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Thursday, June 20, 2024

A bad week for backers of the Big Lie


This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.

This week, two influential spreaders of Donald Trump’s Big Lie faced trouble. These aren’t the first glitches in the conspiracy-theory universe.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:


A Notable Climbdown

It’s been a very bad week for two of the most prominent purveyors of Donald Trump’s webs of lies about the 2020 presidential election. Last Friday, Salem Media Group announced that it had removed the fabulist film 2,000 Mules from its platform and said it would no longer distribute either the movie or an accompanying book by the right-wing activist and Trump-pardoned felon Dinesh D’Souza. It also issued an apology to Mark Andrews, a Georgia man whom the film had falsely depicted participating in a conspiracy to rig the 2020 election by using so-called mules to stuff ballot drop boxes. After being cleared of any wrongdoing by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Andrews filed a defamation lawsuit in 2022 against D’Souza, Salem, and two individuals associated with a group whose analysis heavily influenced the film.

While perhaps not as dramatic as Fox News’s $787 million settlement last year with Dominion Voting Systems for lying about the election, Salem’s climbdown is worth paying attention to. Salem is one of the most influential right-wing media companies in the United States, and in many ways, 2,000 Mules was the movie version of Trump’s election lies. The film was utterly bogus—a mixture of conjecture and falsehoods that were easily discredited by fact-checkers. But it played a major role in shaping Republican skepticism about the election.

Trump himself embraced 2,000 Mules, calling it “the greatest and most impactful documentary of our time.” When the movie debuted, Trump hosted a screening at Mar-a-Lago featuring such MAGA stars as Rudy Giuliani, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the MyPillow guy, Mike Lindell. The film became a frequent talking point for Trump allies who alleged that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen. And it found some level of mainstream appeal: Salem announced that more than 1 million people watched the movie in the first two weeks after it was released in May 2022, grossing more than $10 million. Now the producer’s public apology has made clear that the film was based on misleading data and false claims.

The second recent development involved The Epoch Times, a media outlet founded in 2000 by an Atlanta-based practitioner of the Chinese Falun Gong movement. You can be forgiven if you are only dimly aware of the publication, which is distributed free to households around the world (including mine). But like Salem Media, it plays an important role in the media ecosystem that boosts Trump and spreads conspiracy theories, including disinformation about the 2020 election.

In 2019, NBC reported that The Epoch Times had spent more money on pro-Trump Facebook advertisements than any group other than the Trump campaign itself. The publication also became a vector of disinformation, the NBC investigation found; its news sites and YouTube channels were used to popularize conspiracy theories including QAnon and anti-vaccination propaganda.

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Simon van Zuylen-Wood reported in The Atlantic in 2021, The Epoch Times “used every opportunity to call Biden’s victory into doubt” and “eagerly publicized” Trump’s remarks preceding the January 6 insurrection. And all that time, the paper continued to grow. By 2023, The Epoch Times claimed that it had the fourth-largest subscriber base of any newspaper in the country—and it had apparently boosted its revenue by 685 percent from 2019 to 2021.

It sounded too good to be true, maybe because it was. Earlier this week, Weidong “Bill” Guan, the chief financial officer of the company, was arrested and charged with involvement in a multiyear, $67 million money-laundering scheme. Federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York charged that a team at The Epoch Times called “Make Money Online” used cryptocurrency to “knowingly purchase tens of millions of dollars in crime proceeds.” That allegedly included taking fraudulently obtained unemployment-insurance benefits and loading the money onto prepaid debit cards. Guan has pleaded not guilty, but has been suspended by The Epoch Times, which says that it is cooperating with the investigation.

The setbacks for Salem and The Epoch Times are just the latest glitches in the alternative-reality universe. Fox News still faces a lawsuit from Smartmatic over the network’s election lies; Rudy Giuliani was hit last year with a massive judgment for his lies about the Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, and his radio show was canceled by WABC; the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre are asking a bankruptcy court to liquidate the right-wing conspiracist Alex Jones’s media platform, Free Speech Systems, after winning $1.5 billion in damages for defamation; and Trump himself is facing an $83 million judgment for defaming E. Jean Carroll—whom he was found liable for sexually assaulting.

Far-right (and far-left) digital-media outlets are also seeing a massive decline in readership compared with 2020, as Paul Farhi noted in The Atlantic in April. But even if some of the largest MAGA-world platforms collapse, Farhi wrote, “there are now alternatives to the alternatives.” Since 2016, “the marketplace has expanded and fragmented … splintering the audience seeking conservative or even extremist perspectives among podcasts, YouTube videos, Substack newsletters, and boutique platforms.” Misinformation—and its wide, eager audience—is not going anywhere. It remains up to Americans to distinguish between truth and lies, and to decide whether to hold Trump to account for his own lies in November.

Related:


Today’s News

  1. A federal judge ordered Steve Bannon, a former Trump adviser, to report to prison by July 1 to serve his four-month sentence. Bannon was convicted of contempt of Congress in 2022 after he defied a subpoena from the House’s January 6 committee.
  2. In an interview with ABC News, President Joe Biden said that he wouldn’t pardon his son Hunter, who is on trial for three gun-related charges.
  3. An Israeli strike, which reportedly used a U.S.-made bomb, killed dozens of people in a UN school complex in central Gaza. The Israeli military said that the attack targeted and killed some Hamas militants in the school complex; the Gaza Health Ministry said that at least 23 casualties were women and children, who were sheltering there.

Dispatches

  • Time-Travel Thursdays: In 1989, CNN had taken off, more Americans had cable than ever, and Neil Postman was worried. In the Information Age, “he sensed that Americans had lost faith in their nation’s story,” Will Gordon writes.

Explore all of our newsletters here.


Evening Read

FRANCE. Normandy. June 6, 1944. U.S. troops assault Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings.
Robert Capa / Magnum

On D-Day, the U.S. Conquered the British Empire

By Michel Paradis

For most Americans, D-Day remains the most famous battle of World War II. It was not the end of the war against Nazism. At most, it was the beginning of the end. Yet it continues to resonate 80 years later, and not just because it led to Hitler’s defeat. It also signaled the collapse of the European empires and the birth of an American superpower that promised to dedicate its foreign policy to decolonization, democracy, and human rights, rather than its own imperial prestige.

It is easy to forget what a radical break this was … Only the British empire was expected to survive as the standard-bearer of imperialism, alongside two very different superpower peers: the Soviet Union and the United States. Within weeks of D-Day, however, the British found themselves suddenly and irrevocably overruled by their former colony.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break

An illustration of a dead fly
Illustration by Gabriela Pesqueira

Interpret. Stop trying to understand Franz Kafka’s works, Judith Shulevitz writes. His parables aren’t supposed to make sense.

Read.The Ghost of Johnnie Taylor Reflects,” a poem by Chaun Ballard:

“At night she would toss rocks at my window / that disturbed the dust   & left scars / like the nails of one’s hands.”

Play our daily crossword.


Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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