If it weren’t so sad, the Alex Jones defamation trial might be cathartic.
Mr. Jones, the supplement conspiracy theorist, was ordered to pay more than $45 million in damages to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of a 6-year-old child murdered in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. in Newtown, Conn. The jury’s verdict came after Mr Jones was found liable for defamation of Mr Heslin and Mr Lewis, whom he falsely accused for years of being crisis activists in a “false flag” operation plotted by the government.
For victims of Mr Jones’ campaign of harassment, and for those who have followed his career for years, the verdict felt long overdue – a notorious internet villain finally facing real consequences for his actions. There is no doubt that the families of the children killed at Sandy Hook, many of whom have waited years to see him pay for his lies, are relieved.
But before we celebrate the arrival of Mr. Jones, we should acknowledge that the verdict against him is unlikely to add much of a dent to the phenomenon he represents: belligerent fabulists building profitable media empires with easily detectable lies.
Mr. Jones’ megaphone has waned in recent years — thanks, in part, to decisions by tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter to ban him from their services. But its reach is still significant, and it has more impact than you might think.
Court records showed that Mr. Jones’ Infowars store, which sells dubious performance-enhancing supplements and survival gear, made more than $165 million from 2015 to 2018. Despite his cancellation, Mr. Jones continues to appear as a guest on Popular podcasts and YouTube shows, while millions of Americans still watch it as, if not a reliable chronicler of current events, at least a wacky diversion. (And a rich man – an expert witness at trial estimated the net worth of Mr. Jones and Free Speech Systems, his holding company, at between $135 million and $270 million.)
In the coming weeks, Mr. Jones – master of martyrdom – will no doubt turn his victory in court into hours of entertaining content, which will generate more attention, more subscribers, more money.
But all the more reason to be careful is that, whether Mr. Jones is personally enriched by his lies or not, his shtick is everywhere these days.
You can see and hear Mr. Jones’ influence on Capitol Hill, where attention-seeking Republican politicians often hear that they are auditioning for a slot on Infowars. When Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, suggests that a mass shooting could be organized to persuade Republicans to support gun control measures, as she did in the case of her mass shooting. Facebook post at the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, Ill., she is playing hits from Mr. Jones’ back catalog. Mr. Jones also played a role in instigating an attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in ways we are still learning about. (The House panel investigating the rebellion has requested a copy of the text messages from Mr. Jones’ phone that were mistakenly sent to the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in his defamation case.)
You can see the influence of Mr. Jones in the right wing media as well. When Tucker Carlson terrorizes the nationalists on his Fox News show, or when the Newsmax host turns his strange conspiracy theory House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to kill Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is proof that Infowars’ DNA has entered the conservative bloodstream.
Even outside of politics, Mr Jones’ choleric style has influenced the way a new generation of conspiracy theorists seek fame online.
Not all these creators rant about goblins and gay frogs, as Mr. Jones has. But they’re pulling from the same fact-free playbook. Some focus on softer stuff – like the health influencers recently went viral suggesting that Lyme disease is a “gift” from interstellar space matter, or like Shane Dawson, a popular YouTube creator whose conspiracy theory documentaries in which he credibly examines claims have garnered hundreds of millions of views such as “Chuck E. Recycles uneaten pizza cheese” and “Directed energy weapon causes wildfires.”
Mr. Jones also owes certain aspects of left-wing and center-wing discourse. Mr. Jones was interviewed by the “Red Scare” podcast, popular with an anti-establishment “ex-left” crowd, and has some overlapping interests. Much of the coverage and unabashed analysis of the legal battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, which dominated social media this summer, had a Jonesian tinge to it. Even popular podcast host Joe Rogan (who hosted Mr. Jones on his show and he defended as “funny” and “entertaining”), some of the Infowars founder’s connect-the-dots paranoia has been borrowed when he argues, for example, that Covid-19 vaccines can change your genes.
It would be too simplistic to blame (or credit) Mr Jones for inspiring the whole modern corker. But it’s safe to say that many of today’s leading conspiracy theorists have found the same profitable sweet spot of lies and entertainment value. It is also likely that we are desensitized to conspiracy theories, and many of the outrageous lies that have landed Mr. Jones in trouble – such as the allegations about the parents of Sandy Hook being at the center – would be less shocking. a defamation trial. if it is said today.
Other conspiracy theorists are less likely to end up in court than Mr Jones, in part because they have learned from his mistakes. Instead of directly accusing the families of mass shooting victims of making it up, they take a naive, “just asking questions” posture while poking holes in the official story. When they attack an enemy, they step up to the defamation line, being careful not to do anything that could get them sued or banned from social media. And when they do lead harassment campaigns, they choose their targets wisely — often targeting public figures rather than private citizens, giving them broader First Amendment speech protections.
That’s not to say that there won’t be more lawsuits, or efforts to hold conspiracy theorists accountable. Fox News, for one, is facing a defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems, which claims the network knowingly made false statements about voter fraud in the 2020 election.
But these cases are exceptions, not the rule. The truth is that today’s media ecosystem is overflowing with Infowars-style conspiracy theories—from History Channel shows about ancient aliens building the Egyptian pyramids to TikToks made by yoga moms who think Wayfair is selling trafficked children. – and it is not clear that our legal system can, or should even try to stop them.
Social media companies can help curb the spread of harmful lies by making it more difficult for fabricators to gather a large audience. But they have their own limitations, including the simple fact that conspiracy theorists are more sophisticated in circumventing their rules. If you draw a line at claiming that Bigfoot is real, the attention-seeking bums will only get millions of views just to point Bigfoot to that fact. could to be true and that his audience would be wise to do their own research to find out what secrets Bigfoot has that the deep-state cabal is hiding.
Mr. Jones is an inspiration who has risen to the highest heights in the profession with this new, more subtle generation of propagandists and reactionaries. But it’s also a cautionary tale – what can happen when you cross too many lines, tell too many damnable lies and refuse to back down.
Mr Jones is not done facing the music. Two other lawsuits brought against him by family members of Sandy Hook are still pending, and he could be owed millions more in damages.
But, even if Mr. Jones’s career is ruined, his legacy of urgent and unrepentant dishonesty will live on – strengthened, in some ways, by the knowledge of how far you can push a lie before consequences begin.