It has been three days since the voting for the 2020 US presidential election closed but a lot has happened since then including Democrat nominee Joe Biden having a clear edge over incumbent Donald Trump, who filed a lawsuit to halt vote counting in key states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.
As the nation waits for the presidential election results, a QAnon-related conspiracy theory is doing the rounds on social media. According to the theory that has gained traction on the internet, President Trump and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) set up Democrats (who allegedly aimed to cheat) by secretly watermarking official ballots.
Secret Sting Operation
The claim circulating on social media states that Trump was working with the DHS to watermark official ballots in an effort to trick Democrats to catch them committing voter fraud and that many mail-in ballots counted as votes for Biden did not contain this watermark. The phrase "watch the water," which was used in a nearly-two-year-old Q drop or post, was cited as evidence for this claim.
This claim is particularly doing the rounds on Facebook and on TikTok, a platform that has not been scrutinized as heavily as a potential vector for misinformation but has nonetheless played its own prominent role in pushing conspiracy theories online.
The news comes on the heels of the delayed election results, where Trump and his supporters have been making repeated claims of voter fraud. While such a mistake could make a major difference in the final vote count, social media users have been trying to verify the authenticity of the information.
One user tweeted: "I'm hearing rumors that DHS controlled real ballots with some form of a watermark. Can someone pls tell me how you find this watermark? I voted in person & still have my mail in ballot on me."
One person clarifying the misinformation wrote: "For those betting on the watermark ballots or the DHS audit, the audit was done on 10/22/20 and the results are in the link https://oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2020-10/OIG-21-01-Oct20.pdf... And DHS has nothing to do with printing ballots that's all-state election offices. What else ya got?"
Another one tweeted: "The one document I can find which was from August and was directed towards California said the exact watermark that needed to be printed onto every ballot (which would be enforced by the DHS or something). It's at least true for California, but likely all states in that case."
Another user tweeted, "Is it true that DHS watermarked ballots in a sting operation I heard it on infowars that they set the Dems up with a special watermark that can't be copied."
What's the Truth?
DHS did not craft an election fraud sting with watermarked ballots. This claim doing the rounds of the internet is a hoax. The federal government does not produce ballots. State and local governments do but the narrative successfully fits with Trump's effort to undermine the process of mail-in voting, despite ample evidence suggesting there is little risk of mail-in voter fraud.
The design, printing and auditing of ballots are managed by state and local election officials. One of the many versions of this claim appeared when it was uploaded on Facebook in a post published on November 5, 2020, with the caption, "Here's a little information about what's coming!" However, the post has been since marked as "false information" by Facebook.
This post has a video which shows an interview that Dr. Steve Pieczenick had with host Owen Shroyer on the InfoWars.com show, "The War Room," where Pieczenik, speaks as if he has inside information about a secret Department of Homeland Security plan.
Another version of this rumor originated with an article published by the website Tree of Liberty. Many followers of QAnon have developed their own theories about this watermarked ballot election sting from things they pieced together from various Qdrops.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has a "Rumor Control" page on the website designed to combat misinformation that might undermine public confidence in the electoral process, as well as in American democracy. The website is updated to address the current claim that has gained traction recently. This watermarked ballot DHS sting rumor is addressed by CISA:
Watermarks do appear on some states' ballots, for example, California's, but there is no secret watermark on all ballots that were issued by the federal government to catch cheaters. There are some authentic documents circulating online that are being used to support this conspiracy theory. Some states do use a watermark as part of their election security measures.
The California Secretary of State published a PDF file with the specifications for their California poppy watermark and CISA published a Risk Assessment document about mail-in voting that mentions watermarks on page 10. QAnon is a baseless conspiracy theory based on posts from Q, an anonymous internet persona who claims to be a government insider with information.