How documentaries turn conspiracy theories into a call to action

Fences surround the Maricopa County Elections and Tabulation Center (MCTEC) in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 25, 2022, to help prevent accidents and pressure voters at the ballot box.

Olivier Toron/AFP via Getty Images

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Olivier Toron/AFP via Getty Images

Fences surround the Maricopa County Elections and Tabulation Center (MCTEC) in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 25, 2022, to help prevent accidents and pressure voters at the ballot box.

Olivier Toron/AFP via Getty Images

In Georgia this summer, a fake wanted poster identified a woman as a so-called poll mule.

In Arizona, voters dropping their ballots complained of being photographed, photographed, and in some cases by people with guns.

The events seem to be inspired by the movie “2000 Mules,” which tells a wild story of how Donald Trump was stolen the 2020 election. At its core is a conspiracy theory alleging that democratic groups collude with paid agents – “the mules” – to stuff ballot boxes with fraudulent votes.

There is no evidence for any of this. The film, directed by right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza and based on data and analysis from controversial electoral group True the Vote, has been extensively and repeatedly debunked by fact-checkers and rejected by law enforcement.

But the film is the latest in a long line of films that use the metaphors and connotations of documentaries to gain credibility. In recent years, documentaries about the 2020 election, the COVID-19 pandemic, and vaccines have spread conspiracy theories and recycled exposed lies.

“Documentaries have been used for decades to try to make bad actors and people who try to push conspiracies or push disinformation or advance a particular political agenda look more professional, look glamorous, and sound like something you can believe,” said Geor Craig, Head of Elections and Digital Integrity at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. that tracks extremism on the Internet.

expose and embrace

One of the people identified as a mule in the movie “2000 Mule” sued the filmmakers for defamation. True, the voting leaders were jailed this week for contempt of court in a separate matter.

Despite all of that, many Republicans have embraced the film.

Local republic groups across the country held performances. Trump himself hosted the premiere at Mar-a-Lago. Its demands were promoted by elected officials in Texas and Michigan and candidates for governor and secretary of state in Arizona.

Now, some are moving around his false claims – raising concerns about voter intimidation in the final days before the midterm elections.

“What we’re seeing now is a trend toward observing other people’s voting behavior,” said Emma Steiner, a disinformation analyst at the nonpartisan group Common Cause. “It’s an endless form of taking a picture of someone or a video and saying, ‘Oh, actually what they’re doing here is criminal and you can trust me about this, we need to find out who that person is and report it to them to the authorities.'”

True, the vote referred questions about “2000 mules” to D’Souza, who did not respond to a request for comment.

“Mould Jell-O” to form a lie

While “2000 Mule” didn’t invent the big lie that Trump won the 2020 election, it did give coherent form to allegations of voter fraud, says Matthew Sheffield, a former conservative activist who now works as a reporter for the progressive news network TYT News.

“They took all of these ingredients and put them into a Jell-O mold and basically served Jell-O,” Sheffield said.

But although the film failed to produce any evidence showing its primary claim that people were dropping ballot papers into multiple boxes, Sheffield argues, this is off-topic.

“It’s a story,” he said. “It creates sentence structure for what were just scattered feelings.”

In “2000 Mules,” gorgeous graphics illustrate True the Vote’s claims to have mobile phone location data showing mules navigating between offices of left-wing nonprofits and drop boxes.

But it turns out that the maps do not actually correspond to the alleged data. In one case, a map purportedly showing Atlanta was actually a stored image of Moscow.

This is not standard practice for documentary filmmakers.

“We do three original sources for anything that sounds like something we say or show to the world,” said director Brian Knappenberger, whose latest project is a documentary series about internet hoaxes that do real damage. “And even if we know it’s kind of true, but we can’t back it up, we don’t.”

But while mainstream documentaries like Knappenberger aim to bring a true story to a wider audience, Common Cause’s Steiner said 2000 Mule serves a different purpose. It gives people already convinced by the fantasy of election fraud a satisfying story — and a way to get involved.

“People feel that I can do my part by watching this movie, watching these poll mules and trying to make sure these people don’t vote where I’m voting,” she said.

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