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Two years later, obvious misinformation is finally taken down

I was sitting at dinner with my editor in early 2022 when filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza challenged me to a debate.

I had written an article assessing claims from the right-wing group True the Vote alleging that millions of ballots had been collected during the 2020 presidential election and dropped into ballot boxes — an effort to influence the election results that, in the words of the group’s Gregg Phillips, constituted “an organized crime that was perpetrated on Americans.”

The analysis from True the Vote was at the center of a movie that D’Souza was preparing for release — hence his challenge to me. I quickly accepted, and D’Souza provided me a copy to preview.

My initial assessment of True the Vote’s claims — which ran under the prescient headline “‘Ballot trafficking’ is the next front in the unending fight over 2020” — noted that the group’s methodology couldn’t accomplish what it claimed to have accomplished. The group, allegedly acting on a tip about a ballot-collection effort, used cellphone geolocation data to identify thousands of people (dubbed “mules”) who had visited several ballot drop-boxes in the weeks before the election. But there were countless obvious problems with that assessment, including that the geolocation data wasn’t sufficiently refined to allow that sort of determination and that the examples offered by True the Vote at a hearing in Wisconsin showed people moving all over certain cities — including on streets near places that had ballot boxes.

D’Souza’s movie, “2000 Mules,” did not make a better case. After viewing it, I walked through the gaps in its arguments, including that there was no evidence of any scheme outside the alleged analysis from True the Vote — remarkable operational security from an alleged multistate illegal conspiracy involving thousands of people. When D’Souza and I finally discussed the movie, he was unable to make a more compelling case or address the obvious gaps in his argument. For the most part, he defaulted to True the Vote’s analysis and claims — fraught, given that Phillips had a record of making unsubstantiated claims about fraud.

From the outset, in other words, the claims in “2000 Mules” and the assessments of True the Vote were not credible. That lack of credibility only increased over time. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, for example, indicated that it would not launch a probe into the alleged activity, asking True the Vote to reveal its whistleblower; the group ultimately said it had no names of whistleblowers to offer. The group promised to release all its information for public scrutiny before announcing that it wouldn’t. There was one map of the visits to drop boxes made by an alleged “mule” shown in the movie, but Phillips told The Washington Post that it was fake.

What the movie did have, though, was an argument that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump — an argument that was cleverly cloaked in the aesthetic of a serious investigation and a complicated, data-driven examination. D’Souza explicitly argued that there was enough ballot movement to affect the election outcomes (relying, as he told me during our conversation, on True the Vote’s ability to enhance video from a handful of ballot drop boxes which was then extrapolated to every mule everywhere). So the movie got a screening at Mar-a-Lago and enormous attention from Trump and his allies.

There were “so many things” that happened in 2020, Trump claimed earlier this year at a rally in New Hampshire. “You take a look at True the Vote, where they have tens of thousands of people stuffing the ballot boxes.” Even D’Souza never claimed a number that high, but accuracy has never been Trump’s watchword. That he continued to hype these allegations after they were debunked is evidence to that end.

The film was produced in part by Salem Media Group, a right-wing outlet that hosts many prominent voices on its radio network. In our conversation, D’Souza said that an approving panel of commentators shown in the film that included some of them — like Charlie Kirk, Dennis Prager and Sebastian Gorka — was a request from Salem. Salem also distributed the film and published a companion book that made the same claims.

That book was an early point of embarrassment for Salem and D’Souza. After being sent to some stores, it was pulled to be rewritten — apparently because the initial version of the book identified specific nonprofit groups that D’Souza alleged had participated in the nonexistent ballot-stuffing effort. This triggered understandable concerns about lawsuits. (True the Vote claimed at the time that they hadn’t identified those organizations to D’Souza.)

It was a lawsuit from another source that led to Salem pulling the movie from its streaming platform late last week.

A Georgia man named Mark Andrews had done members of his family a favor before Election Day in 2020 by collecting their ballots and dropping them in a ballot box. This was legal under Georgia law, and the authorities in the state cleared Andrews of any wrongdoing in May 2022 — a few days before “2000 Mules” was released.

But the film still features Andrews putting his family’s ballots in a drop box, with D’Souza describing it as a crime in a voice-over. Andrews is also shown in the book, with a caption calling it “organized crime.”

Andrews sued D’Souza, True the Vote and Salem, among others. Late Friday afternoon, Salem Media Group released a statement.

“We apologize for the hurt the inclusion of Mr. Andrews’ image in the movie, book, and promotional materials have caused Mr. Andrews and his family,” it read, in part. “We have removed the film from Salem’s platforms, and there will be no future distribution of the film or the book by Salem.”

Representatives for D’Souza and Andrews’s legal team did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Salem put the blame squarely on “representations made to us by Dinesh D’Souza and True the Vote” — representations that were not credible even before the movie came out, as I wrote in early April 2022. In our conversation, D’Souza indicated that he was relying on the representations from True the Vote.

Those reliances were by all accounts lucrative. The film was the 13th most popular movie in movie theaters in the country the week it debuted and eventually grossed more than $1 million in theaters — despite being primarily distributed by streaming. Its errors were obvious soon after its release, but it was a cash cow. It was also essential to Trump and his supporters, as his January comments make clear: At last, here was putative evidence of the fraud they simply knew must have occurred.

It didn’t, as was always obvious. But sometimes the truth not only takes two years to get its boots on, it only reaches for its boots once it receives a subpoena.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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