorists, more capable actors may very well step in to fill that void.

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*First Published: Jan 14, 2021, 10:20 am