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Special Project

Special Project
From the 7th Annual Shorty Impact Awards

Lies and the Law

Entered in Civic Engagement


Concern over the role that lies and deception play in public life in the United States has reached new heights. Lies and conspiracy theories — from former president Trump’s “Big Lie” to misinformation about COVID-19 — zip around social media platforms, while fact-checking and other efforts to minimize their spread appear to rarely dent their power. Increasingly, they threaten our democracy and civic lives while raising concerning questions about our collective identity, the limits of human reason, and the freedom of speech. What can we do about lies in the public sphere? What can the law do about it? Are there cures here that would not be worse than the disease?

Spearheaded by Sr. Visiting Scholar and University of Chicago Law Professor Genevieve Lakier, the Knight First Amendment Institute’s “Lies and the Law” project explored these and other related questions through a series of public conversations, blog posts, illustrations, animations, long-form essays, and a day-long symposium at Columbia University that reached audiences in-person and online. The project sought to broaden the public conversation away from a now familiar focus on Big Tech and its role in the spread of lies and misinformation to ask more questions about how lies relate to our own civic lives and experiences on- and offline. Featuring prominent legal scholars, historians, journalists, and practitioners, “Lies and the Law” offered expert and non-expert audiences alike the opportunity to reflect on and participate in this urgent public conversation. 

Strategy and Execution

From livestreamed public conversations and animated promotional content to publications and table-setting videos, the “Lies and the Law'' project used diverse multimedia to educate and engage different audiences. The project challenged everyone from experts to students to think deeply about what a lie really is, and how much of a threat lies pose to the democratic order.

Over the course of the 2021-22 academic year, the Knight Institute held five roundtable conversations: “Lies and Democracy”; “Lies and Elections”; “Lies and the Press”; “Government Lies”; and “Lies and Counterspeech”. These roundtables featured prominent scholars and practitioners in First Amendment law and policy, including professors, journalists, and privacy attorneys discussing topics ranging from Trump’s election lies to revenge porn online. Panelists also wrote blog posts contemplating various aspects of lies and free speech, which the Institute posted on its website, shared on Twitter, and later published as a collection.

We put special emphasis on engaging different audiences at the same time, building a conversation between experts and the larger public across different formats and platforms. Short-form blog posts written by panelists, for example, engaged people who may not regularly read legal journals, while the animations and art engaged visual thinkers and social media users who may not regularly attend university-based roundtable discussions. This challenge was intensified by the pandemic, which required us to adapt to different event formats. Each roundtable was livestreamed via YouTube, and when health restrictions allowed, roundtables were hybridized in-person events with some panelists and audience members participating over Zoom. Roundtable moderators took questions from both in-person and online participants.

The project culminated in a day-long symposium held at Columbia Law School, attended by legal scholars from around the country as well as members of the Columbia University community. [Due to university COVID restrictions, the broader public could only attend virtually.] 

The project was accompanied by art created by Piotr Szyhalski. Drawing on the visual language of agitprop and historical propaganda, Szyhalski created a series of black-and-white posters visualizing the project’s major questions, asking where we draw the line between truth and lies. These pieces were also transformed into animated videos and shared on social media to promote and introduce each roundtable conversation. To situate the work in a larger political context, the Institute also produced an artist profile video in which Szyhalski discusses his process.

Through art and video, we extend the civic impact of the “Lies and the Law” project across disciplines and beyond traditional academic spheres. Since lies and misinformation often spread through audiovisual content online, we show through this project how civic engagement can take place through these forms as well. By appealing to social media’s audiovisual affordances, this project joins other voices and efforts that seek to strengthen the health of our information ecosystems. As legislative and educational proposals on how to deal with issues of dis/misinformation arise across the country, we want this project’s products — textual and visual, academic and artistic — to inform the conversation around these important issues going forward.


The project’s live events were attended by over 1,700 people, and received over 4,400 views on YouTube. The roundtable animations based on art created by Piotr Szyhalski were viewed more than 26,000 times on Twitter, demonstrating the importance of visual art as a mode of engagement. Across the Knight Institute’s website, the project’s blog posts and event pages received over 17,000 hits. Audience engagement with the project across multiple platforms, in several instances, exceeded that of previous year-long Knight Institute projects.

We measure this project’s success not only through engagement and reach, but also through the depth of engagement by panelists and audience members. Viewers asked questions about the importance of media literacy in preventing the spread of lies, while panelists authored blog posts exploring topics ranging from racial politics in First Amendment law to regulating the publication of revenge porn.

The panelists ultimately concluded that, in addition to potential legal remedies, social and institutional change (that often starts with and includes the larger public) is essential in addressing the spread of harmful lies. This conclusion demonstrates the necessity of the larger public being part of the conversation and reinforces the impact of our multi-platform engagement efforts. Overall, “Lies and the Law” carries out a unique form of civic engagement, prompting us to reflect on our social and political behaviors in the context of a changing speech environment and remain committed to upholding a healthy information ecosystem around us. 


Video for Lies and the Law

Entrant Company / Organization Name

Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University


Entry Credits