Here's how Facebook posts from a CA police department fueled right-wing conspiracy theories
Torrance Police Department on Facebook.

Two Facebook posts by a California police department fueled right-wing conspiracies theories about voter fraud during the state's 2021 gubernatorial recall election.

It started with an August 17, 2021, post featuring pictures of a handgun, mail, what appears to be methamphetamine, and pills.

"Last night, officers responded to a male subject passed out in a vehicle in the 7-11 parking lot. Officers learned he was a felon & located Xanax pills on him. Officers continued their investigation and discovered a loaded firearm, methamphetamine, thousands of pieces of mail, a scale & multiple CA drivers licenses and credit cards in other individuals’ names. The suspect was arrested for numerous weapons, narcotics & forgery charges," the Torrance Police Department posted on Facebook.

On August 23, the department offered a "case update" with two photos of the stolen mail.

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"Regarding the arrest that was made 8/16/2021 in which over 300 election ballots were recovered from the suspect’s vehicle. This case is currently being investigated by our Special Investigations Division in partnership with the U.S. Postal Service and the LA County District Attorney Public Integrity Unit. Investigators are trying to figure out how the election ballots ended up in the suspect’s vehicle and what their intent was in having them. In the meantime, those who were identified through this investigation will be receiving a new election ballot. This incident is not tied to any additional thefts of election ballots," the department posted.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on how the posts fueled the conspiracy theories.

"This second post, critically, did not mention the fact the 300 ballots — all unopened and not delivered — were among thousands of pieces of mail. After the second post, the incident spawned national headlines, including one from the Associated Press reading, 'Passed out man found with 300 California recall ballots.' It also went viral on conservative forums where users were quick to use the incident to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the upcoming recall election," the newspaper reported.

The newspaper interviewed Torrance Police Department public information officer Sgt. Mark Ponegalek about how the posts fostered election disinformation.

"Could we have done a better job in recognizing the current national environment with claims of election fraud? Absolutely," Ponegalek said. "I never shied away from talking about the case when media outlets reached out, but it shows we have to be careful about which pictures we share with posts."

"Part of the reason we put out that second Facebook post was not wanting to hide anything," he explained. "But I think this specific case and the fallout would be great example of needing to do our best to be careful in this national climate."

Read the full report.