Deleted tweets ignite new GOP election conspiracy about Katie Hobbs

Katie Hobbs, the Democratic governor-elect and current secretary of state, signs the official certification for the Arizona general election canvass during a ceremony at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022.
Robert Anglen
Arizona Republic

A pair of deleted tweets from 2021 touched off a new election conspiracy involving Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, with hard-line Republicans decrying censorship and calling for an official investigation.

Leaders of the state GOP on Tuesday falsely claimed Hobbs "pressured Twitter to remove posts while she was running to become governor of Arizona" and asked the attorney general to look into it.

"The Arizona Republican Party of Arizona calls on Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich to immediately investigate the Secretary of State over a government agency directing a private company (Twitter) to suppress free speech," Party Chair Kelli Ward wrote in a letter.

Records, however, show Ward's claims aren't true: Hobbs wasn't running for governor when the posts were flagged on Jan. 7, 2021, and her office did not solicit Twitter to have them removed. Rather, they reported the tweets to the Center for Internet Security, a nonprofit cybersecurity firm, for spreading misinformation about the state's election system.

Ward did not return calls or texts seeking comment.

"These messages falsely assert that the Voter Registration System is owned and therefore operated by foreign actors," Murphy Hebert, the secretary of state's communications director, wrote in a 2021 email. "This is an attempt to further undermine confidence in the election institution in Arizona."

Hebert's request came a day after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump, who sought to delay or prevent the certification of the 2020 election by members of Congress.

Emails show after Hebert reported the Tweets to CIS, Twitter removed them. It also took down the account, @normal_every, which remains suspended.

The Tweets came from an account with 21 followers called What Are You Hiding that used the catchphrase "stop them from stealing."

The tweets took aim at a specific contractor who worked to develop the Arizona voter registration database. A search of internet archives shows that it posed the question: "Is our entire election system foreign owned?" It included a screenshot of a corporation record establishing that the company was a "foreign corporation or organized under the laws of New York."

The company, Sutherland Global Services, Inc., is a technology company headquartered in Pittsford, New York.

Officials with the Secretary of State's Office confirmed Tuesday that Sutherland was hired by a prior Republican administration to upgrade the voter registration files but denied the company could manipulate or control voter records.

One of the 2021 tweets tagged members of Trump's legal team, including Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, who have espoused election conspiracy theories and have claimed without evidence that the 2020 presidential election was rigged in favor of President Joe Biden.

It also tagged Arizona lawmaker Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, an ardent Trump supporter who sought to overturn the results of Arizona's election and for years has claimed to have proof of widespread voter fraud, although he has never turned it over to authorities.

Finchem, who ran for secretary of state and lost the Nov. 8 election by more than 120,000 votes, blasted Hobbs on Twitter.

"Disgusting! Katie Hobbs Played a Personal Part in Censoring Election Information, and We Have the Receipt," he said in a Dec. 4 post.

Finchem did not respond to an interview request on Tuesday. His post came just a few hours after Hobbs certified the Nov. 8 election results in a ceremony Monday at the Capitol.

Hobbs, who defeated Republican Kari Lake in the race for governor by less than one percentage point, warned that election conspiracies threaten democracy.

"Protecting our democracy requires everyone's participation to help discern truth from fiction," she said. "False claims that undermine our democracy remain prevalent." 

The emails from Hobbs to CIS surfaced as part of a federal lawsuit filed by attorneys general in Missouri and Louisiana that alleges social media platforms coordinated with government officials to censor misinformation around COVID-19.

The request by Hobbs' office to delete the tweets became widely publicized after a separate investigation by freelance journalist Matt Taibbi dubbed "The Twitter Files," which revealed thousands of internal documents related to Twitter's moderation practices.

Taibbi said emails and other correspondence show Twitter in 2020 and 2021 aided Democrats by allowing government officials to squelch opposition and criticism from conservatives on the social media platform.

Assistant Secretary of State Allie Bones said Tuesday the email exchange about the tweets was taken out of context and had nothing to do with the 2022 midterm elections.

Hobbs, who was elected secretary of state in 2018, announced her candidacy for governor in June 2021, five months after the office sought to have the tweets taken down.

Bones said it is standard practice for "government entities, organizations, and corporations" to report content on social media that violates a platform’s terms of service.

It is the secretary of state's job to protect and inform voters by countering disinformation online that seeks to confuse them, Bones said.

"This is yet another example of conspiracy theorists trying to create chaos and confusion by casting doubt on our election system. It’s unfair to Arizona voters and it’s harmful to our democracy," she said.

But Trump's supporters in the Republican party seized on the deleted Tweets as evidence of wrongdoing and to propagate additional unfounded conspiracies.

In her letter to the attorney general, Ward suggested Hobbs illegally used her influence to benefit her campaign − with Twitter's help. Because Twitter expended money allowing both Hobbs and Lake to use the platform in their election, the removal of critical Tweets gave Hobbs an inside advantage, Ward said.

"It appears that Secretary Hobbs, acting in her official capacity, using state resources, and at times in coordination with the Biden Administration, privately asked Twitter to remove posts on her behalf," Ward wrote. "It was at this point that she may have crossed the line into unlawful coordination."

Trump lawyer and conservative TV host Christina Bobb, who helped bankroll the Arizona Senate's review of 2020 election results in Maricopa County, called the deleted Tweets unreal.

"Katie Hobbs’s office contacts Twitter to have posts removed!" Bobb wrote. "So, the democrat candidate, who ran the AZ election, censored her political opponents, disrupted Election Day votes, and then threatened counties with prosecution if they didn’t declare her the winner."

Lake, who has not conceded her loss and has indicated she will file a lawsuit challenging election results, also took swipes at Hobbs.

Her campaign asked in a tweet Monday if other Trump-endorsed candidates who lost the election, including Finchem, U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters and attorney general candidate Abe Hamadeh, might have been targeted.

"This certainly didn't stop with private citizens. Did @katiehobbs work to censor @KariLake?" the Kari Lake War Room said in a post. "How deep does her corruption go?"

Others were less than convinced.

"TRANSLATION: We are secretly hoping no one notices the emails were written a year and 10 months before the election," Tony Award nominated costume designer Bobby Pearce clapped back at Lake's campaign, referencing the number of votes she would need to win. "Come on, we only need to find 17,117 more votes."

Robert Anglen is an investigative reporter for The Republic. Reach him at robert.anglen@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8694. Follow him on Twitter @robertanglen.

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