Furries and fakes: debunked myth litters US midterm campaign
Early voting for the US midterms, which have featured bizarre fake claims that some schools are stocking boxes of cat litter for students who identify as animals

Conspiracy-embracing candidates in the US midterm election have courted mockery by repeating a debunked myth about schools pandering to students who identify as cats, but analysts say the strategy is calculated, serious -- and effective.

At least 20 conservative candidates, including several elected Republicans, have claimed that some schools are stocking boxes of cat litter for students who identify as animals, according to a compilation of public statements by NBC News.

It is what some observers call zombie misinformation -- falsehoods that resurface after being repeatedly knocked down by fact checkers and, in this case, schools and even one Republican lawmaker who apologized and retracted his statement in March after spouting the claim.

The wave of misinformation in the midterm campaign comes amid wider culture wars in the United States over transgender rights and "woke" schools educating children about gender identity -- issues known to resonate strongly with conservative voters.

"The legislators who continue to parrot these debunked stories are most likely doing so because they believe doing so is politically expedient, regardless of whether they believe it or not," Joshua A. Tucker, professor of politics and co-director of the New York University's Center for Social Media and Politics, told AFP.

"And as long as we're in a period of time where identity and culture are such salient political cleavages in US society, we are going to continue to see politicians latching on to outlandish claims to demonstrate what side they are on in the culture wars."

'Electoral incentive'

There is a "clear electoral incentive" for conservative politicians to suggest that they believe this misinformation, said Matthew Motta, an assistant professor at Boston University School of Public Health.

"Political science research suggests that culture war issues like these (LGBT rights and 'woke' politics) are relatively easy for voters to grasp," Motta told AFP.

"Republican politicians may circulate misinformation like this in order to try to improve their electoral standing."

The subculture of furries refers to people who dress up or roleplay as animal characters. Activists see the hoax about furries and cat litter as part of a broad conservative backlash against LGBTQ students and public schools that support their rights.

Conservative politicians have long been accused of amplifying false narratives -- from former president Donald Trump's false claim that the 2020 election was stolen to Covid-19 misinformation and the QAnon conspiracy theory.

The rise of misinformation, particularly around elections, illustrates the potency of false narratives in a deeply divided nation that can be spun into viral political discourses.

One analysis of congressional candidates' Facebook posts by the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics found that Republican candidates in this year's midterms shared more links to unreliable news sources than they did in 2020.

"We find that Republican challengers consistently share more unreliable sources than Republican incumbents," said the analysis authored by the university's Megan Brown and Maggie Macdonald.

'Division, disorder, confusion'

Among other culprits, their analysis identified former Alaska governor Sarah Palin as a "super-sharer of unreliable sources," with 849 links shared from January to July.

Hemant Kakkar, an assistant professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, cautions against increasing already rampant polarization around misinformation by generalizing all conservatives as promoters of false information.

"In our research we have found certain conservatives -- those low on conscientiousness are driven by the need to create division, disorder and confusion when it comes to sharing of fake news," Kakkar told AFP.

"However, that is just a small subset of conservatives."

Kakkar's research, published this month, also pointed to the "inadequacy" of fact-checker interventions to deter that subset from spreading false news.

The inability to stop the spread of the litterbox hoax could have real life consequences, with activists warning that the misinformation could result in more stigma, violence and discrimination against sexual minorities, particularly those who are transgender and non-binary.

"Claiming that kids are identifying as cats underscores the sickening lengths some politicians will go to rile up the most extreme and dangerous elements of their base," said Geoff Wetrosky from Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization.

"The attention this freakish lie has received on social media illustrates the pernicious influence of disinformation and that anti-LGBTQ+ politicians will do and say anything to animate the most extreme fringe -- no matter the consequence," Wetrosky said in a statement.