Three disreputable web sites including GotNews.com, FreedomDaily.com and GatewayPundit.com have been named in a federal lawsuit accusing them of defamation for allegedly falsely naming an innocent teenager as the driver who rammed into and killed a counter-demonstrator at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
Jerome Vangheluwe and his 16-year-old-son Joel had to flee their Michigan home due to death threats resulting from being falsely accused in the 12 August 2017 attack, after they were tagged with charges of “assault, terrorism, conspiracies, murder, and racially charged violence,” according to the lawsuit. Chuck C. Johnson and Jim Hoft, who run GotNews and Gateway Pundit, respectively, are among 20 defendants personally named in the complaint filed on 14 February 2018 in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan. The lawsuit seeks damages for defamation, emotional distress, and invasion of privacy.
Also named are a number of social media users and Internet personalities who helped spread the false information on their Facebook and Twitter pages, including Paul Nehlen, an anti-Semitic Wisconsin congressional candidate. (Nehlen was banned from Twitter in February 2018 after posting a racist image of the first African-American royal bride-to-be, Meghan Markle.) The lawsuit includes multiple exhibits showing images of the posts.
When contacted for comment, Hoft responded:
Who notified you of this? Who is funding you? Who is funding the case?
Johnson responded that there are no reporters at Snopes.com — despite the fact that he was answering to an e-mail from one. We have not received any answer at all from FreedomDaily.com.
The Vangheluwes’ Dallas-based attorney Andrew Sommerman said in a statement that this is the very definition of corrosive “fake news”:
We’ve all recently heard about this concept of ‘fake news.’ This is the real fake news, trying to tie wrong party affiliations with political acts. Jerome Vangheluwe sold the car years before the attack, and the car had passed through multiple buyers. Both of my clients are residents of Michigan, and the car in question had an Ohio license plate. The incident occurred in Virginia. There was no credible evidence to even suggest the Vangheluwes were responsible … My clients received death threats and feared for their safety and the safety of their family. The alt-right media was trying to create a narrative that someone other than a member of an alt-right organization was the one behind this terrorist attack.
White supremacist James Alex Fields, 20, of Ohio, has been charged with murder and is accused of driving his 2010 Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-demonstrators during the “Unite the Right” alt-right rally in Charlottesville on 12 August 2017, killing 32-year-old local resident Heather Heyer. As of 17 February 2018, Johnson had not bothered to update the GotNews story with that pertinent information.
Shortly after the attack on 12 August 2017, GotNews falsely named 16-year-old Joel Vangheluwe as the driver with a story headlined “BREAKING: #Charlottesville Car Terrorist Is Anti-Trump, Open Borders Druggie.” The GotNews story and subsequent articles incorporated images of the Vangheluwes’ social media accounts, including revealing personal information, and alleged Joel Vangheluwe was a drug user. The Vangheluwes were attending a family wedding as the false information spread online, and their social media and email accounts were soon flooded with angry and threatening messages, according to court documents:
On August 12, 2017, the Vangheluwe family was hosting a wedding at their home for a family member. During that wedding the Vangheluwes’ social media, emails, and text messages became overwhelmed with messages and posts.
Earlier that day, a terror attack occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, when an individual drove his car through counter-protestors at a “Unite the Right” rally. One person was murdered, Heather Heyer, and others seriously injured. Defendants used the Vangheluwes as political pawns, shifting the blame from altright extremists to an innocent 20-year-old boy who never owned or drove the car in question.
GotNews, LLC, a self-proclaimed Alt-Right news outlet, published an article falsely naming twenty-year-old Michigan resident Joel Vangheluwe as the driver of the vehicle and the perpetrator of the terror attack. At the time of the attack, Joel Vangheluwe was attending his cousin’s wedding in another state. GotNews posted the names, photographs and personal information of Joel and his father Jerome Vangheluwe, incorporating various pieces of personal information about them.
The other Defendants falsely claimed that Jerome Vangheluwe owned the vehicle at the time it ran down protestors in Charlottesville. They then linked Joel Vangheluwe’s Facebook with a caption stating that Joel would receive the car when he was sixteen (which is not true). Defendants falsely accused Joel Vangheluwe of being the perpetrator of the attack.
Jerome Vangheluwe legally sold the vehicle in question years earlier. The vehicle was sold several more times before it came into the possession of the man accused of the crime.
Defendants attempted to convince readers that Joel had a political agenda when the terrorist attack on American soil occurred. Nothing could be further from the truth. The torrent of accusations against the Vangheluwes accomplished the over-arching goal of the alt-right media to distract their readers into believing the attack was made by someone other than a member of the alt-right movement. This was ultimately untrue, as just hours after the terror attack the actual suspect was apprehended by police and charged with second-degree murder, malicious wounding and failure to stop in an accident that resulted in death. He has been linked with altright groups.
After the defamatory information was posted on the internet by GotNews and the other Defendants, the Vangheluwes began receiving countless anonymous threats. Michigan State police were notified and the family was warned to leave their home. The threats caused the Vangheluwes to fear for their safety and well-being. Clients of Jerome Vangheluwe’s business also became fearful after the online threats.
Many of the sites and personalities named in the suit have histories of disseminating false or misleading information on the Internet, and the manner in which the story spread points to an irresponsible but widespread pattern of taking unverified information from questionable sources and amplifying it without bothering to ensure its accuracy.
GotNews has a track record of both getting key details in stories wrong and misidentifying people in controversial stories, exposing them to Internet harassment. However, because they often claim to have “exclusive” information, they are often sourced by other sites for stories that turn out to be wildly inaccurate.
For example, GotNews falsely accused a hotel security guard of being an accomplice to the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, when in fact the security guard was just another shooting victim. In December 2017, Johnson helped spark a Capitol Police investigation when he bragged about having documents detailing allegations of sexual harassment against Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York). The documents, it turned out, were forged.
18 February 2018, 1:25 P.M.: Updated with comments from Hoft and Johnson.