2020 Conspiracy Theorists Are Being Held Accountable, But Damage They’ve Done Remains

A screening of the film "2000 Mules" in 2022. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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Late last month, right-wing broadcaster Salem Media Group announced that it would stop distributing 2020 election conspiracy film “2,000 Mules,” part of an effort to settle a defamation lawsuit brought by a Georgia man that the supposed documentary wrongly accused of voter fraud. The company posted a statement to its website, apologizing to the man for the way in which the film portrayed him, which — like so many 2020 election conspiracy theories — resulted in an innocent person and their family facing a deluge of violent threats. 

One by one, the conspiracy theorists and election deniers who, four years ago, thrust American democracy into chaos, are being held accountable for their actions, despite leaving a trail of destruction behind. 

Whether or not this serves as a deterrence for future damage ahead of 2024 remains to be seen. In the meantime, their baseless ideas live on. 

“I think that accountability is mostly a personal win for those who seek justice,” said Yotam Ophir, a professor of communication at the University at Buffalo who focuses on misinformation and extremism. “I can’t see how it’s going to change the big picture of the influence misinformation is going to have on the 2024 elections.”

Earlier this year, True the Vote, the group whose claims formed the basis of “2,000 Mules,” separately told a judge it had no evidence to support other false claims it made of ballot stuffing. 

That same month, misinformation purveyor Project Veritas publicly admitted that it had no evidence of voter fraud in Erie, Pennsylvania, after settling a lawsuit from an Erie postmaster who said the claims spread by the group forced him to flee his home and destroyed his reputation.

In April of this year, the right-wing website Gateway Pundit filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the midst of a defamation lawsuit from Georgia election workers Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman and a separate defamation lawsuit from a former employee at Dominion Voting Systems.

Slowly, but surely, years after injecting chaos into the election system and, in some cases, ruining the lives of innocent election workers, some of 2020s loudest election deniers are being hauled into court — and foundering.

“These are all necessary elements of starting to restore sanity and reality to our perception of our democracy,” David Becker, executive director and founder of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, told TPM. 

But although voting experts agree that accountability for conspiracy theorists, even years later, is crucial, especially ahead of the 2024 election, a significant number of voters still believe the election was illegitimate. 

That is, in part, because the conspiracy theories live on, boosted in many cases by former president and current candidate Donald Trump himself, even after those who crafted them face accountability. At the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, Trump told the audience that the election was “rigged” and that “they cheated like dogs.” And as recently as last month, during an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Trump repeated the lie that he won Wisconsin — a state Joe Biden won by more than 20,000 votes. 

According to polling from The Washington Post and University of Maryland, published in January of this year, close to one third of adults in the U.S. think that Biden was not legitimately elected in 2020. Similarly, CNN polling from last year shows that 71 percent of Republican voters think Biden’s win was illegitimate. 

“Exposing grifters as grifters is always a good thing,” Becker said. But, he noted, there’s always a market for grifters.

“It exists to enrich the few people who run it and at the expense of those who might be sincerely misled by them,” Becker said of one of the conspiracy theorizing organizations, True the Vote. “So they will continue the grift. They will double and triple down on the grift over and over and over again.”

Election Integrity Consultant David Levine similarly noted that these defamation lawsuits are indeed helpful, but they in and of themselves are not enough in terms of accountability. They can demonstrate, he said,  that “bringing weak cases on the merits can have real repercussions,” but he emphasized too that election denial has proved to be a “cash cow,” and that he will not be surprised to see a new wave of election lies in 2024. 

Even though justice is working, albeit slowly, the tremendous damage these election lies have caused has already been done — not just to democracy, but on an individual level. 

Freeman and Moss said in their lawsuit against the Gateway Pundit that the lies the company spread about them both “devastated their personal and professional reputations” and “instigated a deluge of intimidation, harassment, and threats” that caused them to fear for their safety. And the Erie postmaster, Robert Weisenbach, similarly said he received death threats because of the lies spread by Project Veritas. 

“There is I guess some optimism to have here, but at the same time, I mean to a large degree, the damage was already done,” said Ophir. “It’s not clear to me that these sporadic cases will be enough to dissuade others from participating in the next wave of misinformation.”

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