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Voting Firms Turn To Defamation Lawsuits To Counter False Claims

NOEL KING, HOST:

Voting technology companies are using billion-dollar defamation lawsuits to fight false claims that they were involved in stealing the 2020 election. The companies say the flood of disinformation about the election has hurt their bottom line. Bente Birkeland from Colorado Public Radio reports that some people see these legal fights as a way to take on viral misinformation.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: The list of people being sued for defamation is like a who's who of Trump supporters - attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and several pro-Trump media outlets.

STEVE SKARNULIS: This goes beyond hoping to stop the disinformation. The goal is to hold people accountable.

BIRKELAND: That's attorney Steve Skarnulis. He represents an employee of Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems who's still living in hiding after being threatened and falsely accused of helping steal the election for President Biden. Skarnulis hopes the suit will help his client, Eric Coomer, clear his name and return to a normal life.

SKARNULIS: I hope that it will shock media and other personality who have the platforms they do enough that they will be much more cautious about spreading disinformation.

BIRKELAND: Dominion and another election company, Smartmatic, have also filed defamation lawsuits against Trump allies and pro-Trump media companies, with more likely to come. Bill Adair runs the journalism program of Duke University and founded the fact-checking website PolitiFact.

BILL ADAIR: I think this is a completely new way of tackling misinformation. As a journalist, I'm a little bit nervous. The idea of using defamation lawsuits makes us a little bit concerned.

BIRKELAND: In particular, he's worried defamation suits could become a weapon against journalists just doing their jobs. But in the current moment, he's come to believe they have a role to play.

ADAIR: We need to incentivize truth, and we need to de-incentivize lying. Money is what matters to a media company. A defamation lawsuit is a big way to do that.

BIRKELAND: The suits appear to be having an effect. An anchor for Newsmax walked out on a live interview with the MyPillow CEO when he started making false claims about Dominion voting machines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB SELLERS: Can we get out of here, please?

BIRKELAND: But defamation lawsuits are difficult to win. You need to show the person knew or should have known a statement was false when they made it. George Freeman spent three decades defending people against defamation lawsuits as the in-house counsel for The New York Times. He says media organizations have a First Amendment right to report on what important people say, even if it may be untrue. But he says the pro-Trump outlets like Newsmax and OAN may have crossed a legal line by amplifying and appearing to endorse obvious falsehoods.

GEORGE FREEMAN: They haven't stepped back, although I think now there's signs that they're starting to because they're worried about liability, and I think that's a good thing.

BIRKELAND: Still, Freeman thinks the strongest defamation case is against Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

FREEMAN: He made certain accusations on TV, but then he didn't make those in court because I think he knew he would be subject to discipline and perjury if he made them in official documents. So that would seem to be pretty good evidence that he knew they were false.

BIRKELAND: Yet there are reasons why defamation cases aren't filed more often. Many conspiracy theories don't target a specific person or company, and the cases can take years to go through the courts. So it's likely when the next presidential election begins, these lawsuits about the 2020 election will still be grinding along. For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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