Defamation lawsuit targets group behind "2,000 Mules" election denial film The group True the Vote, which executive produced Dinesh D'Souza's "2,000 Mules" election denial film, is facing a defamation lawsuit brought by a small company that makes election software.

Prominent election deniers are facing growing legal trouble

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Conspiracy theories about American elections have fueled death threats and harassment across the country. A small company in Michigan says it is the latest victim of what it calls a xenophobic smear campaign that forced its CEO to flee his home in fear for his life. Now that company is suing. It's part of a broader trend of using defamation law to fight back against alleged misinformation.

NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach has been looking into this. And Tom, tell us about the company and what they're suing over.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Yeah. This company that filed the lawsuit is called Konnech. They're a small business that basically makes scheduling software for poll workers. CEO's a man named Eugene Yu. He was born in China, became an American citizen decades ago, in 1997. And very few people had even heard of this company until very recently, when they became the subject of online accusations that they were somehow secretly helping the Chinese Communist Party infiltrate American elections and storing data on American poll workers on Chinese servers.

The company says this is completely and utterly bogus, but it has nonetheless fed racist death threats against the CEO. One message cited in their lawsuit says, quote, "might want to book flights back to Wuhan before we hang you until dead," end quote. And the company says these accusations were whipped up by a controversial group called True the Vote.

SHAPIRO: And remind us what True the Vote is and what they've been doing.

DREISBACH: Well, people might have heard of them because they're this nonprofit group that promotes election conspiracy theories, and they produced the Dinesh D'Souza film "2000 Mules," this widely debunked election-denial film. They've now moved on to these claims about Konnech and spinning this - what's really a wild story that they themselves compared to a James Bond movie, describing a midnight meeting at a hotel in Dallas, where their analysts supposedly showed them Konnech's data on a Chinese server.

Konnech says this is completely false. The descriptions don't even match the data they have. And when they sued True the Vote for defamation, they also brought computer hacking charges, which they said True the Vote has essentially admitted. They even convinced a federal judge to issue a restraining order that requires True the Vote to return any and all data they might have.

SHAPIRO: You described this as a small company that most people may not have heard of. Is there a risk that they are just giving the accusations more life, more oxygen?

DREISBACH: Yeah, that's a consideration here. But lawyers that work on these kinds of cases tell me this is really part of a broader trend where companies and people that are subject of election conspiracies see real damage to their businesses, to their lives. And recently, some election workers who were falsely accused of trying to help steal the 2020 election, they have filed lawsuits. Election companies like Dominion Voting Systems, for example, sued Fox News and allies of President Trump for defamation, too.

Those lawsuits do seem to have moved some of these types of claims off of more established conservative media. When it comes to Konnech, True the Vote has explicitly, though, appealed to the fringes and followers of QAnon conspiracy theory to help with their so-called research. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon then amplified some of those claims. I talked to a spokesperson for Konnech named Jon Goldberg, and he said he felt the company felt a need to move quickly.

JON GOLDBERG: Konnech went to court to vindicate itself, to make clear that the claims of True the Vote are entirely baseless. They are demonstrably false. They are damaging to reputation. And they are hurtful.

SHAPIRO: And, Tom, what does True the Vote say in response?

DREISBACH: Well, they're denying all wrongdoing. They say that everything they have said about Konnech is true. And they say that True the Vote never actually accessed the company's data. It was a third party who they have not publicly named.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach. Thanks, Tom.

DREISBACH: Thanks, Ari.

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