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NPR News

A pro-Trump film suggests its data are so accurate, it solved a murder. That's false

Dinesh D'Souza, seen here at a premiere of one of his films in 2018, has released a new film alleging voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Fact checkers have cast doubt on many of the film's claims.
Shannon Finney
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Getty Images
Dinesh D'Souza, seen here at a premiere of one of his films in 2018, has released a new film alleging voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Fact checkers have cast doubt on many of the film's claims.

A conservative "election integrity" group called True The Vote has made multiple misleading or false claims about its work, NPR has found, including the suggestion that they helped solve the murder of an eight-year-old girl in Atlanta.

The claims appear in a new pro-Trump film called "2,000 Mules," which purports to have "smoking gun" evidence of massive voter fraud in the 2020 election in the form of digital device location tracking data. Former president Donald Trump has embraced the film, which has gained popularity on the political right, along with the claim about the murder case.

Trump's official spokesperson, Liz Harrington, said True The Vote "solved a murder of a young little girl in Atlanta. I mean, they are heroes." Fans of the film have echoed that message on social media.

That claim is false.

Authorities in Georgia arrested and secured indictments against two suspects in the murder of Secoriea Turner in August 2021.

In response to NPR's inquiries, True The Vote acknowledged it had contacted law enforcement more than two months later, meaning it played no role in those arrests or indictments.

It's not the only false or misleading claim that True The Vote and Dinesh D'Souza, the director behind "2,000 Mules," have made, NPR found.

Fact-checkers from the Associated Press and PolitiFact have examined the central voter fraud allegations in "2,000 Mules" and found that the film makes many dubious claims. A Washington Post analysis summarized the film's allegations as a leap of faith - "we're just asked to trust that True the Vote found what it says it found." True The Vote and D'Souza have disputed those fact-checks.

NPR's reporting has raised additional questions about True the Vote and the film's trustworthiness. Dinesh D'Souza did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.

A filmmaker with a controversial past

Dinesh D'Souza has provoked controversy for decades. In 2007, D'Souza drew widespread criticism for writing that "the cultural left is responsible for causing 9/11," citing, among other things, liberal support for same-sex marriage. In 2014, D'Souza pleaded guilty to allegations that he made illegal contributions to a U.S. Senate campaign and was sentenced to five years' probation for committing campaign finance fraud. Trump gave D'Souza a presidential pardon in 2018.

For "2,000 Mules," D'Souza teamed up with True The Vote. The group's executive director, Catherine Engelbrecht, and one of its board members, Gregg Phillips, feature prominently in the film. They are also credited as executive producers.

Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of True the Vote, testifies on Capitol Hill in 2014.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
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AP
Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of True the Vote, testifies on Capitol Hill in 2014.

After the 2020 presidential election, True The Vote said it purchased a trove of geolocation data obtained from electronic devices. Marketers often use that kind of data for targeted advertising, and privacy advocates have raised alarms about just how much information companies are collecting and selling.

True The Vote said it used the data to track the movements of people in key swing states around the time of the 2020 election. D'Souza, Engelbrecht and Phillips claim this location-tracking data show thousands of people making suspiciously large numbers of stops at mail-in vote dropboxes in the 2020 election. They allege those individuals, the "mules" of the title, were making multiple stops because they were actually stuffing the dropboxes with stacks of completed ballots - a practice that critics call "ballot harvesting."

The film also features video surveillance footage of some ballot dropboxes. But, as D'Souza himself has acknowledged, the film does not show any person on camera going to multiple dropboxes. So the film primarily relies on their claims about geotracking data, which D'Souza has argued are "more reliable than video footage."

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, a Republican, said his office had already examined one instance flagged by True The Vote, in which a man delivered multiple ballots to a dropbox. Raffensberger said they found no wrongdoing. "We investigated, and the five ballots that he turned in were all for himself and his family members," said Raffensperger.

Despite the criticisms, Trump has embraced "2,000 Mules." The former president even hosted a premiere event for the film at his Mar-a-Lago resort, featuring Republican politicians such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, and Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas. Breitbart reported that Trump called on the crowd to "do something" about the problems allegedly exposed in the film.

Misleading claims about a murder investigation

The film suggests that True The Vote's analysis is so reliable that it helped investigate homicides.

"We chose to look at two murders that were ebbing on cold case status," Engelbrecht says in one scene of the film. The film then describes just one case: the killing of Secoriea Turner on July 4, 2020 in Atlanta.

Phillips says he and his team obtained device data from the area of the shooting, which showed "only a handful of unique devices that could have pulled the trigger...each of these devices has a unique device ID, and we turned the bulk of this information over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

"Now, I read they've arrested two suspects," D'Souza responds to Phillips.

"They have," Phillips says.

In an episode of his podcast promoting the film, D'Souza said Phillips and Engelbrecht provided their analysis to the FBI, which turned the data over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). "Shortly after that," D'Souza said, "boom" - there were two arrests and indictments.

NPR contacted the GBI to fact-check this claim.

"The GBI did not receive information from True the Vote that connected to the Secoriea Turner investigation," said Nelly Miles, the GBI's Director of the Office of Public and Governmental Affairs.

An attorney for Secoriea Turner's family told NPR they had never heard of Engelbrecht's and Phillips' analysis either.

