COMMENTARY

Fox News could be in big trouble: Dominion's huge defamation lawsuit makes a strong case

Dominion's lawsuit accuses Fox of propagating false election propaganda. My research suggests that's clearly true

By Anthony DiMaggio

Published February 2, 2022 5:50AM (EST)

Voting Machines | Fox News Logo (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Voting Machines | Fox News Logo (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Dominion Voting Systems' lawsuit against Fox News is moving forward, despite the cable juggernaut's efforts to derail it. In mid-December of last year, the Delaware Superior Court ruled that the defamation case against Fox would not be dismissed, despite the channel's request. What's in question is Dominion's allegation that Fox News trafficked in propaganda on behalf of former President Trump, falsely alleging that the election was stolen and that Democratic voters engaged in massive voter fraud. Dominion has also targeted other right-wing media outlets on a similar basis, including Newsmax and One America News, claiming they indulged in a "barrage of lies" against the company by falsely implicating it in participating in voter fraud.

Predictably, Fox News responded to Dominion's allegations by denying any responsibility. The outlet claimed that "Fox News, along with every single news organization across the country, vigorously covered the breaking news surrounding the unprecedented 2020 election, providing full context of every story with in-depth reporting and clear-cut analysis. We remain committed to defending against this baseless lawsuit and its all-out assault on the First Amendment."

Despite the channel's categorical denial of wrongdoing, it's been clear for some time that Fox News engaged in all types of unfounded speculation about election fraud. I document the various ways the outlet did this in my new book, "Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here." For example, in the aftermath of the 2020 election, Fox News host Mark Levin hosted Kenneth Starr, the former special prosecutor who spent years investigating Bill Clinton. Without presenting evidence, Starr accused Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, of engaging in "illegal" and "unconstitutional" acts by counting supposedly fraudulent votes. Lou Dobbs called on Trump to take "drastic action" in relation to the former president's rhetoric about fraud. For Dobbs, that included the Supreme Court reversing the electoral college votes in swing states that cut toward Biden. (Needless to say, an issue well outside the court's, or the president's purview.) Tucker Carlson speculated about voter fraud by claiming that "dead people" voted "in large numbers." Numerous other Fox hosts, including Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro and Maria Bartiromo, linked Dominion to similar claims of fraud. 

RELATED: Mike Lindell claims spreading lies about Dominion Voting Systems is good for business

Judge Eric Davis recognized Fox's role in stoking Big Lie election propaganda in the Dominion judgment. Davis reflected in his legal decision that "Fox News and its news personnel continued to report Dominion's purported connection to the election fraud claims without also reporting on Dominion's emails" to the network in response to those claims, which presented compelling evidence to undermine the fraud narrative. Davis wrote: "Given that Fox apparently refused to report contrary evidence, including evidence from the Department of Justice, the Complaint's allegations support the reasonable inference that Fox intended to keep Dominion's side of the story out of the narrative."

Rather than admitting its role in stoking Trump's election propaganda, Fox News has doubled down on its deceptions. Reporting from January revealed that the channel is "seeking access" to a report from Georgia that was included in a separate lawsuit, from "election security expert" J. Alex Halderman, which the channel believes may vindicate its reporting on voter fraud. Halderman claims, after spending three months investigating Georgia voting machines, that "multiple severe security flaws" make them susceptible to third-party actors who might install malicious software. As with all of Fox's election propaganda, the report, if accurate, speaks to speculation about hypothetical voter fraud, with absolutely no evidence that it actually occurred. In other words, Fox is up to its same old tricks in stoking Big Lie propaganda, this time to extricate itself from the Dominion lawsuit.

Dominion is trying to repair its reputation, in order to protect its work in providing voting tabulation systems across more than two dozen states for both in-person and mail-in voting. But what evidence is there that Fox's election coverage had a significant impact on the channel's viewers? Is it realistic for Dominion to claim it has suffered serious reputational damage? 

