Some outlets pay a price after spreading 2020 election misinformation

Right-wing media that became purveyors of misinformation and amplified false claims as Donald Trump undermined the results of the 2020 election are finding themselves on the losing end of legal challenges — or facing new ones.

In just a few months, a handful of high-profile fringe media operations have been hit with courtroom losses.

The Gateway Pundit, an influential far-right news site, filed for bankruptcy in April in the wake of defamation lawsuits that said the company suggested election workers committed fraud during the previous presidential election. That same month, voting machine company Smartmatic reached a confidential settlement in its defamation suit against One America News Network, which allowed false election fraud claims on air, while its pending defamation litigation based on similar vote-rigging allegations continues against Newsmax as well as Fox News, which is being sued for $2.7 billion. Both Newsmax and Fox News deny Smartmatic’s allegations.

Fox News last year paid another company, Dominion Voting Systems, $787.5 million to settle a defamation lawsuit. The network did not admit to any specific claims.

In May, “2000 Mules,” a book and film by right-wing political commentator Dinesh D’Souza, was pulled by the publisher, Salem Media Group, and the company issued a public apology to a Georgia man who is suing the author and publisher on defamation claims after he was accused of ballot stuffing. That case is still ongoing.

Other conservative media outlets that had promoted right-wing misinformation in the 2020 election are facing financial troubles unrelated to those events. This week, conspiracy theorist and Infowars host Alex Jones agreed to sell off his assets to satisfy $1.5 billion in defamation judgments related to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Jones earlier warned his company could shut down.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors allege a top executive of The Epoch Times laundered millions of dollars.

The Justice Department said the charges against Weidong “Bill” Guan, the company’s chief financial officer, are unrelated to its newsgathering activities, and an Epoch Times spokesperson said it plans to “fully cooperate with any investigation dealing with the allegations.” Still, the indictment brings scrutiny to one of the most popular pro-Trump outlets. Guan has pleaded not guilty, and a request for comment to a public defender appointed to his case was not immediately returned.

“Right-wing media has finally faced the consequences of running disinformation campaigns,” said Yunkang Yang, an assistant professor of communication at Texas A&M University. “Some of them are finally being held accountable for the lies they spread.”

Yotam Ophir, an associate professor of communication at the University at Buffalo who studies misinformation and extremism, said he’s encouraged by repercussions when “misinformation contaminates our information environment, leads to real harms to people, and erodes trust in institutions and the government.”

“The recent lawsuits against those who made a career out of spreading lies and falsehoods will hopefully help limit the spread and amplification of some of the misinformation we can expect in 2024,” he said.

But whether that translates to a change in coverage of the November election and post-Election Day results remains to be seen, researchers say.

Trump in recent interviews and at rallies has aired his grievances about the 2020 election, saying it’s necessary to challenge election results when the process isn’t fair. At a Michigan campaign rally last month, the former president falsely said, “Democrats rigged the presidential election in 2020,” adding that “we’re not going to allow them to rig the presidential election” in 2024.

But as for companies that would want to avoid further litigation, Yang said, “If Trump loses again, and denies the election again, if that might happen, I think they’ll be more careful.”

However, “right-wing media doesn’t have to say the election was stolen,” Yang added, “but they can let the readers say the quiet part out loud.”

He said that’s already happening on certain right-wing sites, writing in a 2023 report that they “rely on a small group of highly active commenters to instigate online discussion, draw attention to conspiratorial comments, reinforce conspiratorial beliefs, and drive the sharing of propaganda content on social media.”

Amid their legal issues, some sites are hitting back, suggesting to their audiences they’re being unfairly targeted because of their ideologies.

Jim Hoft, the founder of The Gateway Pundit, blamed “progressive liberal lawfare attacks” for leading the outlet to file for bankruptcy, and said doing so did not indicate “an admission of fault or culpability” in the lawsuits.

One of the suits involves two former Georgia election workers who were the subject of vote-rigging conspiracy theories that were debunked; the suit is headed toward trial. Another suit, filed in Colorado by a former Dominion Voting Systems executive against Gateway Pundit and other prominent defendants, remains ongoing.

A request for comment from Gateway Pundit about its financial situation prior to filing for bankruptcy was not immediately returned, although Hoft has vowed to continue to publish.

“Despite the radical left’s efforts to silence The Gateway Pundit through censorship, de-platforming, de-banking, cut-off from advertisers, and other financial strategies, we will not be deterred from our mission of remaining fearless and being one of the most trusted independent media outlets in America today,” Hoft said in a statement.

Such rhetoric is in line with how Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has gone after his political foes as he awaits sentencing on 34 felony counts in his historic hush money trial, said A.J. Bauer, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Alabama who focuses on right-wing media.

Trump has repeatedly claimed without evidence that the prosecution led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg was part of an effort by President Joe Biden’s administration to interfere with his election prospects.

The coverage of Trump’s trial and the unprecedented verdict notched Fox News a ratings coup over its competitors.

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday forcefully pushed back before a House panel led by Trump’s congressional allies, noting how some Republicans are echoing unfounded conspiracy theories.

To claim that a New York jury’s verdict was “somehow controlled by the Justice Department” is “an attack on the judicial process itself,” Garland said.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., had called Trump’s trial a “sham” and proclaimed a “weaponization” of the justice system against Trump.

With Republican leadership continuing to prop up Trump ahead of the election, Bauer said, the former president doesn’t necessarily need those media outlets that can be “loose with the facts” to boost his beliefs.

Bauer said social media users on platforms like X and internet livestreamers who cover Trump’s events — one prominent YouTube channel, Right Side Broadcasting Network, has more than 1.65 million subscribers — represent another form of broadcasting that’s developed further since the last presidential election. Trump also started his own social media platform, Truth Social, after he was banned by Facebook and Twitter, now known as X, following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Truth Social reported an accumulated loss of tens of millions of dollars last fall.

In the meantime, conservative and right-wing news sites have reportedly struggled with traffic amid larger financial struggles across the entire legacy and digital news media industry, as once-reliable traffic sources like Facebook and Instagram limit “political content” to users’ feeds.

On the flip side, the progressive advocacy website Media Matters for America laid off dozens of staffers last month, with its president blaming a “legal assault on multiple fronts,” including a lawsuit filed last fall by X owner Elon Musk over an investigative report about advertising on the social media platform.

“The terrain on which this election is being run is fundamentally, materially different than four years ago,” Bauer said.

Ophir, the University at Buffalo researcher, said that while the public’s right to free speech and the media’s ability to remain independent must be considered, social media companies can also remove “harmful content” and media outlets spreading false propaganda can be held responsible, at least through the courts.

But “without a systematic change,” he added, the public “will continue to suffer from the havoc of misinformation in the years to come.”