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Public Service Announcement: Acting on False/Fake “News” Can Land You in Prison

Nine years before Bernie Madoff’s multi-billion dollar ponzi scheme came crashing down in 2008, there was a whistleblower, Harry Markopolos, who had repeatedly gone to authorities with evidence of Madoff’s crimes. Markopolos was ignored.   

The people, at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, who could have done something to stop the massive fraud did not. They failed to act until they had no choice, but to act.

Meanwhile, Markopolos lived in fear of his life while trying to convince the world of Madoff’s crimes. Crimes which, ultimately, resulted in Madoff being sentenced to serve 150 years in Federal prison.

Some whistleblowers are initially mocked, and defamed. They may receive the “nuts and sluts” treatment from misogynists, the women who enabled them, and the hypocrites.

Whistleblowers may be dismissed, demeaned, intimidated, silenced by officers of the court, and blacklisted. They may also suffer losses to their careers, or a combination thereof, for telling the truth, for not wanting to be complicit, for not wanting anyone else to be harmed. Women who were right. Women who were telling the truth the entire time.

This we saw, for example, during some of the #MeToo cases, until mega, Oscar award winning producer Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to serve 23 years in prison for rape and sexual abuse.

So goes the Internet era of fake news, disinformation and defamation. The real world and often tragic consequences were arguably preventable had people in positions of authority acted sooner.  

As always, there are whistleblowers and red flags.

In 2008, for example, the Honorable Alex Kozinski, then an appeals court judge in the Ninth Circuit, prophetically warned regarding the dangers of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 § Section 230’s broad immunization which was afforded to digital platforms. He wrote in part:

“The Communications Decency Act [§ Section 230] was not meant to create a lawless no-man’s-land on the Internet.” See: Fair House. Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.com, LLC, 521 F.3d 1157, 1164 (9th Cir. 2008) (writing for the majority, Chief Judge Kozinski noted that “[t]he Internet is no longer a fragile new means of communications that could easily be smothered in the cradle by overzealous enforcement of laws and regulations applicable to brick-and-mortar businesses.

Rather, it has become a dominant—perhaps the preeminent—means through which commerce is conducted. And its vast reach into the lives of millions is exactly why we must be careful not to exceed the scope of immunity provided by Congress and . . . comply with laws of general applicability.” Id. at n.15. (bold mine)

And what constitutes the laws of general applicability? Briefly, torts and crimes including, but not limited to fraud, impersonation, unjust enrichment, defamation, incitement of violence, child pornography, and the like.

See also, for e.g., 18 U.S. Code § 1038. False information and hoaxes.

Unfortunately, decades of court cases, complaints, arrests, and plaintiff, after plaintiff, after exhausted plaintiff, litigating stressful, lengthy lawsuits while trying to obtain some relief and redress, also tell the tale that otherwise might not have been told had Judge Kozinski’s warning about a lawless Internet not fallen essentially on deaf ears — had laws on the books been enforced earlier.

Justice delayed …

Thankfully, we are at the stage where individuals in authority are taking action–as the real world consequences of fake news, defamation and disinformation can no longer be ignored. Too many people have been seriously, if not irreparably, harmed, killed and/or ended up in prison.

And our 2008 red flag waver Judge Kozinski?

Judge Kozinski retired abruptly from the bench over three years ago amid sexual harassment allegations #MeToo. Unfortunately, not all judges are created equally and above reproach. They too may enjoy stellar reputations, as they wield power over people’s lives for years sometimes, while reportedly concealing and/or trying to conceal unethical, improper, abuse of power conduct unbecoming of an officer of the court and in apparent violation of the rules.

For reference purposes, see for e.g. some of the rules: The American Bar Association: Model Code of Judicial Conduct. CANON 1: “A judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety,” and so on. (bold mine)

Following below is a snap shot of some of the consequences of fake news, disinformation and defamation, published with the hope it will deter others from suffering a similar fate of ending up in prison because they were induced into action based on falsehoods, nonsense, gaslighting, and/or by believing wild distortions of facts and reality they read or heard on the Internet.

And to hopefully prevent even more people from being senselessly harmed or tragically killed.

There are real problems to be concerned with which can be resolved peacefully.

Please do not be the next person induced into action based on fake news, defamation and/or disinformation.

