Among the challenges still facing Fox News after its jaw-dropping settlement of a defamation case is a lawsuit planned by a high-profile disinformation expert, who is crowdfunding her way to court after a firestorm of harassment and abuse.
Last year, Nina Jankowicz was tapped to head the newly created Disinformation Governance Board, an advisory US body created to counter falsehoods deemed a threat to homeland security.
From its very inception, the project was pilloried from all sides, with conservatives labelling it an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth” and civil liberty groups viewing it as a conduit for state censorship.
Within weeks of its announcement, Jankowicz quit and the board -– part of the Department of Homeland Security — was disbanded within months.
But Jankowicz was not out of the crosshairs of conservative anchors and commentators on Fox News, to whom she was a loony “conspiracy theorist” and a “useful idiot” of the Biden administration serving as a “disinformation czar.”
Jankowicz said she faced an avalanche of death and rape threats even after she resigned last May in the ninth month of her pregnancy.
“It was a little bit like being buried alive,” Jankowicz, 34, told AFP in an interview, voicing disappointment in the government for failing to protect her from the abuse.
But she insisted that part of the blame lies with Fox News, which she accused of monetizing disinformation.
She is not alone.
Last week, the influential broadcaster agreed to a $787.5 million settlement in a lawsuit by voting technology company Dominion over its coverage of false rigging claims in the 2020 election that Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden.
The settlement meant that neither Fox Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch nor high-profile hosts such as Tucker Carlson will have to testify in what was expected to be an explosive trial.
Copious amounts of internal Fox News communications reported by US media suggested senior figures at the network were prepared to spread falsehoods about the election for fear of losing viewers to rivals.
– ‘Easy targets’ –
The eye-watering settlement, one of the largest in a defamation case, was a rare example of a heavy price being extracted for blatant disinformation.
“It is a win for truth but it doesn’t solve the problem that individuals like me face — namely that getting justice for the lies told about us is expensive and inaccessible if you’re not backed by a hedge fund or valued at billions,” Jankowicz said.
“What is to stop Fox and others from taking out ‘easy’ targets when there’s no disincentive?”
Unlike Dominion, Jankowicz, who has advised foreign governments on combating disinformation and authored two books, does not have a battery of lawyers at her disposal.
She has launched a crowdsourcing campaign to carry out her plan, which has so far achieved nearly half of her $100,000 goal.
Her lawsuit, which Jankowicz hopes to file next month, could add to the legal troubles of Fox News. The network also faces a $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit by another voting technology firm Smartmatic over alleged election disinformation.
“Fox News irrevocably changed my life when they force fed lies about me to tens of millions of their viewers,” Jankowicz said in a video accompanying her GoFundMe campaign.
“Tens of thousands have harassed me online, hundreds have violently threatened me… I’ve lost something irreplaceable: peace with my son during his first year in the world.”
– ‘Mary Poppins of disinformation’ –
Fox News did not respond to a request for comment.
Her downfall and the unravelling of the board serve as lessons for countries where the fight against disinformation has become a political lightning rod.
A joke in elite Washington circles is that the disinformation board itself became a victim of disinformation, thanks in part to what observers called its troubled rollout by the DHS.
As governments around the world use anti-disinformation or “fake news” laws to crack down on dissent, the veil of secrecy around the board made many skeptical about its motives, said Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
“The government should fight disinformation — this is entirely legitimate and necessary,” Jaffer told AFP.
“(But) DHS didn’t do a good job of explaining what exactly the board would be doing, or why the board would be housed at DHS.”
DHS did not respond to requests for comment. Jankowicz said that criticism was legitimate but nothing justified the barrage of personal assaults.
In one, Fox News anchors repeatedly poured scorn on her for a 2021 online video about disinformation, in which she playfully adapted a song from the Disney classic “Mary Poppins.” One Fox commentator called her “unhinged.”
Posting the parody video that was meant to jumpstart an online conversation about the menace, Jankowicz wrote: “You can just call me the Mary Poppins of disinformation.”