Saturday, March 17, 2018

Defamation Suits and Fake News

Lately people targeted by right-wing conspiracy buffs have been taking to the courts to fight back. The latest is Brennan Gilmore, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who was filming the protests in Charlottesvill on August 12, when James Alex Fields rammed his car into a group of protesters, injuring several and killing Heather Heyer:
When Gilmore’s video circulated in the media, Alex Jones immediately claimed he was a “deep state shill” and “CIA asset” who in fact spearheaded Fields’ attack. He published pieces that described the violence in Charlottesville as a “staged” act, one executed by left-wing political operatives and financed by George Soros. In one rant, Jones claimed, “They got State Department and high-level CIA. One guy is paid 320,000 a year on the payroll of Soros. He doesn’t just get money from Soros, he personally is paid 320 a year, and then he is there—CIA, State Department—and he is on the news. And when people pointed out who he was, they took his name of the State Department website and stuff, but Google has all the [screen]shots of it. I mean it’s like WOW, WOW—CIA? Your senior guys?”

The website Gateway Pundit was all in, too: “The random Charlottesville observer who was interviewed by MSNBC and liberal outlets turns out to be a deep state shill with links to George Soros. It looks like the State Department was involved in Charlottesville rioting and is trying to cover it up. But after Deep State got caught they are trying to erase this guy from their records.”

As the Gilmore complaint notes, Jones and Gateway Pundit “quickly mobilized their army of followers to launch a campaign of harassment and threats against Mr. Gilmore.” They published the addresses of Gilmore and his parents online, and he began to be inundated with hate mail, death threats, and hacking attempts. White powder was sent to his home.(Gilmore says the police ultimately told him the powder was harmless.)

The suit, filed by Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic names Jones, InfoWars, Gateway Pundit owner Jim Hoft, reporter Lee Stranahan, former Republican Rep. Allen West of Florida, and others who disseminated such stories. Gilmore seeks a jury trial and damages, and he says he will not accept a cash settlement from Jones, who has been known to pay off litigants or just retract his false stories.
So what are we to make of this? On the one hand there is no legal right to publish personal attacks you know to be false. You can't just say with no evidence that private citizens with cameras are CIA agents and on the payroll of George Soros; making up stuff and spreading it as fact is not protected by the First Amendment. But what if Jones counters that he is just an entertainer and never expects anybody to believe his stories? The tabloids have been getting away with that for decades. And can he really be blamed if his followers carry out a campaign of harassment that he never personally advocated?

I waver. On the one hand this stuff is rotten. On the other hand I have no faith in our legal system and worry about a future flood of lawsuits against web sites that attack people who can afford lawyers. But back to the first hand, is there any other way to fight the flood of lies?


Shadow said...

This is why freedom of expression is under attack like never before. It's technology that makes it different. Sling a vicious, unfounded accusation at someone in a tweet, and if it touches the right buttons it makes it to millions within hours, while the target's response may never has legs.

Imagine being bullied in school. It goes up on facebook; it's texted to your friends; it's texted to your phone. YOUR PHONE. And it can be 24X7. There was a time when you could get a fresh start by switching schools. Now you can't escape it by moving across country (and maybe out of country). If one student at the new school googles your name, it can start again. You have to move and change your name. You're in hiding.

This can't continue.

Unknown said...

Perhaps the best way to counteract the conspiratariat is on the level of culture. Perhaps it is time for the pendulum to swing somewhat away from cultural egalitarianism and somewhat toward the rule of respectability, educated taste, and polite society. Jones et al. are, after all, basically lowlifes who shouldn't have the opportunity to distract serious people.

On the other hand, technology and egalitarianism may have simply surpassed the possibility of control on this level.

On the third hand, "NO faith in our legal system" seems pretty extreme. I've been impressed at how often in history bad evidence or obvious bias can get a case thrown out, sooner or later (which is not to say it's more than 50% of the time, but that seems good enough that "NO faith" seems unfair). As for the "it favors the rich who can afford lawyers" argument, sometimes even the rich have legitimate claims--like when they've been slandered by Alex Jones.

John said...

I meant to write, "I have no faith in the legal system to fix complex social problems." It is true that our courts often render impressive verdicts, especially on factual matters; the Amistad case comes to mind. I just wonder what the actual impact of a verdict against Jones would be. We have all seen that campus speech codes passed to protect minorities end up being enforced mainly against minorities. So would a revised legal understanding of libel end up being enforced mainly against muckraking journalists who try to expose corruption?