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How documentary-style films turn conspiracy theories into a call to action

Fences surround the Maricopa County Tabulation and Elections Center (MCTEC) in Phoenix, Arizona, on Oct. 25, 2022, to help prevent incidents and pressure on voters at the ballot drop box.
Olivier Touron
/
AFP via Getty Images
Fences surround the Maricopa County Tabulation and Elections Center (MCTEC) in Phoenix, Arizona, on Oct. 25, 2022, to help prevent incidents and pressure on voters at the ballot drop box.

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

In Arizona, voters dropping off their ballots complained about being photographed and filmed, in some cases by people carrying weapons.

The incidents appear inspired by a film, "2,000 Mules," that spins a wild tale of how the 2020 election was supposedly stolen from Donald Trump. At its heart is a conspiracy theory claiming Democratic groups are colluding with paid operatives – the titular "mules" – to stuff ballot drop boxes with fraudulent votes.

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

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

"Documentaries have been used for decades to try to make bad actors and folks who are trying to push conspiracies or push disinformation or push a specific political agenda look more professional, look glamorous, look like something that you can believe," said Jiore Craig, head of elections and digital integrity at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which tracks online extremism.

Debunked and embraced

One of the people identified as a mule in "2,000 Mules" is suing the film's creators for defamation. True the Vote's leaders were jailed this week for contempt of court in a separate matter.

In spite of all that, many Republicans have embraced the film.

Local Republican groups across the country have held screenings. Trump himself hosted a premiere at Mar-a-Lago. Its claims have been promoted by elected officials in Texas and Michigan and candidates for governor and secretary of state in Arizona.

And now, some are mobilizing around its false claims – raising concerns over voter intimidation in the final days before the midterms.

"What we're seeing now is a trend towards policing other people's voting behavior," said Emma Steiner, a disinformation analyst at the nonpartisan group Common Cause. "It's basically an endless template for taking a picture of someone or a video and saying, 'Oh, actually what they're doing here is criminal and you can trust me on this, and we need to find out who this person is and report them to the authorities.'"

True the Vote referred questions about "2,000 Mules" to D'Souza, who did not respond to a request for comment.

'Jell-O mold' to shape a lie

While "2,000 Mules" didn't invent the big lie that Trump won the 2020 election, it's given coherent shape to voter fraud claims, says Matthew Sheffield, a former conservative activist who's now a correspondent for progressive news network TYT News.

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

But even though the film fails to actually produce any evidence showing its core claim that people were dropping ballots at multiple drop boxes, Sheffield argues, that's beside the point.

"It is a narrative," he said. "It is creating sentence structure to what had been just scattered feelings."

In "2,000 Mules," slick graphics illustrate True the Vote's claims that it has cellphone location data showing mules traveling between the offices of left-wing nonprofits and drop boxes.

But, it turns out, the maps don't actually correspond to the alleged data. In one case, a map supposedly showing Atlanta was actually a stock photo of Moscow.

This is not standard practice for documentary filmmakers.

"We do three original sources for anything that looks anything like something we're saying or putting out into the world," said director Brian Knappenberger, whose latest project is a documentary series about online hoaxes that lead to real-world harms. "And even if we kind of know it's true, but we just can't back it up, we don't do it."

But while mainstream documentaries like Knappenberger's aim to bring a true story to a wider audience, Common Cause's Steiner said "2,000 Mules" serves a different purpose. It gives people who've already bought into the fiction of election fraud a satisfying story – and a way to participate.

"People feel like, I can do my part by watching this movie, keeping an eye out for these ballot mules and attempting to ensure that these people are not voting where I'm voting," she said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.