A US yogurt company is taking a stand against fake news—and it’s personal.
Chobani, the company that in short order upended the supermarket dairy aisle by proving that Americans would love Greek yogurt, this week filed a lawsuit against the right-wing website Infowars in Idaho. The lawsuit is seeking punitive damages and at least $10,000 in attorney fees from a series of conspiracy theories and fake news linking the company to a sexual-assault investigation in Twin Falls.
The case is especially personal for Chobani’s founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, who himself immigrated to the US from Turkey before launching the yogurt brand that transformed him into a billionaire. Ulukaya was blindsided in June 2016, when right-wing media sites attacked him for hiring resettled refugees (and not US citizens) to work in his Chobani plant in Twin Falls.
The story quickly became nasty. At first, headlines accused Chobani of “choking the US with Muslims,” but matters got worse when Infowars—which is run by the outlandish and controversial Alex Jones—published a blog post falsely linking the yogurt company to a local police investigation in which three underaged boys were charged with assaulting a five-year-old girl in a Twin Falls apartment complex, according to the Idaho Statesman.
The case drew national attention because the three young boys were the children of refugees. Still, specific details remained a mystery because the court file was sealed from public view—which is common in cases involving children. It is unclear if the families of those children accused in the sexual assault were actually Chobani employees.
Infowars published conspiracies that the boys—one of whom was seven years old—were actually fully-grown Syrian men who attacked and raped the young girl at knifepoint. But there was no rape and no knife, police have confirmed.
Still, the story spread across social media and to other similar alt-right sites, such as Breitbart News. Infowars fueled this with outlandish, factually inaccurate headlines: “Idaho yogurt maker caught importing migrant rapists.” “Allegations that Chobani’s practice of hiring refugees brought crime and tuberculosis to Twin Falls.”
The stories netted Chobani a lot of flack from people who took the Infowars stories to heart. The company asked Infowars to remove the stories, but the site never responded to those requests. Now the company is looking to defend itself, and officially demand a court hold the site responsible for the consequences of its fabrications.
This wouldn’t be the first time in recent history that a right-wing site or personality published a conspiracy theory that wreaked havoc on a food company. In October 2016, a false story that a Washington, DC pizza restaurant was the center of a child-sex ring that was known by Hillary Clinton’s staffer John Podesta dubbed Pizzagate. That story hit a crescendo in December, when a man who was duped by the story drove to Washington with a rifle to “self-investigate” the matter—and fired three shots in the restaurant.