(CN) – Hit with a libel lawsuit over its publication of a dossier with unverified claims that a Russian tech guru executed cyber-attacks on the Democratic party, BuzzFeed apologized for releasing the man’s name but stood by its decision to publish the document.
In a written statement provided to Courthouse News, the internet media outlet said that since the libel complaint’s filing, it has redacted plaintiff Aleksej Gubarev’s name from the controversial dossier, which contains unsubstantiated reports that Gubarev and his company, XBT Holdings, helped Russian intelligence agencies carry out cyber attacks on Democratic leadership.
“We have redacted Mr. Gubarev’s name from the published document and apologize for including it. We stand by our decision to publish the dossier, which was being circulated at the highest levels of government but hidden from the public,” BuzzFeed’s statement reads.
The lawsuit, filed by Gubarev in Broward County, Fla. last Friday, called the publication of the document “perhaps one of the most reckless and irresponsible moments in modern ‘journalism.'”
Purportedly compiled by a private firm as opposition research during the presidential race, the dossier contained a slew of seemingly outlandish claims about Donald Trump’s supposed sexual escapades in a Russian hotel, along with accounts from various sources attesting to Russian interference in the election.
With respect to Gubarev, the dossier cited dubious reports that his web hosting and development firms (XBT and Webzilla) “had been using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership” from March to Sept. 2016.
The document reads: “Entities linked to one Aleksei Gubarov [sic] were involved and he and another hacking expert, both recruited under duress by the FSB … were significant players in this operation.”
Gubarev says the publication of the defamatory material left his reputation in “tatters.” He says his wife has been the target of online harassment, and his family’s security has been compromised on account of the dossier’s release.
His companies, which employ roughly 300 people with offices in Texas, Florida, Luxembourg, and elsewhere, sustained “harm to [their] previously unblemished reputations with their clients, lenders, vendors and others.”
“At least one lender has declined to do business with XBT and/or Webzilla based on the defamatory statements published by the Defendants,” the lawsuit alleges.
The article that accompanied the dossier’s publication was viewed more than 5.9 million times, according to the lawsuit. To date, the lawsuit claims, BuzzFeed has not reached out to obtain Gubarev’s response to the cyber-attack claims.
BuzzFeed put a disclaimer of sorts in the piece, whereby it acknowledged that the dossier includes “unverified and potentially unverifiable allegations.”
“BuzzFeed News reporters in the US and Europe have been investigating various alleged facts in the dossier but have not verified or falsified them,” the qualifying statement reads. “[The dossier] is not just unconfirmed: It includes some clear errors.”
Which libel standard the Florida court will apply (if the case proceeds) hinges largely on whether the court deems Gubarev to be a “public” figure.
Under the landmark Supreme Court ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan, libel plaintiffs deemed to be public figures are subject to a more difficult judicial standard, and typically have to prove “actual malice” on the part of a defendant. (Actual malice does not necessarily mean ill will; it refers to knowledge of a statement’s falsity, or reckless disregard for the truth).
According to the lawsuit, Gubarev, who is married with three young children, “is not, in any way, shape, or form, a public figure.”
“Outside of technology circles, he is not known at all,” the lawsuit claims.
BuzzFeed declined to comment on whether it considered Gubarev to be a public figure. The outlet said it has retained outside defense counsel but would not disclose which firm it had enlisted.
BuzzFeed has justified the decision to publish the dossier by pointing to reports from CNN that intelligence officials had shown the dossier to Donald Trump and Barack Obama. It alluded to the matter when it told Courthouse News the dossier had been “circulated at the highest levels of government but hidden from the public.”
Gubarev is represented by Brady Cobb and Dylan Fulop in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., along with Valentin Gurvits in Boston.
The lawsuit lists BuzzFeed and its editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, as defendants, claiming the decision to publish the dossier “not only flew in the face of all journalistic standards and ethics, but also violated Mr. Smith’s own claims of how BuzzFeed operates.”
The pleading points to an article that Smith wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review a few months before the dossier was published.
In the article, Smith addresses the proliferation of fake news on social media. He stated: “[Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg recently wrote that ‘identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated.’ Maybe for algorithms and epistemologists. But it’s something that professional journalists are asked to do every day, and it’s not actually that complicated. The everyday reporting truths — who said what, when did they say it, what does the document say, where did the money go — are the sorts of thing we’re good at pinning down.”
Compounding the libel case, BuzzFeed may face challenges if it tries to assert fair-reporting or neutral-reporting privileges, since the dossier is said to have originated from a private source.
The fair reporting privilege shields journalists from liability for repeating defamatory allegations if those allegations are accurately reported from court records, police reports or other public documents or proceedings. The neutral reporting privilege, established in Edwards v. National Audobon Society, meanwhile shields journalists if, in an objective story, they repeat defamatory claims levied by a “responsible, prominent organization” against a public figure.