If it wasn’t so heartbreaking, Alex Jones’ defamation trial might have been a panacea.
Complementary conspiracy theorist Mr. Jones has been ordered to pay more than $45 million in damages to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, parents of a 6-year-old boy killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a jury ruling came after That Mr. Jones was found responsible for defaming Mr. Heslin and Mrs. Lewis, whom he had falsely accused for years of being crisis actors in the government’s planned “pseudo-science” operation.
For the victims of Mr Jones’ harassment campaigns, and those who followed his career for years, it felt like a long overdue verdict – a notorious internet villain finally facing real consequences for his actions. The families of the children killed at Sandy Hook, many of whom waited years to see Mr. Jones pay for his lies, are undoubtedly relieved.
But before we celebrate Mr. Jones’ punishment, we must admit that his sentencing is unlikely to overshadow the phenomenon he represents: warring superstitions building lucrative media empires with easily refuted lies.
Jones’s megaphone has shrunk in recent years – thanks in part to decisions by tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter to ban it from their services. But its reach is still huge, and it has more impact than you think.
Court records show that Mr. Jones’s Infowars store, which sells shady performance-enhancing supplements and survival gear, made more than $165 million from 2015 to 2018. Despite his dismay, Mr. Jones still appeared as a guest at popular podcast and YouTube shows, still viewed by millions of Americans as, if not a reliable chronicler of current events, at least a strange diversion. (And a wealthy person—an expert witness at the trial estimated the net worth of Mr. Jones and Free Speech Systems, his holding company, to be between $135 million and $270 million.)
In the coming weeks, Mr. Jones – the martyrdom maestro – will undoubtedly turn his defeat in court into hours of entertainment content, all of which will bring more attention, more subscribers, and more money.
But the greater reason for caution is that whether Mr. Jones remains personally rich in his lies or not, his manner of speaking is ubiquitous these days.
You can see and hear Mr. Jones’ influence on Capitol Hill, where attention-seeking Republican politicians often seem to run tests on sites at Infowars. When Representative Marjorie Taylor Green, Georgian Republican, suggested a mass shooting could have been orchestrated to persuade Republicans to support gun control measures, as she did in Facebook share About the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, she plays songs from Mr. Jones’ back catalog. Jones also played a role in fueling the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, in ways we are still learning about. (The House committee investigating the rebellion requested a copy of text messages from Jones’ phone that were mistakenly sent to attorneys representing plaintiffs in the defamation case.)
You can also see Mr. Jones’ influence in the right-wing media. When Tucker Carlson raises concerns about patriotic followers on his Fox News show, or when the Newsmax host spins… Strange conspiracy theory About House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s attempted murder of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, it’s evidence that Infowars’ DNA entered the conservative bloodstream.
Even outside of politics, Mr. Jones’ choleric and sweeping style has influenced the way a new generation of conspiracy theorists search for fame online.
These creators are not all talking about gay imps and frogs, as Mr. Jones did. But they pull from the same fact-free rules of the game. Some of them focus on a softer topic – like entry-level health influencers who It recently spread To suggest that Lyme disease is a “gift” caused by intergalactic space matter, or as Shane Dawson, a popular YouTube creator who has garnered hundreds of millions of views through conspiracy theory documentaries examining claims like “Chuck E. Cheese reuses” Uneaten pizza” and “Massive fires caused by directed energy weapons.”
Certain elements of left and center rhetoric also owe to Mr. Jones. The “Red Scare” podcast, popular with the “post-left” anti-establishment crowd, interviewed Mr. Jones and shared some of his overlapping interests. Much of the uninterrupted coverage and analysis of the legal battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, which dominated social media this summer, has been Jones-tinted. Even Joe Rogan, the popular podcast host (who hosted Mr. Jones on his show and did a job defend him As “fun” and “entertaining”), I borrowed some of the Infowars founder’s paranoia in arguing, for example, that Covid-19 vaccines could alter your genes.
It would be all too easy to blame (or credit) Mr. Jones for inspiring the entire modern crankcase. But it is safe to say that many of today’s leading conspiracy theorists have found the same lucrative niche of lies and entertainment value. It’s also possible that we’ve become insensitive to conspiracy theories, and that many of the outrageous lies that once got Jones into trouble—like the allegations about Sandy Hook’s parents who were at the center of his libel trial—would sound less shocking if he said them today.
And other conspiracy theorists are less likely to end up in court than Mr. Jones is, in part because they learned from his mistakes. Instead of outright accusing the families of mass shooting victims of making up the matter, they adopt a naive attitude, “just asking questions” while poking holes in the official narrative. When attacking an enemy, they tiptoe to the line of slander, being careful not to do anything that might lead to them being sued or banned from using social media. And when they lead harassment campaigns, they choose their targets wisely—often offending public figures rather than private citizens, giving them broader protections for speech under the First Amendment.
This does not mean that there will be no more lawsuits, or attempts to hold conspiracy theorists to account. Fox News, for example, is facing a defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems, which alleges that the network knowingly made false statements about voter fraud in the 2020 election.
But these cases are the exceptions, not the rule. The truth is that today’s media ecosystem is awash with Infowars-style conspiracy theories — from History Channel shows about ancient aliens building the Egyptian pyramids to TikToks made by yoga moms who believe Wayfair sells trafficked children — and it’s not clear if our system A legal person is able to do so. Or even try to stop them.
Social media companies can help curb the spread of harmful lies by making it difficult for superstitious people to build huge audiences. But they have their own limitations, including the simple fact that conspiracy theorists are getting more sophisticated at evading their rules. If you draw a line in claiming that Bigfoot is real, attention seekers will simply get millions of views by assuming that Bigfoot is may be To be real and that their audience would be wise to do their own research to find out the Bigfoot related secrets that the deep state gang is hiding.
For this new, smarter generation of preachers and reactionaries, Mr. Jones is an inspiration who ascended the heights of the profession. But it’s also a cautionary tale – of what can happen when you skip so many lines, tell so many lies so easily and refute them, and refuse to back down.
Mr. Jones hasn’t finished facing the music. Two additional lawsuits against him by Sandy Hook family members are still pending, and he could end up owing millions more in damages.
But, even if Mr. Jones’ career is wrecked, his legacy of shameless and unrepentant lying will endure–and reinforced, in some ways, by knowing exactly how far you can push a lie before the consequences begin.