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Debunked film causes Republicans to mobilize, raising concerns of voter intimidation

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A conspiracy theory claiming that liberal activists are stuffing ballot drop boxes with fraudulent votes has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked. But many Republicans have embraced a film that uses the stylings of an investigative documentary to make the lie seem plausible. And now some are mobilizing around its false claims, raising concerns over voter intimidation in the final days before the midterms. NPR's Shannon Bond reports.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: 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.

EMMA STEINER: What we're seeing now is sort of a trend towards policing other people's voting behavior.

BOND: Emma Steiner is a disinformation analyst at the nonpartisan group Common Cause. The incidents appear inspired by a film, "2000 Mules," that spins a wild tale of how the 2020 election was supposedly stolen from Donald Trump. The story goes, Democratic groups colluded with paid operatives, who the film calls mules, to cast illegal votes. There's no evidence for any of this, but the false claims have taken hold among many Republicans, including Trump himself, who hosted a premiere event for "2000 Mules" at Mar-a-Lago. And people are taking up the film's call to action.

STEINER: It's basically an endless template for taking a picture of someone over video and saying that, oh, actually what they're doing here is criminal. You can trust me on this. And, you know, we need to find out who this person is and report them to the authorities.

BOND: While "2000 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 a progressive news network.

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: They took all these ingredients and put them into a Jell-O mold and served the Jell-O, basically.

BOND: "2000 Mules" was directed by right-wing commentator Dinesh D'Souza and relies on data and analysis from a controversial group called True the Vote. Its core claims have been refuted by fact checkers and rejected by law enforcement. One of the people identified as a mule is suing the film's creators for defamation. And this week, True the Vote's leaders were jailed for contempt of court in a separate matter. True the Vote referred questions about "2000 Mules" to D'Souza, who did not respond to a request for comment. But even though the film fails to produce any evidence showing its central claim that people were dropping ballots at multiple drop boxes, Sheffield argues that's beside the point.

SHEFFIELD: It is a narrative. You know, it is creating sentence structure to what had been just scattered feelings.

BOND: "2000 Mules" 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 pandemic and vaccines have spread conspiracy theories and recycled debunked lies. Jiore Craig studies elections at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

JIORE CRAIG: 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 in.

BOND: In "2000 Mules," slick graphics illustrate True the Vote's claims that so-called mules visited multiple drop boxes. But in one case, a map described as Atlanta is actually a stock photo of Moscow. This is not standard practice for filmmakers like Brian Knappenberger, whose latest project is a documentary series about online hoaxes that lead to real-world harms.

BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: We do three original sources for anything that looks anything like something we're saying or putting out into the world. And even if we kind of know it's true, but we just can't back it up, we don't do it.

BOND: But while mainstream documentaries like his aim to bring a true story to a wider audience, "2000 Mules" serves a different purpose - giving people who've already bought into the fiction of election fraud a satisfying story and a way to participate. Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.