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In Georgia this summer, a fake wanted poster falsely identified a woman as a so-called campaign messenger.
In Arizona, voters have complained of being photographed and filmed, in some cases by armed individuals, as they cast their ballots.
The incidents appear to be inspired by a movie, 2,000 Mules, which tells a wild tale of how the 2020 election was allegedly stolen by Donald Trump. At its heart is a conspiracy theory that claims democratic groups are working with paid agents — the eponymous “mules” — to fill ballot boxes with fraudulent votes.
There is no evidence for any of this. The film, directed by right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza and drawing on data and analysis from controversial voting group True the Vote, has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked by fact-checkers and denied 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 2020 election, the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines have propagated conspiracy theories and recycled lies exposed.
“Documentaries have been used for decades to try to make bad actors and people trying to promote conspiracies or to promote disinformation or to advance a particular political agenda look more professional, look glamorous, look like something to believe in,” said Jiore Craig. Head of the Elections and Digital Integrity Unit at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which tracks online extremism.
Exposed 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 leaders were jailed this week for contempt of court in a different matter.
Despite this, many Republicans accepted the film.
Local Republican groups across the country have held demonstrations. Trump himself hosted a premiere at Mar-a-Lago. His claims were promoted by elected officials in Texas and Michigan and candidates for governor and secretary of state in Arizona.
And now some are mobilizing over their bogus claims – and raising concerns about voter intimidation in the final days before the midterm elections.
“What we’re seeing now is a trend towards monitoring other people’s voting behavior,” said Emma Steiner, disinformation analyst at the non-partisan group Common Cause. “It’s basically an endless template 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 and we need to find out who’s doing this person and report it to the authorities.'”
True the Vote referred questions about “2,000 mules” to D’Souza, who did not respond to a request for comment.
‘Jelly Shape’ to shape a lie
While “2,000 Mules” didn’t invent the big lie that Trump won the 2020 election, it did give coherent form to claims of voter fraud, says Matthew Sheffield, a former conservative activist who is now a correspondent for progressive news network TYT News .
“They took all these ingredients and put them in a Jell-O mold and basically served the jelly,” Sheffield said.
But while the film doesn’t actually present any evidence for its core claim that people drop ballots in multiple mailboxes, that’s beside the point, argues Sheffield.
“It’s a narrative,” he said. “It creates sentence structure for what were just scattered feelings.”
In 2,000 Mules, sophisticated graphics illustrate True the Vote’s claim that it has cellphone location data that shows mules shuttled between the offices of leftist nonprofits and mailboxes.
But it turns out that the maps don’t really match the supposed data. In one case, a map purporting to show Atlanta was actually a photo of Moscow.
This is not a common practice for documentary filmmakers.
“We do three original sources for everything that looks like something that we say or put out into the world,” said director Brian Knappenberger, whose latest project is a documentary series about online hoaxes causing real-world harm. “And even if we kind of know it’s true, but we just can’t prove it, we don’t.”
But while mainstream documentaries like Knappenberger aim to bring a true story to a wider audience, Common Cause’s Steiner said “2,000 mules” serve a different purpose. It offers a satisfying story—and a way to participate—to people already committed to the fiction of voter fraud.
“People feel like I can do my part by watching this film, looking out for these ballot boxes and trying to make sure these people don’t vote where I vote,” she said.