I’ve long wondered why, if Lindell has all this evidence, he doesn’t simply turn it over to law enforcement. If he has any proof, anything at all, why not just make it public or hand it to the police? Lindell seems to think his data is unalterable (which isn’t true, but regardless), so why not loop in the FBI?
Well, there’s one good reason for that, as demonstrated to Lindell while he sat at a fast-food drive-through on Tuesday: The FBI works slowly. While he was at a Hardee’s grabbing food, FBI agents surrounded Lindell’s car and served him with a subpoena, seizing his phone, according to Lindell. The MyPillow CEO, warned not to discuss the encounter, readily announced that it was related to an investigation into a Colorado elections clerk’s alleged tampering with voting machines. An act that (allegedly) occurred in the spring of 2021.
All of the checks our culture has on misinformation work too slowly to be effective. Mark Twain’s well-worn adage about lies traveling halfway around the world was born in an era where getting halfway around the world took a few days. Now everything is faster, burrows deeper, spreads more widely than Twain could have imagined. But our processes for containing or counteracting false information haven’t changed much. It’s fighting the coronavirus with leeches.
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It has been a particularly bad summer for some of the worst purveyors of misinformation polluting American politics.
Lindell’s encounter with the FBI was only the most prominent. He’s also still scrambling to figure out how he might defend himself in a massive defamation lawsuit brought against him by Dominion Voting Systems, a suit that seems destined to end badly for the pillow salesman. Meanwhile, misinformation enthusiast Alex Jones was slapped with a massive punitive settlement by a jury in Texas, a result of false claims he made about the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Also this week, a company called Konnech filed a defamation suit against the group True the Vote. True the Vote is the organization that purports to have uncovered evidence of a massive ballot-moving scheme in the 2020 election, the claim at the core of Dinesh D’Souza’s film “2000 Mules.” But True the Vote has never provided any actual evidence of their claim and the film offers no evidence of people dumping ballots in multiple drop boxes. So, at its own summit this summer, True the Vote tried to turn the page on “2000 Mules” — evidence still unseen — pointing its supporters instead at purported nefariousness from Konnech.
The lag between True the Vote’s claims about Konnech and the lawsuit was remarkably short — but, then, it is also unresolved. The suit could drag on for months; it could be thrown out. Meanwhile, True the Vote has been peddling its unproven claims about those ballots for months, earning the embrace of the political right (and a lot of cash) despite the lack of demonstrated evidence.
This, of course, is a central point. There is no need to gin up theories about malfeasance. Take your pick: that the government is deeply corrupt, that the election was stolen, that the left can’t be trusted. Each of those is accepted as fact by millions of Americans. So there’s a market for purported evidence to bolster those points. Wild assertions about “false flag” shootings. Claims about Chinese hackers changing votes. Complicated-sounding analyses of cellphone data. There’s lots of misinformation that never moves an inch because there’s no fuel for it. But these claims are exactly what some people want to hear, so they take off.
The people questioning the claims, meanwhile, have a smaller audience. The tools for holding false claims in check work more slowly. Dominion sued Lindell in February 2021, but, thanks to his pillow money, he has been able to keep the fight going. The shooting at the center of the Jones lawsuit happened nearly a decade ago.
True the Vote has kept pushing forward in part because of the vagueness of its allegations. It claims nonprofit groups were involved in the ballot-moving scheme, but which ones? D’Souza appears to have named some of them in a book he is selling as an accompaniment to his movie, but, after arriving in bookstores, the publishers pulled the first draft. NPR got a copy; it seems that D’Souza named specific groups who, understandably, object vociferously to the allegations being made. In response, True the Vote walked away from the filmmaker. In a statement, a spokesperson claimed that the group had no knowledge of “any allegations of activities of any specific organizations made in the book.” So for the book, we’re asked to believe, D’Souza started freelancing on the data. (A question sent to D’Souza about the organizations was not answered by the time of publication.)
It’s vitally important that Americans be able to speak freely, of course. That free speech allows for the spread of false ideas is a hiccup in an essential system. The challenge is that we have no effective countervailing mechanism. Those who point out that misinformation is false or unsupported have no audience with the people who want to believe it. Legal tools for preventing the spread of falsehoods necessarily include stopgaps that slow the process down. So misinformation spreads.
Speaking on MSNBC over the weekend, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas pointed to misinformation as a specific danger. The department was focused (as it has been even before President Biden’s inauguration) on the threat of “domestic violent extremists,” people who, among other things, embrace “an ideology of hate, anti-government sentiment, false narratives propagated on online platforms, even personal grievances.” The department has issued bulletins identifying the danger of “an online environment filled with false or misleading narratives and conspiracy theories.”
Lindell is not a terrorist, of course. He doesn’t even appear to have been the direct target of the FBI’s search, though who knows? But he is pumping misinformation into the public discussion, misinformation centered on the idea that the federal government is illegitimate and the 2020 election flawed. It’s precisely the same misinformation that prompted hundreds of people to attack police as they sought to overrun the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
And here, 20 months later, Lindell is still amplifying the same idea without any immediate repercussions besides scolding newspaper articles.