Two of Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers labeled one post from a notorious Trump backer as a “hoax alert” in early 2020 because it disseminated provably false information about Covid-19. The fundraising scheme behind the suit raises serious ethical questions about a widely-followed GOP commentator’s true motives.
That led to a 21-month legal saga which just came to a close this week.
Right-wing columnist Candace Owens just lost her defamation lawsuit appeal in front of the Delaware Supreme Court. But The Daily Wire writer and former TPUSA spokesperson raised an unknown, however potentially significant sum of money to her company to pay for the litigation, falsely claiming on her website that she’d sue Facebook founder.
But she didn’t sue him at all.
In late 2020, Owens and her Delaware-incorporated company filed a defamation suit in Delaware Superior Court over a pair of Facebook fact checks. Alongside the lawsuit, Candace Owens LLC created and published a unique website to finance the entire operation, which purported to be fundraising for a case against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who owns the majority of its social networks and its recently renamed parent company. Her reason for suing? Having a false claim, she wrote about Covid-19 early in the pandemic labeled as false.
Instead, Owens filed suit against Lead Stories, which is run by co-founders Alan Duke who worked for CNN for 26 years, and COO/CTO Martin Schenk, who created their custom social media intelligence tool, the Trendolizer. “Lead Stories will continue to honestly and thoroughly fact check false claims,” Duke told the Washington Press, “especially those that endanger public health and safety.” As part of its work, Lead Stories has a fact-checking partnership with Facebook, and since 2020, it is also fact-checking the popular Tik Tok video platform, which has a major covid disinformation problem. The conservative social media influencer also named USA Today and its parent company Gannett in the litigation and the Trump backer lost her claims against that journalist institution as well.
Yet, in the earliest archived version of Owens’ website factcheckzuck.com, it doesn’t disclose that she did not sue Zuckerberg. The original site did contain the exact same disclaimer (as it does today), which shockingly frees the Daily Wire columnist from pretty much any responsibility to her donors to do anything in particular with the money. It reads:
* All donations made will be directed to an account established and controlled by Candace Owens LLC, the lead plaintiff in Case No. S20C-10-016 CAK in the Court of Delaware. A portion of the total funds raised will be used to cover legal costs incurred by Candace Owens LLC in relation to the aforementioned case. All excess funds will be used for other purposes by the LLC. No goods or services will be received in exchange for donations. Donations received are not tax-deductible. This website and all associated designs and fees paid for by Candace Owens LLC. By providing your information, you agree to receive communications, including automated calls and texts, from Candace Owens LLC and related groups. Unfortunately, we are not able to offer refunds on contributions.
While the website does list the court case number and where to look it up, it’s indisputable that the original website’s claim to fund a lawsuit against Zuckerberg is false. That happens to coincide with the time that the case Candace Owens filed also got the most attention in the right-wing media where she claimed to be busy “fact-checking the fact-checkers” in Newsmax or planning to “put these suckers through discovery” in Fox News. It was only sometime in the first week of December 2020, based on a review of the Internet Archive, that Owens updated the site to note that she was not, in fact, suing the Facebook founder.
It’s unknown how much the Trump backer raised from her litigation funding website using the Anedot platform, which references the Blexit nonprofit she created in the URL. Typically, Anedot is used for political committees and nonprofits and doesn’t claim to offer a solution to for-profit entities on its website.
She did not respond to a publicly posted request for comment on Twitter, where she is a verified user. Nor did she reply to an email sent both to her and her lawyer Todd McMurtry, a Kentucky lawyer who previously represented WeBuildTheWall Inc. in pressing (but not suing over) defamation claims in the stories this author wrote that caused its founder’s indictment with Steve Bannon on fraud charges. In a since-deleted tweet, McMurtry called it an “honor” to pursue the litigation, which foundered in Delaware’s Supreme Court this week. His office didn’t answer a call for comment, and its voicemail is full.
@RealCandaceO How much money did you raise from https://t.co/YLZlItaJNw and how much is Candace Owens LLC going to keep after paying legal fees and expenses for the case? This is a request for comment prior to publication, which is imminent.
— Grant Stern is boosted! (@grantstern) February 24, 2022
As for the case, Delaware Superior Court judge Craig Karsnitz issued an elaborate 55-page ruling denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of the court’s jurisdiction or ability to hear the case based upon the location of the lawsuit. Instead, Judge Karsnitz easily upheld the defense from Lead Stories that Candace Owens failed to cite anything false in their articles, calling her late March 2020 Facebook post about Covid19 false, which could be claimed as defamatory. In particular, the judge affirmed Lead Stories’ decision to label the post from Owens with the term “Hoax Alert” as rhetorical hyperbole in light of her false claims. (She only alleged business interference claims against the USA Today because she got fact-checked negatively, and not defamation.)
Incredibly, the resource Candace Owens purportedly relied upon to falsely claim that America’s Covid-19 death reporting numbers were flawed was an article by a member of the UK’s National Health Service who specifically did not make any claims about the US and furthermore noted that statistical methods could vary. Even her own false statements on Facebook could be easily checked by… reading the tweet she posted as an image in the same post.
“The Delaware Supreme Court decision to dismiss the lawsuit upholds fact checker’s First Amendment rights,” continued Lead Stories’ Duke, elaborating on the weakness of the Daily Wire writer’s claims against him in court. “On appeal, Owens’s lawyer actually dropped her claim that our fact check conclusion was false and instead made the ridiculous argument that she could not be fact-checked by any website that ran ads. He argued that would be torturous interference by a market competitor.”
“While he ignored the fact that Lead Stories does not have ads, he also ignored the US Constitution.” – Alan Duke
When Delaware’s Supreme Court killed Owens’ case for good by denying her appeal, it simply issued a two-sentence ruling upholding Judge Karsnitz in favor of USA Today and Lead Stories only 13 days after oral arguments.
“This 22nd day of February 2022, after careful consideration of the parties’ briefs and the record below, and following oral argument, we find it evident that the judgment of the Superior Court should be affirmed on the basis of and for the reasons stated in its Memorandum Opinion and Order dated July 20, 2021.”
No wonder Candace Owens stopped tweeting about her case for good after the below, solitary post about the final hearing.
Currently in court (virtually) with Facebook fact-checkers. @Facebook told us their fact checkers were completely independent from them but @LeadStoriesCom is making the argument that Facebook internally slaps the fact-checks on posts, and that they simply write articles…
— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) February 9, 2022