“Follow the money” is a favorite saying of conspiracy theorists, and if they can say it in Latin, so much the better. The phrase was made famous by the movie version of “Deep Throat,” Bob Woodward’s name for Mark Felt, his secret source for the Watergate scandal. Like all tools it can be employed for legitimate purposes to expose real corruption or even actual conspiracies, and Woodward used it expertly to do just that. But what does it mean and how is it ordinarily used? Equally importantly, how is it misused?
“Follow the money” does not mean “see who benefits.” That is the usual meaning used by the conspiracy theory crowd and it’s not just naive, it’s dangerous, and can often lead to injustices. If your friend Mary inherited a small bundle of cash from her late uncle Joe, that doesn’t mean you are free to conclude that Mary murdered Joe. But you “followed the money,” right? No, you saw who benefited and concluded — without evidence — that Mary murdered Joe. The “evidence part” is that Joe died non-suspiciously of leukemia under a doctor’s care surrounded by family and friends in a hospital bed, hundreds of miles away from where Mary was sleeping.
That’s the way things usually are. Conspiracy theorists uproot the usual and transplant it — without evidence — and try to force-fit it into their theories. That’s an important difference between how a real investigation is done by experts and what happens when the investigation is conducted by amateurs. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that the vast majority of conspiracy theory books are written by amateurs.
Neither is it a coincidence that the “audit” of the 2020 election vote in Maricopa County is being conducted by the now famous amateurs known as the “Cyber Ninjas,” who are trying to advance their own conspiracy theory agenda that the election was stolen from Donald Trump. And in this case, if you follow the money, you will see that their so-called audit isn’t being supported by enthusiastic volunteers out for justice, but dark money being spent by real people trying to subvert and ultimately destroy the right of many Americans to vote.
One such spender of dark money is multimillionaire founder of Overstock.com, Patrick Byrne, who is a vocal supporter of Donald Trump. Byrne underwrote the production of the film “Deep Rig,” a propaganda film using conspiracy theory tactics to “prove” that Trump, and not Biden, was the real winner of the 2020 election. It premiered in Phoenix, Arizona, Maricopa County’s (and Arizona’s) largest city.
The director of the film previously made an exposé contending that the real perpetrators of 9/11 were space aliens. In “Deep Rig,” the film frequently quotes the CEO of Cyber Ninjas. Cyber Ninjas acknowledged having received $5.7 million in private donations, most of it from nonprofit groups led by Trump allies who live outside Arizona, including, you guessed it, Patrick Byrne. Now that’s how you follow the money.
On its surface the Maricopa audit looks like a joke. Dozens of eager Ninjas are crowded around tables using magnifying glasses and even microscopes desperately trying to find something — anything — that they can claim is suspicious. Meanwhile many of them are suspiciously armed with pens containing the same color ink that the ballots they are examining were originally filled out with. But there’s an even darker portent behind the audit.
If the Maricopa “auditors” can come up with an analysis, even remotely credible, that “discredits” the 2020 election results in Arizona, it might be replicated in other states, creating more doubt about the election’s results. That might enable new legislation that could cause millions of Americans to be disenfranchised in the coming 2022 midterm election before it happens.
“I’m scared shitless,” Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and one of the country’s foremost election-law experts, said. “It’s not just about voter suppression. What I’m really worried about is election subversion. Election officials are being put in place who will mess with the count.”
The bottom line is the Arizona audit might find a way to help Republican election officials in other states subvert the outcomes of elections before the votes are counted. They could, in theory, rig local elections in favor of Republican candidates by arbitrarily applying new rules about what votes they accept as legitimate. One way would be to find legitimate-sounding pretexts to throw out votes from constituencies that traditionally vote Democratic.
Naturally there will be a hue and cry of outrage from election observers, but that hasn’t stopped Republicans lately, nor is it likely to stop them this time if it means they can retake power. These are dangerous times we are in, brothers and sisters, made dangerous by Republicans hell-bent on taking our democracy away from us. We must not let them. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.