Fox Settlement Is a Victory for Dominion. But the Misinformation War Continues.
There are 787 million reasons to consider Fox News’ settlement of the defamation lawsuit a stunning victory for Dominion Voting Systems. Whether the millions of dollars that Fox is paying to Dominion will put to rest false claims about the 2020 presidential election or help deter misinformation more broadly remains far less clear.
In the blinkered information bubbles where the lies about Dominion rigging the vote were fabricated and spread, conspiracy theories about the company continue to thrive — at least among those resistant to overwhelming evidence, including new disclosures about Fox News and its most famous hosts that Dominion’s lawsuit revealed.
And Dominion is only one part of a broader conspiracy theory that the American electoral system is corrupt. That view, despite all the proof to the contrary, is still cheered on by former President Donald J. Trump, who remains the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024.
“Part of the strength of that conspiracy theory is that it has so many different strands that yield the conclusion of a rigged election that you could actually destroy one thread or one strand, and you’d still have enough strands to sustain it,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and a founder of FactCheck.org.
The $787.5 million settlement, one of the largest ever for a defamation case, undoubtedly has a punitive effect on Fox, even though it allowed the company to avoid a potentially embarrassing trial. Like the verdicts last year against Alex Jones, the broadcaster who defamed the families of schoolchildren killed in Sandy Hook Elementary School and was ordered to pay them more than $1.4 billion, the outcome showed that lies can be costly for those who spread them.
Yet Mr. Jones has continued his broadcasts on Infowars, the conspiratorial news site, while employing legal strategies that could help him evade some of the financial penalty.
For researchers who study disinformation, the abrupt end to the lawsuit against Fox dashed hopes that a lengthy trial — with testimony from hosts who repeated accusations against Dominion they knew to be false — would do more to expose the dangerous consequences of pushing falsehoods and conspiracies.
Nora Benavidez, senior counsel at Free Press, an advocacy group for digital rights and accountability, was among those expressing disappointment. She said that the settlement — for half of what Dominion originally sought — reflected Fox’s “desire to avoid further damning facts coming out during trial.”
“Yet money alone won’t bring us accountability, and it doesn’t correct the ongoing harms Fox News causes to democracy,” she said. “If $787.5 million is the cost to tell a lie, repeatedly, what’s the cost of curing that lie?”
Fox was spared extended and potentially damaging testimony. The network did not have to issue an apology on air. Instead, in a carefully crafted statement, Fox acknowledged “the court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false” and touted its “continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards.”
While the major news networks pivoted to cover the trial’s abrupt end on Tuesday, Fox devoted just six minutes and 22 seconds to the topic across three segments. None of its prime time hosts, including Tucker Carlson, who had once bolstered the voter fraud myths and was named as a defendant in Dominion’s lawsuit, mentioned the case.
Instead, Mr. Carlson began his show with a segment about violence in Chicago, airing video clips largely showing Black Chicagoans during a weekend of violence. “This is why we used to shoot looters,” he said. That was followed with an interview with Elon Musk, the entrepreneur and new owner of Twitter.
“So what would you be thinking about when you’re watching Tucker Carlson?” Ms. Jamieson said. “Not the Fox settlement, but crime in the cities, interesting interview with Musk. And now our media diet for the day has told you what matters.”
A similar phenomenon unfolded in other news organizations on the political right in the wake of the settlement. The Gateway Pundit, a site known for pushing voter fraud conspiracy theories, devoted one 55-word story to the settlement on Tuesday, which was not updated.
Far more words were expressed in comments left by readers, where nearly 4,000 missives raised fresh conspiracy theories. Among them was a tale that Fox News’s settlement was actually a shrewd maneuver that would help Dominion extract debilitating sums from Fox competitors, including the conservative news networks One America News and Newsmax, which have also been sued by Dominion.
In the two hours following the settlement’s announcement, there was a significant spike in references online to the discredited film “2000 Mules,” which spun an elaborate theory of people delivering thousands of ballots in drop boxes, according to Zignal Labs, a company that tracks activity online. The references surged again on Wednesday after a prominent commentator on Twitter, Rogan O’Handley, chided those “cheering over” the settlement. “We know it was rigged,” he wrote.
On Telegram, the freewheeling social media app,users claimed without evidence that the deal was a way for Fox to launder money; that the network was in cahoots with Dominion to engineer an election coup; that Dominion was trying to avoid a trial that would expose its corrupt practices and that the judicial system was controlled by the Mafia.
Even if the Dominion victory makes news organizations think twice before reporting lies about election technology vendors in the future, the damage has already been done.
Lawrence Norden, the senior director of the elections and government program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said the settlement would do little to protect election workers who are abused by anonymous conspiracy theorists or voters led astray by false narratives about ballot fraud.
“Lies about our elections have really inundated our society, and I don’t think that’s changing,” he said. “Not all of those lies involve the potential for a defamation suit; it’s really the extreme cases where people are going to be able to collect monetary damages.”
Legal experts said that the Dominion case against Fox had several important characteristics that set it apart. The voting technology company had compiled evidence suggesting that some Fox hosts had shared the false election fraud narrative with viewers despite privately expressing serious misgivings about the claims. The company had also submitted filings claiming that the election lies repeated by Fox caused Dominion to lose business.
In fact, the judiciary has emerged as a bulwark in the fight against false information, and not only in extreme cases focused on defamation, like those involving Fox News or Mr. Jones. Court after court rejected legal challenges to the balloting in 2020 for lack of evidence. This week, an arbitration court ordered Mike Lindell, the chief executive of My Pillow who claimed, among other things, that China rigged the vote, to pay a $5 million reward to a software engineer who debunked the claims as part of a “Prove Mike Wrong” contest.
The legal traditions that allowed Dominion’s lawyers to receive the damning emails of Fox executives and anchors and make them part of the public record were essential in proving the allegations were baseless as a matter of record.
“Before we give up on the capacity of the system to work to determine what constitutes knowable fact in the moment, we should say the courts have worked well up to this point,” Ms. Jamieson said.
Election misinformation will almost certainly remain a problem heading into the 2024 presidential election. Dealing with it will be difficult, but not hopeless, Mr. Norden said. While some hard-core conspiracy theorists may never be convinced of the legitimacy of the vote, many people are simply unfamiliar with the mechanics of American elections and can have more faith in the system if exposed to accurate information.
“We know what’s coming, and there’s an opportunity ahead of the next election to build more resilience against that with most of the public,” Mr. Norden said. “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem through defamation suits alone, but there’s a lot that we can be doing between now and November 2024.”