4:50pm PT by Ashley Cullins
BuzzFeed Sued for Naming Tech CEO in Story About Trump's Alleged Russian Ties
A Cyprus-based tech CEO is suing BuzzFeed for defamation, after he and his company were named in an unverified document that was attached to a story about President Donald Trump's alleged deep ties to Russia.
BuzzFeed's Jan. 10 story begins like this: "A dossier making explosive — but unverified — allegations that the Russian government has been 'cultivating, supporting and assisting' President-elect Donald Trump for years and gained compromising information about him has been circulating among elected officials, intelligence agents, and journalists for weeks."
The article sparked a nationwide debate among media companies about whether the story and dossier should have been published.
XBT Holding CEO Aleksej Gubarev described BuzzFeed's decision to publish the unverified dossier as "one of the most reckless and irresponsible moments in modern 'journalism,' " according to the suit filed Friday in Florida state court.
Both the website and its editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, are named as defendants in the suit, which is posted in full below.
"[A]lthough BuzzFeed and Smith specifically knew that at least portions of the dossier were untrue, they printed the entire document — without meaningful redactions — including those portions that falsely accused the Plaintiffs of participating in an alleged conspiracy to commit crimes against the Democratic Leadership, not to mention a conspiracy to undermine American Democracy and the 2016 election," wrote attorney Brady J. Cobb in the complaint.
Quoting the article itself, Cobb argued BuzzFeed admitted it had no idea if any of the dossier was true and noted that eight follow-up articles each link back to the original publication. The dossier asserts that XBT and its affiliates used botnets and porn to transmit viruses, steal data and conduct "altering operations" against the leaders of the Democratic party. Gubarev said no one contacted him to verify the claims prior to publishing the article.
The suit claims that not only has the story hurt the company's reputation, it's put Gubarev and his family in harm's way.
"Aleksej Gubarev, who is married with three young children is not, in any way, shape, or form, a public figure," wrote Cobb. "As a result of BuzzFeed and Mr. Smith’s reckless publication of defamatory materials, he has found his personal and professional reputation in tatters. His wife has found herself a target of online harassment and the family’s personal security has been compromised."
That argument is meaningful because, if Gubarev were a public figure, he would have to prove BuzzFeed acted with "actual malice" to succeed on his defamation claim. It's a high bar that requires proof that the outlet either knew the statements were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth — but, if the court agrees he's a private citizen, Gubarev won't face that uphill battle.
Gubarev is suing for defamation and defamation per se and is seeking at least $15,000 in damages.
BuzzFeed issued a statement in response to the lawsuit Friday afternoon: “We have redacted Mr. Gubarev's name from the published dossier, and apologize for including it.”