Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and Alex Jones were ordered to pay massive damages in defamation cases.
Legal experts say social media incentivizes people seeking notoriety to make defamatory claims.
But it also means the damages from defamation can be far greater.
Former president Donald Trump on Friday was slapped with an $83.3 judgment after a jury found him liable for defaming author E. Jean Carroll — the latest in a series of massive awards juries have doled out in defamation cases involving major public figures.
Trump was ordered to pay Carroll $18.3 million in compensatory damages and $65 million in punitive damages over comments he made denying Carroll’s sexual abuse allegations. In December, a jury ordered Rudy Giuliani to pay $148 million for defaming election workers. And in 2022, a jury ordered Infowars host Alex Jones to pay a staggering $1.5 billion to Sandy Hook families for claiming the 2012 mass shooting was a hoax.
All three have signaled they’ll appeal those decisions.
“We’ve been seeing over the last couple of years verdicts that are just stratospheric,” Chris Mattei, a defamation lawyer who represented some Sandy Hook families against Jones, told Business Insider. “There’s a tendency in light of that recent precedence to expect numbers like this, but it is incredibly significant.”
These extraordinary judgments are the result of a combination of factors, but social media plays a major role, legal experts said. While in the past, high-profile figures may have been less willing to make defamatory statements, social media can actually provide an incentive for them to do so.
“There are these incentives for people who want to gain notoriety, want to gain an audience, want to be the center of attention, to do this kind of stuff,” Mattei said.
Trump, for instance, has successfully framed himself as a victim who is constantly under attack and fighting for not only himself but for his supporters. So when he goes on the offensive and lobs attacks at his critics and accusers, he often gets a positive reaction from his supporters.
Jones also stood to gain from spreading conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook shooting, according to Mattei. During the defamation trial, Mattei told the jury Infowars pulled in millions of followers off of the Sandy Hook lies and even made as much as $800,000 through product sales that followed.
Not only is social media lifting up personalities that are willing to engage in defamatory conduct, but it’s also making it so that when they do, the consequences for the defamed person are far greater.
“If you look at Alex Jones, or you look at Donald Trump, because they have such a megaphone, their defamation power is a lot more significant,” Andrew Lieb, a New York litigation attorney, told Business Insider.
Lieb added it’s not that any statement made on social media will automatically carry major consequences, but that the size of the person’s audience makes a huge difference.
Mattei agreed that social media has made it so defamatory information can spread more easily in a way that can lead to devastation and “wreckage over somebody’s life.”
The legal experts said juries use these large judgments, especially in punitive damages, to send a message that this kind of behavior will not go unpunished and to dissuade future actors from engaging in similar conduct.
Even when those ordered to pay a huge sum are unable to, like Jones and Giuliani, the judgment does not just go away and can follow a person for the rest of their life.
And though he likely won’t have to pay until an appeal plays out, Trump, on the other hand, would have a hard time arguing he cannot pay Carroll the full award thanks to comments he has personally made about his own wealth, according to John Jones, a former federal judge and the current president of Dickinson College.
“More than likely than not, she will see a substantial part of this,” he said.
But being forced to pay tens of millions or getting saddled with lifelong debt still may not be enough to deter some public figures from engaging in defamatory conduct — especially if social media continues to reward them for doing so.
“Donald Trump clearly believes he has a political incentive to engage in this kind of behavior,” Mattei said. “That’s why a verdict this high is necessary to change that calculus.”
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