How Documentary-Style Movies Support Conspiracy Theories: NPR


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

Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images

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Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images

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

Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images

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

In Arizona, voters casting their ballots complained of being photographed and filmedin some cases by people carrying weapons.

The incidents seem inspired by a movie, “2,000 mules,” which tells a crazy story about how the 2020 election was supposedly stolen from Donald Trump. At its heart is a conspiracy theory claiming that Democratic groups collude with paid agents – the titular “mules” – to stuff the ballot boxes with fraudulent votes.

There are no proof for all that. The film, which is directed by right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza and draws on data and analysis from controversial election group True the Vote, has been painstakingly and repeatedly, demystified by fact checkers and rejected by law enforcement.

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

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

Demystified and embraced

One of the people identified as a mule in “2,000 mules” is sue the creators of the film for defamation. Certainly, the leaders of the vote were imprisoned this week for contempt of court in another case.

Despite all of this, many Republicans embraced the film.

Local Republican groups across the country held screenings. Trump himself organized a first at Mar-a-Lago. His demands were promoted by elected officials in Texas and Michigan and candidates for governor and secretary of state in Arizona.

And now some are rallying around his misrepresentations – raising concerns about voter intimidation in the final days before midterms.

“What we’re seeing now is a tendency to police the voting behavior of others,” said Emma Steiner, a disinformation analyst at the nonpartisan group Common Cause. “It’s basically an endless pattern to take a picture of someone or a video and say, ‘Oh actually, what they’re doing here is criminal and you can trust me on that, and we have to find out who that person is and report to the authorities.'”

True the Vote directed 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 did give cohesive shape to the voter fraud allegations, says Matthew Sheffield, a former Tory campaigner who is now a correspondent for the progressive news network TYT News.

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

But even if the film fails to produce any evidence to show its main claim that people were dropping off ballots at multiple drop boxes, Sheffield argues, that’s beside the point.

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

In “2,000 mules,” sleek graphics illustrate True the Vote’s claims that it has cellphone location data showing mules traveling between offices of left-leaning nonprofits and drop boxes.

But, it turns out that the maps don’t actually match the alleged data. In one instance, a map purporting to show Atlanta was actually a photo of Moscow.

This is not common practice for documentary filmmakers.

“We do three original sources for everything that sounds like something we say or broadcast to the world,” said director Brian Knappenberger, whose latest project is a documentary series about online pranks that cause harm in the world. real world. “And even if we kind of know it’s true, but we just can’t confirm it, we don’t.”

But whereas mainstream documentaries like Knappenberger’s aim to tell a true story to a wider audience, Common Cause’s Steiner said “2,000 Mules” served a different purpose. It gives people who have already bought into the voter fraud fiction 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 election mules and trying to make sure these people don’t vote where I vote,” she said. declared.

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