Jill Stein has raised $6.7 million to recount votes in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. The funds are said to have come from more than 137,000 people donating $46 on average. At least that’s the official line — rumors have spread that Stein is using a bot to break donations from one mega-donor up into chunks to avoid legal scrutiny and keep Donald Trump out of the White House.
The rumors have all the makings of an online conspiracy theory. They’ve propagated on social networking sites; they rely on anecdotal evidence posted by someone claiming to be an investigative journalist; and they fly in the face of what Stein’s campaign has repeatedly said. But let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment to ask one question: Would it be possible to build a donation bot?
First, let’s examine the allegations. People have said that donations to Stein’s campaign have risen at the same rate each hour even into the middle of the night. The don’t-call-them-conspiracy-theorists believe this proves that Stein is using a bot because, believe it or not, most people in the United States don’t use the internet after midnight. So they conclude that a bot must be involved.
Here’s the rub: This information was said to have been gathered by someone who stayed up into the middle of the night to keep tabs on Stein’s fundraising. Even if this were a reliable source of data — it’s not — nobody has addressed the fact that if someone has the dedication to refresh a website at 3 a.m., chances are good that other people are awake to donate some of their money.
Set that aside for a moment, though, and look at the bigger picture. A bot could indeed be programmed to make small donations at different times. Hell, that was in an episode of Breaking Bad, so it wouldn’t take a criminal mastermind (or the Illuminati) to dream up the idea of avoiding scrutiny about large amounts of money by turning it into smaller “donations” processed online.
The trick would be to design a bot that could do all this without raising the eyebrows of anyone at the Federal Election Commission. That’s the agency in charge of making sure everything’s on the up-and-up when it comes to donating to presidential campaigns, political parties, and the like. Because Stein ran for president, her fundraising is subject to the FEC’s restrictions.
In fact, Stein said FEC rules are the reason why she didn’t try to raise the funds for this recount via crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. So the donations would have to come from real people (or at least somewhere that seems real) to avoid the regulator’s ire. Yet even that obstacle could be surmounted by anyone willing to use stolen credit cards purchased on the so-called Dark Web.
Credit card information leaks from services like Uber or companies like Target and the Home Depot all the time. Stein could purchase these cards and program a bot to make small donations from them; this would also remove the need for a bigwig who can supply the money themselves. The charges could all be small, and even if they are noticed, the accounts are probably FDIC-insured.
Besides the obvious consequences of engaging in that illegal behavior, though, it isn’t in Stein’s best interests to fake these donations. The Street reported that all the email addresses Stein has amassed via this recount campaign could be worth tens of millions of dollars. Information about who donated, how much, and how to contact them could all be sold to other political operatives.
That doesn’t happen if the emails associated with the donations are fake. (Or, you know, Stein doesn’t plan to profit from political activism.) It simply isn’t in Stein’s best interests to take money from one person and make it seem like it came from many others, especially since she has said that the recount is about preserving the election’s integrity, not putting Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office.
Believing that Stein has set up a donation bot to steal the presidential election away from Trump requires one to rely on hearsay, ignore common sense, and assume that someone who just made a failed run for office would be willing to perform numerous illegal acts to get somebody else elected. It also means thinking a bot like this would be easy for someone to program and run.
So, yes, it is technically feasible to create a donation bot. But it’s also absurd, unlikely, and a reflection of the president-elect’s supporters, not reality.