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The Toll Of Conspiracy Theories: A Voting Security Expert Lives In Hiding

Dec 23, 2020
Originally published on December 24, 2020 8:49 am

More than a month ago, Eric Coomer went into hiding.

The voting conspiracy theories that have led millions of Republicans to feel as though the election was stolen from them, which are still spreading, have also led to calls for Coomer's head.

Coomer oversees product strategy and security for Dominion Voting Systems, the Denver-based company that has suddenly found itself at the center of many of President Trump's false claims about November's election, spread by allies and pro-Trump media.

Some of Trump's supporters have focused on Coomer as the supposed evil mastermind.

"I actually am in fear for my safety," Coomer said recently, speaking by video call from an undisclosed location to Colorado Public Radio. "I'm in fear for my family's safety. These are real, tangible things coming out of these baseless accusations."

On Tuesday, Coomer sued the Trump campaign and a number of allies, alleging defamation.

It's just the latest example of how people's lives are being upended and potentially ruined by the unprecedented flurry of disinformation this year.

The problem grows

As people experience their own individual Internet bubbles, it can be hard to recognize just how much misinformation exists and how the current information ecosystem compares with previous years.

But companies that specialize in the subject said it is getting exponentially worse.

NewsGuard, which vets news sources based on transparency and reliability standards, found recently that among the top 100 sources of news in the U.S., sources it deemed unreliable had four times as many interactions this year compared with 2019.

The media intelligence platform Zignal Labs, in an analysis performed at NPR's request, found that misinformation narratives related to vote-by-mail systems alone were mentioned across the media spectrum more than 40 million times since Election Day.

That flood reached Dominion the week after the election, according to Zignal, and misinformation related to the company's machines has been mentioned more than 10 million times since then.

Coomer said in addition to his own information, the personal addresses of everyone from his parents and siblings to his ex-girlfriends have been posted online. Some have also received threatening letters.

"I've been threatened more times than I could even count. Whether it's the standard online trolls, voicemails that are left almost on a daily basis, being called a traitor to this country, I can't even begin to describe what effect this has had on my life," he said.

Dominion provides election equipment and software to 28 states, including many of the swing states on which Trump has focused his post-election ire.

In preparing for this November's election, the company gamed out all sorts of worst-case scenarios, but it wasn't on anyone's radar that Dominion and its employees could become the targets of threats.

Coomer said the first barb aimed at him came five days after the election.

The accusation started with a conservative activist in Colorado, Joe Oltmann. He claimed on his podcast that he'd infiltrated a call with Denver-area antifa members that included a man identified as "Eric from Dominion."

Oltmann claimed that Coomer said with a laugh on the call that he would make sure Trump didn't win the election.

Immediately, Coomer knew things would blow up.

"The minute I saw it, it left a big pit in my stomach," he said.

After that podcast went out, the threats quickly arrived. An online search turns up segments on the pro-Trump outlets Newsmax and One America News Network discussing the allegations as well as people accusing Coomer of treason and calling for him to be publicly executed. Those networks are among the defendants Coomer is suing.

"God is at the wheel, but we are the warriors that must do the work of men to repel evil," said one of numerous posts on the conservative social media site Parler.

A Dominion spokeswoman said other company employees have also gone to more secure locations, been threatened and been digitally stalked.

On Nov. 21, a group protested in front of Dominion's Denver headquarters, waving American flags and signs saying "fraud equals arrests." Social media posts from the event tagged the far-right group the Proud Boys. No one is currently working out of the building.

Pushing back

Recently, however, there are signs that elections companies, like some election officials, are pushing back against the false accusations.

In addition to Coomer's lawsuit, Dominion is threatening legal action against Sidney Powell, who has been among the loudest voices pushing conspiracy theories on behalf of the Trump campaign. Powell is named in Coomer's suit, along with the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Smartmatic, a competitor of Dominion's that has also been the subject of wild rumors, has demanded that numerous news networks take back their allegations against it. This weekend, both Fox Business Network and Newsmax appeared to answer those demands with segments debunking some claims.

But election integrity advocates worry the disinformation won't truly begin to recede until political leaders such as Trump stop questioning the election's legitimacy.

Even in an election where almost all the voting was recorded on paper ballots and rigorous audits were done more than ever before, none of that helps if millions of people are working with an alternative set of facts, said Joe Kiniry, chief scientist of the open-source election technology company Free & Fair.

Even if an election is run perfectly, it doesn't matter to a sizable portion of the public who believes it was unfair. No amount of transparency at the county and state level can really combat the sort of megaphone that Trump wields, Kiniry says.

"When we're in the realm of coupling disinformation from both foreign and domestic sources, and government and nongovernment sources, and none of it is really grounded in reality ... evidence doesn't help much," he said.

For Coomer, that means his life may be forever changed.

His top goal right now is pretty simple — hoping one day it'll be safe to return home. But he has no idea if that will ever be possible.

"Some of the threats that I've gotten have made very clear that these actors are in it for the long haul. The wishes are that I forever have to look over my shoulder," Coomer said. "And I probably will."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, President Trump's efforts to overturn the election have failed, but the president will leave office having convinced a lot of his supporters falsely that the election was stolen. And that could have big consequences for the country. It's also having a very dramatic impact on the lives of some individual Americans. And to talk about this, we have NPR's Miles Parks with us. He has covered voting in this very busy year. Miles, thanks for being here.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey, David. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: So you've been digging into some of these conspiracy theories that the president has been pushing over the last month and a half or so. What are you finding?

