When Donald Trump and his allies promoted the “big lie” of electoral fraud and a stolen election, it seemed that nothing could stop them from spreading disinformation with impunity.
The pleas of politicians and activists fell on deaf ears. Television networks and newspapers verified the facts to no avail. The social media giants were powerless.
But now a little-known tech company founded 18 years ago in Canada has conspiracy theorists scared off. The key: suing them for defamation, potentially for billions of dollars.
“Libel laws can turn out to be a very old mechanism for dealing with a very new phenomenon of mass disinformation,” said Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist. “We have all these fact-checkers, but a lot of people don’t care. Nothing else seems to work, so maybe this will work. “
The David in this David and Goliath story is Dominion Voting Systems, an electoral machinery company named after the Dominion of Canada Elections Act of 1920. Its main offices are in Toronto and Denver and it describes itself as America’s leading election technology provider says it serves more than 40% of American voters, with customers in 28 states.
But the 2020 elections put a target on his back. When the White House slipped away and Trump desperately pushed for baseless allegations of voter fraud, his lawyers and cheerleaders falsely alleged that Dominion had rigged the polls in favor of Joe Biden.
Among the more baroque conspiracy theories was that Dominion changed the votes through algorithms on its voting machines that were created in Venezuela to manipulate the elections of the late dictator Hugo Chávez.
It was laughable but also potentially devastating to Dominion’s reputation and ruinous to his business. It also fueled a cocktail of conspiracy theories that fueled Trump supporters who stormed the United States Capitol on January 6, when Congress moved to certify the election results. Five people were killed, including a Capitol Police officer.
The company is fighting back. He filed $ 1.3 billion defamation lawsuits against Trump’s attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell for pushing the indictments without evidence.
Separately, Dominion security director Eric Coomer filed a lawsuit against the Trump campaign, Giuliani, Powell and some conservative figures and media, saying he had been forced into hiding by death threats.
Then came the big one. Last month, Dominion filed a $ 1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, accusing it of trying to boost viewership by amplifying false claims.
“The truth matters,” Dominion’s attorneys wrote in the complaint. “Lies have consequences. Fox sold a false story of voter fraud in order to serve his own business purposes, seriously injuring Dominion in the process. If this case does not reach the level of defamation by a broadcaster, nothing will. “
The lawsuit argues that Fox’s hosts and guests “took a small flame and turned it into a wildfire” by broadcasting outlandish claims that Dominion systems changed votes and ignoring repeated efforts by the company to clear things up.
The “radioactive falsehoods” released by Fox News will cost Dominion $ 600 million over the next eight years, according to the lawsuit, and have caused Dominion employees to be harassed and the company to lose important contracts in Georgia and Louisiana.
Fox fiercely disputes the position. It said in a statement: “Fox News Media is proud of our coverage of the 2020 election, which is in the highest tradition of American journalism, and will vigorously defend itself against this unsubstantiated lawsuit in court.”
Other conservative outlets have also raised objections. Chris Ruddy, Newsmax CEO said: “We believe that all of these lawsuits are a violation of press freedom as far as media organizations are concerned. There were years of Russian collusion investigations when all the major cable networks reported unsubstantiated claims. I think Fox was reporting the news and certainly Newsmax was. “
But some observers believe Dominion has a strong case. Norman Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said: “Dominion has an outstanding perspective in his litigation against Fox for the simple reason that Fox knowingly relayed the most outrageous and clearest lies over and over again.
“Certainly there are protections under the first amendment and otherwise, but this is so off limits, it’s such a clear case, that I think Fox is seeing some very serious legal exposure here and that’s the way it should be.
“There shouldn’t be a major television outlet that can, day after day, provide a megaphone for the outrageous falsehoods that have to do with the elections, one that helped spark a violent insurrection on January 6. They should not be able to feed a constant stream of these pernicious lies in the body politic without legal consequences. “
‘A true battlefield’
Eisen, a former White House “ethics czar,” suggests that the Dominion case could provide at least one model for dealing with the war on truth.
“The United States and the world must deal with disinformation,” he said.
“There can be no doubt that all methods will be required, but defamation law certainly provides a very important vehicle for establishing consequences and, while there is no such thing as a guarantee when going to court, this is an exceptional risk. high for Fox with a large price tag attached too. “
There are indications that the legal actions and their serious financial implications have led to the flight of reckless individuals and media.
Powell asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit against him, arguing that his claims were protected by the right to free speech. But he also offered the unusual defense that he had been exaggerating to make a point and that “reasonable people would not accept such statements as fact, but would see them only as assertions waiting to be proven by the courts through adversarial process.”
Two days after voting machine maker Smartmatic filed a $ 2.7 billion defamation lawsuit allegedly falsely accused by TV host Lou Dobbs of election manipulation, Fox Business abruptly canceled Lou Dobbs Tonight, its most-watched show. He has also filed a motion to dismiss Smartmatic’s lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the pro-Trump media has begun to use prepared disclaimers or prerecorded programs to counter the electoral conspiracy theories that guests are saying. When Lindell launched an attack on Dominion on Newsmax in February, co-host Bob Sellers tried to interrupt him and then walked off set.
RonNell Andersen Jones, a law professor at the University of Utah, told the Washington Post: “We are seeing how libel has become a real battlefield in the fight against disinformation.
“The threat of massive harm from spreading likely false conspiracy theories on matters of public concern could become the only successful tool in discouraging such behavior, where so many other tools seem to have failed.”
Defamation suits will provide another test of the judiciary as a pillar of American democracy. The independence of the courts proved robust with respect to dozens of lawsuits by Trump and his allies seeking to overturn the election result.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “It is such an underrated illumination of the multiple avenues to pursue politics. Sometimes, understandably, we get sucked into what Congress can do, which is obviously significant at times, but mostly pretty stagnant.
“But we will see that the legal system will prosecute the perpetrators of January 6, prosecute Donald Trump and prosecute these charges of defamation of Dominion for the monstrous lies that were told after the election.
“Thank goodness for the courts because the elected branches have really screwed it up.”