To answer this question, I examined national survey data from the Pew Research Center, which polled Americans on their media consumption habits and beliefs about election fraud in the period just before the November 2020 presidential election. The survey was conducted from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7 of that year, asking Americans about their news consumption habits and which venues they used as "a source of political and election news." The survey also queried respondents about their opinions of alleged voter fraud, asking them: "As far as you know, how big of a problem has voter fraud been when it comes to voting by mail in U.S. presidential elections?" 


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Using a statistical tool called regression analysis, I'm able to measure whether there is a significant relationship between Fox News consumption and opinions about voter fraud, after accounting for other factors, including respondents' political party identification (Republican, independent or Democratic), ideology (conservative, moderate or liberal), level of formal education, gender, income level, race and age, in addition to looking at other sources people relied on for their information about the 2020 election, including Trump's campaign, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, print newspapers and news magazines, broadcast news, National Public Radio and The New York Times. 

My findings add ammunition to Dominion's claims about the significant role of Fox News in encouraging its viewers to embrace propaganda about voter fraud. Looking at specific media where people got their election information, Fox News viewing, reliance on Trump's campaign and use of social media (compared to print newspapers and magazines) were all significantly associated with a higher likelihood of accepting that voter fraud was a serious concern related to mail-in voting — controlling for all the other variables in my analysis. In contrast, consumption of the New York Times, National Public Radio and CNN were all significantly associated with being less likely to accept claims about mail-in voter fraud. 

Diving more deeply into the data, 59 percent of those relying on Fox as a "major" source of news thought that mail-in voter fraud was a "major" problem, compared to 35 percent of those who relied on Fox as a "minor" source of news, and 11 percent of those who said Fox was not a source for their information. In total, 93 percent of Fox viewers believed that mail-in fraud was either a major or minor problem, compared to 74 percent of those relying on Fox as a minor source andt only 37 percent of those who said Fox was not a source of information. To put it bluntly, these are really large differences in opinion that can be traced back to Fox consumption.

Since I statistically control for other factors in my analysis, it is not possible to attribute the relationship between Fox consumption and opinions of voter fraud to some other factor, such as partisanship or ideology. One might posit that Republicans and conservatives are disproportionately more likely to watch Fox, and that these individuals are already predisposed to believe Trump's fraud claims. But by taking these variables into account in my analysis, we can safely rule out these alternative scenarios. And since the relationship between Fox consumption and election opinions is statistically significant, it means there is less than a 0.1 percent chance the relationship is simply due to chance. Rather, the data here suggest that watching Fox News, in itself, as well as consuming social media and Trump campaign information, are each strong independent predictors of people's opinions of election fraud. 

A sober analysis of this data reveals that Dominion has a serious case against Fox News. Efforts to destroy public trust in the electoral process are nothing to make light of, and Dominion's lawsuit could have serious consequences for Fox and other right-wing outlets. The voting company is suing the channel for $1.6 billion in damages to its professional reputation — a sum that amounts to almost three times the profits Fox makes in a year. The evidence here suggests that Dominion is validated in its response to Fox's propaganda. Based on the data reviewed here, Fox News has played a consistent and serious role in amplifying the Trump administration's propaganda, which threatens to poison the public well by undermining public trust in the state and local institutions of vote counting. 

Those institutions have for decades succeeded in tabulating election results without any systemic evidence of voter fraud. If Trump and his media allies are empowered to promote their propaganda without consequence, there are likely to be serious concerns moving into the 2024 election. Republican state legislatures may seek to nullify state majorities that favor a Democratic candidate, citing unverified and baseless speculation about "mass voter fraud" against the Republican candidate. Barring unforeseen circumstances, that candidate is likely to be Donald Trump, considering his iron grip on the Republican Party. Another election involving Trump raises renewed concerns about potentially disastrous effects, as he endlessly beats the drums of paranoia and fear over unproven and improbable "voter fraud." The Dominion lawsuit has a chance to beat back much of this hysteria if Trump is at last deprived of the media partners that have previously enabled him in promoting his Big Lie.

Read more on the post-Trump plight of Fox News:


Anthony DiMaggio

Anthony DiMaggio is associate professor of political science at Lehigh University. He is the author of "Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here," just published by Routledge, as well as "Rebellion in America" and "Unequal America." He can be reached at anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of "Rebellion in America" can be read free here.

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