How Defamation Law Is Being Used To Fight Disinformation
From Rudy Giuliani's defamation of election workers to Fox News' defamation of Dominion Voting Systems, these lawsuits are proving to be effective tools for holding liars accountable.
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Disgraced former NYC mayor and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani has been ordered to pay over $148 million in damages for defaming Georgia election workers Wandrea "Shaye" Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman.
These two women were simply doing their jobs when they became targets of a nefarious right-wing disinformation campaign amid Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election. The claims were outlandish, claiming they were manufacturing ballots for Joe Biden. Not only did Rudy Giuliani and right-wing media spread these lies, but so did Donald Trump himself.
The lies resulted in violent threats and uprooted both of their lives. Shaye Moss delivered emotional testimony detailing the impact on her family’s life during the January 6 Committee hearings. Their case highlights how the 2020 election lies not only eroded our democracy, they also caused tangible harm to real people. Giuliani is now paying for that malicious disinformation.
On Wednesday, after the jury awarded Freeman and Moss, District Judge Beryl Howell ruled that Giuliani must begin paying them immediately. It’s unclear whether or not Giuliani has the funds to pay even a fraction of that. This came after Freeman and Moss sued Giuliani again in reaction to Giuliani continuing to defame them right after the verdict. They’re now seeking to “permanently ban” Giuliani from speaking about them at all.
Today, Rudy Giuliani filed for bankruptcy.
This verdict won’t undo the damage already done by these lies, but it does provide a financial remedy for Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss that can hopefully give them peace. It also sends a message to liars who spread dangerous disinformation: it can be costly to lie.
This verdict delivered an unmistakable debunking of 2020 election lies and was yet another example of how defamation law is being used as an effective tool in upholding the truth. And it’s becoming a more organized effort.
Attorneys at Law for Truth, a project of the nonprofit Protect Democracy, represent Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss in their litigation against Rudy Giuliani. They also represent the two women in another defamation lawsuit against the Gateway Pundit for publishing multiple stories with the same false claims Giuliani made.
These attorneys represent clients in other cases against Project Veritas and right-wing grifter Dinesh D’Souza. The group outlines their strategy on their website:
“Through strategic litigation and public education, we protect that democracy — along with individuals and entities victimized by disinformation — against those who intentionally or recklessly defame for financial, partisan, or other reasons.”
Protect Democracy’s efforts come amid a recent flood of successful defamation lawsuits targeting some of the biggest disseminators of disinformation in America.
The Rise Of Anti-Disinformation Defamation Suits
Among the highest-profile anti-disinformation cases, we have Dominion Voting Systems v. Fox News Network. Fox News and its anchors knowingly spread lies about the 2020 election to their audience, giving credence to unhinged lies about Dominion.
Fox News agreed to a $787.5 million settlement, the largest settlement in media history. While some may be disappointed this didn’t go to trial, this was still a positive development for anti-disinformation efforts and helped set a precedent that could impact future cases.
As a result of this lawsuit, Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson was also fired. Aside from his constant spread of white supremacist Great Replacement theory, Carlson was also at the center of Fox’s election disinformation. His firing was a massive fall for the anchor, going from a primetime slot on America’s most-watched news network to posting his clips to the website formerly known as Twitter.
There are four more defamation suits going to trial in the next year or so related to the defamation of voting machine companies. Smartmatic has a $2.7 billion lawsuit targeting Fox News that will likely go to trial in 2025. Newsmax is also facing a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit from Dominion set for a September 2024 trial and another defamation lawsuit from Smartmatic set for June 2024. Mike Lindell and MyPillow are also being sued by Smartmatic and could see court by April 2024.
OANN also settled a lawsuit with Dominion and still faces a suit from Smartmatic. Defamation suits from Dominion and Smartmatic are also still active against Rudy Giuliani and former Trump attorney Sidney Powell, who recently pleaded guilty to charges in Georgia’s election interference case. Former gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake (R-AZ) is also facing a defamation lawsuit from Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer over her 2022 election lies.
This recent disinformation accountability goes beyond election lies.
Earlier this year, Donald Trump was found liable for defaming and sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll. Trump has another E. Jean Carroll defamation trial set for next month.
In 2022, Right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was ordered to pay $1.5 billion in damages to the families of 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre victims, $1.1 billion of which he can’t avoid due to his bankruptcy. Jones was found liable for defamation after pushing a depraved disinformation campaign that claimed the shooting was a hoax. Jones and the families are currently negotiating over how much Jones has to actually pay.
So far, it appears these defamation lawsuits are the closest thing we’re seeing to any form of accountability for the right-wing disinformation machine. But they don’t come without risks.
Lili Levi, Professor at Miami Law, presented a counter-argument in a 2022 paper entitled “Disinformation and the Defamation Renaissance.” In the paper, Levi argues that this rise in the use of defamation law against disinformation could have a “chilling effect” on the press and could also be used by the right:
“Lest progressives too quickly rejoice over the apparent success of their disinformation claims against right-wing media, anti-disinformation defamation litigation presents an equal opportunity invitation—and conservative cases are already on track.”
It’s a reasonable warning, especially with the politicization of the courts, which could potentially lead to unjust defamation outcomes if a case is overseen by a partisan judge.
I will say, though, that in the absence of robust anti-disinformation regulations, which are difficult to constitutionally achieve given the First Amendment, it seems these are the best tools available.
These successful anti-disinformation defamation lawsuits are likely to embolden other potential plaintiffs to pursue lawsuits to remedy the reputational harm caused by this nefarious disinformation.
As the current active lawsuits play out in court and massive damages continue to be awarded to plaintiffs, let’s hope there’s a chilling effect on the liars who might now think twice before spreading harmful disinformation. They could be one big lie away from bankruptcy.