Charmaine Turner prepares to enter a viewing her for 8-year-old daughter Secoriea Turner, who was fatally shot in Atlanta on July 4 in 2020.
John Bazemore / AP
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AP
Charmaine Turner prepares to enter a viewing her for 8-year-old daughter Secoriea Turner, who was fatally shot in Atlanta on July 4 in 2020.

"I am not aware that any of this occurred," said the attorney, Mawuli Davis.

Engelbrecht and Phillips told NPR they did not have time for an interview, and Engelbrecht responded to NPR's questions by email.

Engelbrecht wrote that she "called a contact at the FBI" and Phillips gave him the information about the Turner case "on or about October 25, 2021."

But the Fulton County District Attorney announced the indictment of both defendants more than two months earlier, on Aug. 13, 2021.

The timeline directly contradicts D'Souza's claim and means Phillips' analysis could not have played any role in the arrest of the two men for Turner's murder.

In her email to NPR, Engelbrecht noted that "the DA issued a press release [on Aug. 13, 2021] asking for help, which is when we got involved." She did not address the false claims by D'Souza or the misleading implication in "2,000 Mules," except to say that the film "did not have the benefit of full context."

In addition, NPR was unable to confirm Engelbrecht's claim that she and Phillips had provided any information about Turner's case to the FBI.

"I will not provide names of the FBI agents, as I do not want them harassed," Engelbrecht told NPR.

Jenna Sellitto, a public affairs specialist for the FBI's Atlanta field office, declined to comment, noting that the Atlanta Police Department led the investigation and Department of Justice policy "would not permit us to disclose communications between the FBI and private citizens."

The Atlanta Police Department declined to comment.

'It is highly unlikely that these conclusions have any basis in fact'

In an interview promoting "2,000 Mules," D'Souza said that True The Vote had even obtained information showing that the "mules" participated in antifa rioting.

"There is an international organization called ACLED [Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project] that monitors the cell phones of all violent rioters around the world," D'Souza said on the Dan Bongino Show. "What True The Vote did was they took the cell phone data on the mules and matched it against the ACLED data on the rioters. And guess what? There's a pretty big overlap."

In the film, Phillips also cites ACLED, which is a nonprofit research organization.

"There's an organization that tracks the device IDs across all violent protests around the world. We took a look at our 242 mules in Atlanta and, sure enough, dozens and dozens and dozens of our mules show up on the ACLED databases," Phillips says in the film. "This is not grandma out walking her dog, these are, you know, violent criminals sometimes."

ACLED told NPR both claims are categorically false.

"This is not the type of analysis you can use ACLED data for, and it is highly unlikely that these conclusions have any basis in fact," said Sam Jones, senior communications manager at ACLED.

"This is not what we do - we do not track device IDs," Roudabeh Kishi, the director of research and innovation at ACLED, told NPR in an interview.

ACLED does track violent incidents around the world, including riots, as well as peaceful protests. Their data do not include specific locations inside a city - such as neighborhoods or city blocks - where protests took place. ACLED does not track the time of day of those incidents or generally note individual participants, except for high-profile leaders.

Kishi said ACLED welcomes input and questions from researchers who might be interested in using ACLED's data. "We never heard from the filmmakers," said Kishi.

"Seeing things like this is quite frustrating, because this is really the direct opposite of what we're trying to do," said Kishi.

In an email to NPR, Engelbrecht said that Phillips was not actually referring to ACLED when he said, "There's an organization that tracks the device IDs across all violent protests around the world" and then mentioned ACLED. She would not specify what organization Phillips was citing, and said Phillips relied on "multiple databases" to reach the conclusion included in the film.

When NPR pointed out that D'Souza had explicitly claimed that ACLED tracks cell phone data, Engelbrecht wrote "If you have questions about Dinesh's comments, my suggestion would be to ask Dinesh."

As with the other claims NPR asked about, D'Souza did not respond to NPR's question.

Claims about the use of 'high-powered computers'

Phillips said in another interview with right-wing commentator Charlie Kirk that it took "12 people, 16 hours a day, for 15 months" to conduct their data analysis. To help with that effort, Phillips said, "We actually do have access to several very high-powered computers."

"We do most of the work in Plano, Tex., and part of the work in the High Performance Computing Center on the campus of Starkville, Miss.," Phillips told Kirk in the interview, which has more than a million views on Rumble.

It appears that Phillips was referring to the Portera High Performance Computing Center, which houses the High Performance Computing Collaboratory at Mississippi State University in Starkville. NPR contacted the university to learn more.

"Mississippi State University, to our knowledge, has done zero analysis or computing on behalf of True The Vote," said Sid Salter, Chief Communications Officer and Director of the Office of Public Affairs at Mississippi State University.

The closest Phillips got to the computing center, Salter said, was a "publicly available tour" of the facility.

Another corporate entity associated with Phillips, called OpSec Group, LLC, did lease space in a separate building in the same research park.

Salter said that office space "appeared to us to be sporadically used, if at all."

Even after NPR provided Salter's comments to Engelbrecht, she continued to claim that Phillips "leased an office in the Portera High Performance Computing Center."

Mississippi State University then provided NPR with a copy of OpSec's lease agreement, signed by Phillips, which shows that his office was actually in a separate facility called the Industry Partners Building.

When NPR asked True The Vote to respond to the discrepancy, Engelbrecht said simply, "I got the building wrong."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.