Dominion Voting Systems has created a court filing in a lawsuit against Fox News under a defamation claim regarding the 2020 presidential election. The lawsuit, which was filed in March 2021, alleged that Fox News, Giuliani, Powell, and other defendants conspired to spread disinformation about Dominion Voting Systems to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. The lawsuit cited numerous instances of false and misleading statements made by Fox News anchors and guests about the company, including claims that its voting machines were programmed to switch votes from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. Dominion Voting Systems argued that these false claims discredited Dominion and caused backlash for their company. There was also a claim that Dominion was a key player in the conspiracy that the 2020 election was stolen from former president Trump, which is a large accusation. During the election, many states were using voting machines made and programmed with software by Dominion, and as part of his attempt to overturn the election results, former president Trump decided to blame a backdoor hack by foreign entities. He claimed that someone could get into the system and flip the votes from his name to Biden’s, and on his Twitter stated, “‘Dominion deleted 2.7 million Trump votes nationwide,’ the president said in his tweet, quoting the OANN report. ‘Data analysis finds 221,000 Pennsylvania votes switched from President Trump to Biden. 941,000 Trump votes were deleted. States using Dominion Voting Systems switched 435,000 votes from Trump to Biden.’” . Not only were those claims baseless, but Fox News took those claims and decided to support Trump in his attempt to “stop the steal”. This was an alarming abuse of power and one that demonstrates autocratic behavior. Trying to overturn democratic elections by changing the rules and manipulating the media are two incredibly strong signs of democratic backsliding, and Fox News has been the champion of advocating for the “stop the steal” movement.
What makes this situation even more complicated and interesting is the issue of how free speech plays into the lawsuit. Fox News and its allies denied the allegations, arguing that their coverage of the election and Dominion Voting Systems was protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and press protections. They also argued that the lawsuit was an attempt to silence conservative voices and suppress dissenting opinions about the election. However, legal experts pointed out that freedom of speech does not protect false statements made with actual malice, which means that the speaker knew the statement was false or recklessly disregarded the truth.
Defamation is a very difficult case to prove in a court of law, as it requires malicious intent, and evidence for that is typically hard to come by. In this case, Fox News anchors and other personalities had a group text message that recorded evidence of them acknowledging the disinformation that Trump and his supporters were disseminating. Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and others admitted over text messages that some of the stories they were broadcasting were downright crazy, and Carlson is even shown saying, “Our viewers are good people and they believe it,” even though he did not. These texts could prove crucial for Dominion, as they are evidence that Fox News employees knew they were spreading false information and yet they reported it on live television anyways. If the viewers of Fox News were negatively impacted by the reports, the company could fairly easily be sued as there was malicious intent with negative results. Furthermore, Carlson admitted to being scared of Trump and his ability to influence Fox’s ratings.
The defamation lawsuit against Fox News is also significant because it sheds light on a broader issue of democratic backsliding. Democratic backsliding is a term used to describe a decline in the quality of democracy, where political institutions and processes become weaker, less effective, or more prone to manipulation and abuse. In recent years, many scholars and activists have expressed concern about democratic backsliding in the United States and other countries and the role that media manipulation and disinformation play in this process. While this lawsuit might be a good step in the right direction toward combating disinformation and democratic backsliding, it might be too little too late. The lawsuit is only just now coming into play, three years after the election in which the claims against Dominion were made. The fact that the lawsuit is coming this late just shows how difficult and fear-inducing suing a large media corporation can be. If the lawsuit is to fall apart, Dominion Voting could lose a lot of its merit, which could tank the company. Furthermore, claiming defamation three years after the fact could be an indication of a weak argument in the Court’s eyes, because if the case was truly that solid, Dominion would have sued almost immediately.
The lawsuit could be considered an example of democratic backsliding because it illustrates how the media can be used to undermine public trust in democratic institutions and processes. The false claims made by Fox News and its allies about Dominion Voting Systems were part of a broader effort to delegitimize the 2020 presidential election and sow doubt about the integrity of the electoral process. These efforts were part of a broader campaign of disinformation that sought to undermine public trust in democracy and democratic institutions. In a recent discovery, the owner of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, admitted to Fox and its personalities pushing the election fraud rhetoric created by Trump.
The lawsuit against Fox News also highlights the need for greater accountability and transparency in the media. In recent years, there has been growing concern about the influence of media conglomerates on politics and democracy, and the need for greater regulation and oversight. The lawsuit against Fox News shows that media companies can be held accountable for their actions and that there are legal mechanisms in place to protect the integrity of democratic institutions and processes.
In conclusion, the defamation lawsuit against Fox News is significant not only because of its potential implications for the media, politics, and democracy in the United States but also because it raises important questions about democratic backsliding. By spreading false claims and disinformation about Dominion Voting Systems, Fox News contributed to a broader effort to undermine public trust in democracy and democratic institutions. The lawsuit against Fox News underscores the need for greater accountability and transparency in the media, and the importance of protecting the integrity of democratic institutions and processes. If this lawsuit ends up favoring Dominion Voting Systems, it would set a new precedent for how large media corporations could be punished for spreading disinformation. It could ultimately lead to questions about the right to free speech, which could have large implications for democratic backsliding in the United States.
*Update as of 4/24/23*
Dominion Voting Systems and Fox News have reached an agreement in which Fox News will pay Dominion $787.5 million dollars in damages for defamation. This means that a new precedent has been set to an extent, and that while Fox News had to pay out a large sum of money, that was their only punishment. Moving forward it can be expected that similar lawsuits will become more common as companies have seen that filing a lawsuit against the media can be effective. Filing for defamation is still an incredibly difficult task to succeed in, so an uptick in these sorts of lawsuits will not be monumental. The fact that Dominion won that large of a settlement is a step in the right direction for preventing democratic backsliding, as it holds the media more accountable. That being said, the results of the lawsuit were not as influential as some people were hoping for, as Fox News will continue to air as normal. Considering how large of a corporation they are, will not be too severely affected in the long run.