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Defamation cases related to the 2020 election could help stop future election lies

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly said that a defamation trial involving the Gateway Pundit website would start in May 2023. The trial will actually begin in 2024 although a hearing in the case is expected for May 2023.]

AILSA CHANG (HOST): Fox settled a massive defamation lawsuit with Dominion Voting Systems over spreading lies and conspiracy theories tied to the 2020 election. And Fox has agreed to pay Dominion almost $800 million rather than face them in court. But, as NPR's Lisa Hagen reports, there are more than a dozen similar cases now making their way through the U.S. judicial system.

LISA HAGEN (BYLINE): Some big names are still facing serious lawsuits over false election claims - President Donald Trump, his campaign lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. The list also includes smaller conservative outlets and figures whose false narratives upended the lives of ordinary people.

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SHAYE MOSS (FORMER ELECTION WORKER): Telling me that, you know, I'm - I'll be in jail with my mother and saying things like, be glad it's 2020 and not 1920.

HAGEN: That's former Georgia election workers Shaye Moss testifying to Congress about being falsely accused along with her mother of ballot tampering. Their lawsuit against Giuliani is moving forward and another against the conservative website Gateway Pundit is set for trial next month. Traditionally, it's been difficult for ordinary people like Moss and her mother to afford the high cost of legal battles like these. The legal nonprofit Protect Democracy has stepped in to represent them and others with similar stories. Here's attorney Sara Chimene-Weiss with the group.

SARA CHIMENE-WEISS (COUNSEL, PROTECT DEMOCRACY): I think we see this as - in order to have a thriving democracy, we need to be operating on a shared reality and a shared set of facts.

HAGEN: Before settling the Dominion case, Fox had argued Trump's claims of a stolen election were newsworthy and protected by the First Amendment, which the judge rejected. Until recently, proving someone lied or disregarded things they should have known were false has never been easy, according to RonNell Andersen Jones, a media law professor at the University of Utah.

RONNELL ANDERSEN JONES (PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF UTAH): It's only in this new era of the apparent deliberate creation of known lies for politics or profit that we get some cases that put us in a place where the evidence body is deep enough and broad enough that these cases have a chance of succeeding.

HAGEN: Anderson Jones says defamation cases can play some role in anchoring public discussions in shared truth, but they only address lies aimed at individuals or specific companies.

ANDERSEN JONES: And in some respects, that's a Band-Aid on a bullet wound for the wider problem of election denialism.

HAGEN: For Lyrissa Lidsky, who teaches law at the University of Florida, courts can only do so much about the supply side of that information.

LYRISSA LIDSKY (PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA): What I think you have to look at the demand side is - to what extent are we going out there and consuming false information willingly because it - you know, it's more pleasurable to us than true information would be?

HAGEN: She also says defamation cases don't always deliver the clean declarations of truth that many people crave. Legal technicalities or settlements like yesterday's with Dominion can easily be framed by partisans as confirmation that an election lie or some other false narrative was actually true. Lisa Hagen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lisa Hagen
Lisa Hagen is a reporter at NPR, covering conspiracism and the mainstreaming of extreme or unconventional beliefs. She's interested in how people form and maintain deeply held worldviews, and decide who to trust.