PARKS: Well, the volume is just staggering, honestly. I reached out to a firm that does data analysis on Internet trends. They're called Zignal Labs, and I asked them to look at misinformation related specifically to the election. So in the seven or so weeks since Election Day, November 3, Zignal found more than 40 million mentions just of vote by mail misinformation alone across the media spectrum - traditional media sources and social media.

So to me, this indicates two things. One, there are a lot of people in this country who believe this stuff and are sharing it. But the other thing is just how successful Trump has been at creating this whole narrative of an election theft. That 40 million number encompasses fact checks as well as misinformation and stories that are true, too. So it's just this loop of disinformation that's being spread. Then it's debunked, and then it just kind of goes back and forth like that, keeping these storylines alive.

GREENE: That's amazing, that 40 million number. I mean, you have to think that there's an impact there when it comes to trust in our democracy if a lot of people just don't trust the outcome of the election and believe this stuff. But I'm curious, too. I mean, you've been reporting that there's - like, people's lives are being impacted here, too.

PARKS: Yeah. It's really easy to forget that behind all of this bureaucracy, there are normal people at every level of these elections with lives and with families. And this flood of conspiracy theories is really hitting some of those people hard. One of those people is Eric Coomer, who's an employee at this voting company called Dominion. He's actually gone into hiding for the last month and a half or so. And this week he announced that he's suing the Trump campaign and some of its allies, alleging defamation. He talked about his experience with our colleague at Colorado Public Radio Bente Birkeland.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: Eric Coomer was forced to leave his home one week after the presidential election ended. He's been living in hiding ever since.

ERIC COOMER: I actually am in fear for my safety. I'm in fear for my family's safety. These are real, tangible things coming out of these baseless accusations.

BIRKELAND: Coomer is the director of product strategy and security for Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems. The company provides election equipment and software to 28 states. President Trump has falsely claimed that its machines fraudulently switched votes to Biden. Some of Trump's supporters have come to focus on Coomer as the supposed mastermind of a plot to steal the election. Coomer's defamation lawsuit accuses Trump's allies of spreading falsehoods that intentionally inflicted emotional distress.

COOMER: I've been threatened more times than I could even count, whether it's, you know, the standard online trolls' voicemails that are left almost on a daily basis, being called a traitor to this country. I can't even begin to describe, you know, what effect this has had on my life, but it's been profound.

BIRKELAND: Coomer says the first threat happened five days after the election. A conservative podcaster in Colorado alleged without evidence that he heard Coomer on a phone call with antifa.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THRIVETIME SHOW")

JOE OLTMANN: Eric is the Dominion guy.

BIRKELAND: The threats quickly escalated. Within days, Coomer had moved to a secure location. About a week later, a group protested in front of Dominion's Denver headquarters with American flags and signs saying, fraud equals arrests. A spokeswoman for Dominion says other employees have also gone into hiding, been threatened and digitally stalked. A quick search online reveals people calling for Coomer to be publicly executed, his head to be cut off. Multiple people ask, where is Eric? Others simply bash him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DREW BERQUIST: This guy clearly hates America and Trump and anyone who supports it or him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Or is Eric Coomer the Dominion guy who is behind all of this?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There is this psychotic communist named Eric Coomer.

COOMER: Some of the threats that I've gotten have made very clear that these actors are in it for the long haul. The wishes are that I forever have to look over my shoulder, and I probably will.

BIRKELAND: The focus on Dominion has some on the right raising questions about Colorado's entire all-mail ballot system. Nearly every county uses Dominion's equipment. Carly Koppes is the incoming Republican president of the Colorado County Clerks Association. She says even though the presidential race wasn't close here, she still spends about two hours every day on the phone with people who have questions or are upset about the election.

CARLY KOPPES: Definitely have had some phone calls where people have started out with profanities and called me some lovely names (laughter). You know, I just have to remember that I am the professional.

BIRKELAND: She's trying to look on the bright side and sees this as a chance to explain why people should trust Colorado's safeguards and pioneering audits. It has the strictest standards in the country. For Eric Coomer, though, there's no silver lining. He says his life is forever changed. Coomer's top goal right now is pretty simple. He hopes one day it'll be safe to return home.

GREENE: We were listening to Bente Birkeland reporting there from Colorado Public Radio. I've been listening with our colleague Miles Parks. And, Miles, I - like, you know misinformation is dangerous. But to hear these details - I mean, it's horrifying. I mean, do election experts say there's something that can be done?

PARKS: Sure. I mean, these sorts of conspiracy theories are exactly the reason that the election security community has been so loud over the last couple of years, calling for paper ballots, calling for the sorts of audits that Bente mentioned there. But this election seems to be testing the limits of some of these election best practices. You know, in Georgia, there was a hand recount of every paper ballot there that was cast. It confirmed the results. And yet the president and some Republicans in the state are still spreading this sort of misinformation. I talked to Joe Kiniry, who runs a voting tech company that's working to develop more transparent voting equipment. When I talked to him, he honestly just sounded really defeated.

JOE KINIRY: I'm afraid that, you know, when we're in this realm of the coupling of disinformation from both foreign and domestic sources and government and non-government sources and none of it is really grounded in reality, evidence doesn't help much.

PARKS: At a certain point, he said it's no longer a voting system problem. You know, the system only works if the political forces who have the trust of the people delegate that trust to the voting system. That obviously is not happening right now, and there's no amount of paper ballots or auditing that's going to fix that problem.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Miles Parks. Miles, thanks for bringing all this to us.

PARKS: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "INTO SPARKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.