“Use code ‘Rudy’ — that’s me — and sign up for 30 free days of protection,” Giuliani said, before resuming a diatribe about an international communist vote-stealing plot — and, later, another advertisement, in which he hawked dietary supplements. The episode of his YouTube series, “Rudy Giuliani’s Common Sense,” has been viewed more than 500,000 times.
Giuliani’s conspiracy-theory infomercials stand at the center of an extraordinary defamation lawsuit filed Monday by Dominion Voting Systems, which is seeking more than $1.3 billion in damages from him for what its attorneys said were “demonstrably false allegations” that led company employees to endure months of harassment and death threats.
Giuliani, the lawsuit alleges, knowingly spread falsehoods about the company to bolster Trump’s failing attempts to overturn the reality of his election loss. But Giuliani had another incentive for doing so, the lawyers wrote: He “cashed in by hosting a podcast where he exploited election falsehoods to market gold coins, supplements, cigars, and protection from ‘cyber thieves.’ ”
The lawsuit helps cast a spotlight on why so much viral disinformation rockets across the Web: Purveyors of falsehoods are often financially rewarded as the audiences for their claims grow. Premium subscriptions, merchandise sales and advertisement revenue form the backbone of the online-influencer economy — and if the audience is buying it, the creators make money, regardless of the facts.
The lawsuit frames Giuliani not as an ideological crusader but as a shrewd marketer eager to monetize his growing fan base, using the kinds of social-media-influencer techniques popular across YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, including infomercial-style endorsements and promotional discount codes.
The 107-page complaint, filed in D.C. federal court, features several screenshots of Giuliani’s wide-ranging and sometimes theatrical advertisements, launched even as he portrayed himself as defending democracy from a dastardly global scheme.
As he pitched fraud detection packages on YouTube, Giuliani was said to throw “his arms in the air as if to emphasize the obvious danger of entrusting important matters to technology.”
Giuliani and other high-profile Trump supporters, including attorneys Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood, echoed the claims of a stolen election for weeks in online videos, social media posts, real-world rallies and TV appearances that reached millions around the world.
Dominion attorney Tom Clare said Monday that the company would probably pursue other lawsuits beyond Giuliani to set the record straight, adding, “We’re looking at everybody.”
Giuliani said in a statement that the suit was “another act of intimidation by the hate-filled left-wing to wipe out and censor the exercise of free speech.” He also argued that Dominion’s suit would allow him to “investigate their history, finances, and practices fully and completely.”
Giuliani captured public attention by baselessly alleging that Dominion had used shadowy Venezuelan software to rig elections around the world, including by notifying political officials when their candidate was losing so they could quickly submit fake ballots. The claims were never submitted in court — which Dominion argues is proof Giuliani knew they were preposterous — but were repeated for weeks by Giuliani in Fox News interviews, Twitter posts, live-streamed news conferences, radio shows and YouTube monologues.
The suit outlines how Giuliani often aligned his “direct-to-camera advertisements” with the falsehoods of the day. Lawyers wrote how, in one video, “after decrying how an American election had been fixed by a Venezuelan-owned company, Giuliani marketed cigars from an ‘American-owned’ company, offering ‘$20 off orders over $100’ if his viewers used the code ‘Rudy20’ when ordering.” Giuliani tweeted the video to his more than 1 million followers, receiving more than 9,000 retweets and more than 25,000 likes.
In another December video about Dominion, Giuliani warned that a “socialist storm is brewing” and pitched his audience on paid memberships to a “conservative alternative to the AARP.” In yet another, he warned that in these “uncertain times,” the “one thing you can count on to protect what you have worked so hard for is physical gold and silver,” before advertising a gold dealer and counseling viewers, “Tell them Rudy sent you.”
Former congressman Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), who was endorsed by Trump but lost his reelection bid last year during a contentious GOP convention, said the case shows how Giuliani and other peddlers of vote-fraud falsehoods have taken “advantage of otherwise good people by pushing out mass amounts of disinformation to preselected echo chambers.”
Riggleman noted that channels devoted to conspiracy theories and extremist movements, such as QAnon, routinely sell apocalypse-preparation supplies and seek political donations while riling up viewers about the imminent dangers of the “deep state,” Democrats or other perceived enemies.
“This is the largest conspiratorial grift in United States history,” Riggleman said. “The grift they monetized eventually became weaponized.”
Dominion’s lawsuit, which follows a similar complaint it filed against Powell earlier this month, joins a growing legal wave of defamation cases targeting the purveyors of online falsehoods. In the most notable case, parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 sued Alex Jones, the host of the conspiracy theory show “Infowars,” after he alleged that the family members were fraudulent “crisis actors” pushing a fake shooting in hopes of enacting more gun-control laws.
The Texas Supreme Court last week rejected Jones’s attempt to block the suits, which are seeking millions of dollars in damages.
Jones’s attorneys have said that his “pursuit of so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ concerning controversial government activities” is protected by the First Amendment. But Jones, like Giuliani, had also regularly advertised nutritional supplements during his videos, which attracted massive audiences.
Giuliani has promoted OmegaXL, a non-FDA-approved supplement he pledged could help manage “painful, achy joints,” saying on YouTube, “There’s nothing like it.” The Infowars store hawks “testosterone boosters” and other supplements designed to “create superior vitality in males,” including one that Jones was said to have used to “maximize vitality when working up to 12 hours a day or more in the fight for freedom.”
Mark Bankston, a lawyer who represents parents in the Jones lawsuits, said he finds it troubling how the kinds of conspiracy theory misinformation popularized by Jones and other fringe voices several years ago has increasingly become mainstream.
“Jones was able to hype up his supplement sales with this fantastical misinformation, these fantasies he would spin,” Bankston said. Now, with Giuliani, “we have someone of national prominence, who has their hands on the lever of powers, using the same exact tactics that were used by Alex Jones and ended up causing torment to my clients for years.”
Bankston said he hopes the legal action will show “this new breed of misinformation peddler online” that “it's not a profitable way to make money anymore,” but he acknowledged that the tactic has clear limits.
The Jones and Giuliani cases focus on specific harms from misinformation, “but what do we do when someone shares misinformation about the coronavirus that hurts us all?” he said. “The plaintiffs’ attorneys can’t help us there.”
Riggleman said he nevertheless expected that Dominion’s legal action would strike fear in the other high-profile figures who targeted private companies and other individuals with falsehoods alleging massive voter fraud and other crimes. He expects that other companies targeted by conspiracy theorists will file their own lawsuits.
“We can’t legislate away stupid,” Riggleman said, “but you can certainly sue people for it.”