Could a Canadian company bring down Trump's empire of disinformation?
When Donald Trump and his allies pushed the “big lie” of voter fraud and a stolen election, it seemed nothing could stop them spreading disinformation with impunity. The world watched, agog, as lie after implausible lie was given the media's oxygen and millions of gullible people believed what 'no reasonable person' would.
Wouldn't it be good news if the truth could be re-established and America got back to being a fact-basd democracy?
A little known tech company, founded 18 years ago in Canada, has the bullshitters and conspiracy theorists running scared. The key: suing them for defamation, potentially for billions of dollars.
“Libel laws may prove to be a very old mechanism to deal with a very new phenomenon of massive disinformation,” said Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist. “We have all these fact checkers but lots of people don’t care. Nothing else seems to work, so maybe this will.”
The David in this David and Goliath story is Dominion Voting Systems, an election machine company named after Canada’s Dominion Elections Act of 1920. Its main offices are in Toronto and Denver and it describes itself as the leading supplier of US election technology. It says it serves more than 40 percent of American voters, with customers in 28 states.
But the 2020 election put a target on its back. As the White House slipped away and Trump desperately pushed groundless claims of voter fraud, his lawyers and cheerleaders falsely alleged Dominion had rigged the polls in favour of Joe Biden.
Among the more wild conspiracy theories was that Dominion changed votes through algorithms in its voting machines that were created in Venezuela to rig elections for the late dictator Hugo Chávez.
It was laughable but also potentially devastating to Dominion’s reputation and ruinous to its business. It also fed a cocktail of conspiracy theories that fuelled Trump supporters who stormed the US Capitol on 6 January, as Congress moved to certify the election results.
The company is fighting back. It filed $1.3bn defamation lawsuits against Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell for pushing the allegations without evidence.
Then came the big one. Last month Dominion filed a $1.6bn defamation suit against Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, accusing it of trying to boost ratings by amplifying the bogus claims.
“The truth matters,” Dominion’s lawyers wrote in the complaint. “Lies have consequences. Fox sold a false story of election fraud in order to serve its own commercial purposes, severely injuring Dominion in the process. If this case does not rise to the level of defamation by a broadcaster, then nothing does.”
The suit argues that Fox hosts and guests “took a small flame and turned it into a forest fire” by broadcasting wild assertions that Dominion systems changed votes and ignoring repeated efforts by the company to set the record straight.
“Radioactive falsehoods” spread by Fox News will cost Dominion $600m over the next eight years, according to the lawsuit, and have resulted in Dominion employees being harassed and the company losing major contracts in Georgia and Louisiana.
Norman 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 need to deal with disinformation,” he said. “There can be no doubt that every method is going to be required but certainly libel law provides one very important vehicle for establishing consequences and while there’s no such thing as a guarantee when you go to court, this is an exceptionally high risk for Fox with a large price tag attached as well.”
There are signs that the legal actions, and their grave financial implications, have got reckless individuals and outlets on the run.