  • “QAnon-obsessed mother shoots man in the head after becoming convinced he’s a child-stealing Satanist: report,” excerpted from the Wall Street Journal, at The Raw Story, April 2, 2021. …”Hallett then tried to used his alleged expertise to help Neely Petrie-Blanchard fight for custody of her daughters — a favor she returned by shooting him in the head in his Florida home because she thought he was part of a cabal of government Satanists who wanted to steal her children.”
  • Jonathan Stempel, “Trump must face ‘Apprentice’ contestant’s defamation lawsuit -NY court,” Reuters, March 30, 2021. “Zervos has sought a retraction or an apology, plus compensatory damages and punitive damages.”
  • Two distinctly different audiences in America. Jose A. Del Real, “They’re worried their mom is becoming a conspiracy theorist. She thinks they’re the ones living in a fantasy world. A family struggles with truth and trust in a country divided by disinformation.” Washington Post, March 12, 2021.
  • United States v Rachel Marie Powell. Grand jury indictment (eight criminal counts) in the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. capital.
  • Olivia Rubin, Lucien Bruggeman and Will Streakin, “QAnon emerges as recurring theme of criminal cases tied to US Capitol siege,” ABC News, January 19, 2021. “QAnon …rests on the baseless theory that Trump is fighting against a global network of billionaire pedophiles, devil-worshipping Democrats and baby-eating Hollywood stars and their “deep state” counterparts … “
  • Dinah Voyles Pulver, “Two months and nearly 300 Capitol riot arrests later, FBI is hunting hundreds more,” USA Today, March 8, 2021. “The riot claimed five lives and cost millions in damage and cleanup in the historic building.”
  • John Bowden, “Federal judge rules ‘QAnon shaman’ too dangerous to be released from jail,” The Hill, March 8, 2021. “[Chansley] was one of the most well-known supporters of the QAnon conspiracy to appear at the Capitol that day and allegedly left a note for former Vice President Mike Pence vowing “justice” if the election results were not overturned….Supporters of the QAnon conspiracy believe that the former president was engaged in a shadow war with a global cabal of Satan worshippers during his time in office.”
  • Graig Graziosi, “Man arrested in connection with QAnon vandalism at ‘America’s Stonehenge: The site was vandalised with a slogan popular with conspiracy theorists,” Independent, March 3, 2021.
  • Jerry Lambe, “[Officer of the court, attorney of law, multiple super lawyer recipient] Sidney Powell’s ‘Kraken’ Lawsuit Included Altered Exhibit of Georgia’s Certification of Dominion Voting Machines,” Law & Crime, December 1, 2020… in apparent violation of the Professional Rules and Ethics governing attorneys.
  • Lois Beckett, “QAnon: a timeline of violence linked to the conspiracy theory,The Guardian, October 16, 2020, “QAnon adherents believe that Donald Trump is trying to save the world from a cabal of satanic pedophiles … “QAnon has not brought a single child abuser closer to justice,” View said. “But QAnon has radicalized people into committing crimes and taking dangerous or violent actions that put children at risk.”
  • Karma Allen, “Sandy Hook shooting ‘conspiracy theorist’ arrested after tormenting families of victims [for years]: Police: He could face as much as a year in prison if convicted as charged.ABC News, January 27, 2021
  • Michael Gryboski, “Evangelical leaders denounce QAnon as ‘political cult,’ and ‘satanic movement’,” Christian Post, August 25, 2020.
  • Madeline Roth, “Fox News Insisted Seth Rich Settlement Stay Secret Until After Presidential Election,” The Wrap, January 18, 2021
  • Colleen Slevin, “Woman accused in QAnon kidnapping plot pleads not guilty,” A Colorado woman accused of plotting with supporters of QAnon to have her son kidnapped from foster care has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit second-degree kidnapping,” Associated Press, September 25, 2019.
  • Danielle Cinone, “Self-described Proud Boys member thought his brother was a lizard — so he allegedly killed him with a sword,” New York Daily News, January 9, 2019.
  • Alan Yuhas, “‘Pizzagate’ gunman pleads guilty as conspiracy theorist apologizes over case,The Guardian, March 25, 2017.
  • Amanda Robb, “Anatomy of a Fake News Scandal: Inside the web of conspiracy theorists, Russian operatives, Trump campaigners and Twitter bots who manufactured the ‘news’ that Hillary Clinton ran a pizza-restaurant child-sex ring,” Rolling Stone Magazine. November 16, 2017
  • Steve Gorman, “Bundy follower gets 68 years for role in armed Nevada standoff,Reuters, July 27, 2017.
  • Derek Hawkins, “Sandy Hook hoaxer gets prison time for threatening 6-year-old victim’s father,Washington Post, June 8, 2017.
  • Ryan Reed, “Father of Sandy Hook Victim Wins Defamation Suit Against Massacre Deniers: InfoWars’ Alex Jones also received sanctions in separate lawsuit involving families of Newtown victims,” Rolling Stone Magazine, June 19, 2019.
  • Jana Winter, “Exclusive: FBI document warns conspiracy theories are a new domestic terrorism threat,” Yahoo News August 1, 2019.
  • Janelle Griffith and Doha Madani, “Pipe-bomb mailer Cesar Sayoc, who targeted Trump critics, sentenced to 20 years: The series of mailed pipe bombs, which prosecutors described…as “a domestic terror attack,” spurred a nationwide scare last year,” NBC News, August 5, 2019.
  • Tessa Solomon, “Gambino Mob Boss Shooting Suspect was ‘radicalized’ by QAnon, Far Right, Even Trump, Lawyer says,” Daily Beast, March 25, 2019.
  • Judge rejects Trump defense against claim he incited violence at rally,” The Guardian, April 2, 2017.
  • Rachel Stockman, “Hospital CEO Wins Major Court Victory After Accusing CNN of False Reporting,LawNews, February 15, 2017.
  • Zoe Tillman,Melania Trump Settles Lawsuit With Maryland Blogger,” Buzzfeed, February 7, 2017.
  • Ben Sisario, Hawes Spencer and Sydney Ember, Rolling Stone Loses Defamation Case Over Rape Story,” New York Times, November 4, 2016.
  • Dylan Baddour, “FBI arrests 3 for Jade Helm retaliation attack plan against U.S. military involving guns, explosives,Houston Chronicle, August 6, 2015.
  • The Communication Decency Act [Section 230] Gone Wild: A Case for Renewing the Presumption Against Preemption,” J.D. Candidate, Seattle University School of Law, 2014; B.S., Economics, Central Washington, University, 2009.

* This post is periodically updated with more examples of the afore-stated.

See also: Fake News, Defamation & Disinformation Case Law

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