Precious metals salesman Ted Anderson was hoping to start some business for his gold and silver dealership when he started a radio network from a suburb of Minneapolis a few decades ago. Soon after, he signed a young radio host named Alex Jones.
Together, they shaped today’s misinformation economy.
The duo built a lucrative operation out of a complex system of promotions from niche advertisers, fundraising drives and media subscriptions, dietary supplements and existentialist merchandise. Mr Jones became a conspiracy theory heavyweight, while Mr Anderson’s company, the Genesis Communications Network, flourished. His money-making blueprint was reproduced by several other misinformation peddlers.
Mr Jones eventually withdrew from his reliance on Genesis, as he expanded beyond radio and attracted a huge following online. Yet they were bound together again in a lawsuit that accused them of fanning a fake narrative about the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Mr Jones was found liable by default in those cases. Last month, plaintiffs’ attorneys removed Origin as the defendant. Christopher Mattei, one of the lawyers, said in a statement that Genesis’ involvement in the trial would have distracted from the main target: Mr Jones and his media organisation.
The move freed Genesis, which says on its website that it has “established itself as the largest independently owned and operated talk radio network in the country,” from the most likely penalty of Mr Jones. But the cases, soon before a jury to determine damages, continue to shed light on the economics that help drive misleading and false claims across the media landscape.
The spread of lies and misleading content, especially in this fall’s midterm election, is often blamed on credible audiences and a wide partisan divide. Misinformation can be extremely profitable not only for boldface names like Mr Jones, but also for companies that host websites, show ads or syndicate content in the background.
“Misinformation exists for ideological reasons, but there is always a link to the very same commercial interests – they always find each other,” said Hilde van den Bulk, a media professor at Drexel University who studied Mr Jones. “It’s a small world full of networks of people who find ways to help each other.”
Mr Jones and Mr Anderson did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
He has said that Genesis began as a marketing ploy in the late 1990s to operate “hand-in-hand” with Midas Resources, Mr. Anderson’s bullion business. He told media watchdog FAIR in 2011: “Midas Resources needs customers, Genesis Communications Network needs sponsors.”
Alex Jones and his doom and gloom worldview fit neatly into the equation.
Genesis began to syndicate around the time Mr Jones was fired by an Austin station in 1999, the host said this year on Infowars, a website she operates. It was a complementary, if sometimes jarring partnership – “like a marriage made in hell,” said Ms van den Bulk.
Archived footage shows Mr Jones, prone to fraud and pontificate, broadcasting grim claims about the inevitable demise of the dollar before presenting Mr Anderson extended to safe haven metals like gold. To deliver pitches. At times, Mr Jones would interrupt pitches with rants, such as in 2013 when he shouted “racist” at Mr Anderson by biting him more than 20 times in 30 seconds.
Genesis’ roster also includes a gay comedian; a former attorney for the ACLU; Hollywood actor Stephen Baldwin; long-running psychologist Dr. Joy Brown; a home improvement specialist known as a “Cajun contractor”; And a bunch of self-described “normal people with common ideas” talking about sports.
But eventually, the network developed a reputation for certain types of programming, promoted its “conspiracy” content on its website, and told MinnePost in 2011 that its advertisers “are experts in preparation and survival.”
Many of the shows were led by firearms fans. There was a Christian rocker who opposed gay rights and a politician who embraced unfounded theories about crisis actors and President Obama’s nationality. One program promoted lessons on how to “store food, learn the importance of precious metals, or even survive a gunfight.” Jason Lewis, a Republican politician in Minnesota who suffered a setback after his inaccurate on-air comments surfaced again during the 2018 election season, had a syndication deal with Genesis and a campaign office at Genesis’ address.
The relationship between Mr. Jones and Genesis began to loosen up nearly a decade ago, when Mr. Jones struck a deal with Genesis to handle only a third of its syndication deals. About 30 stations now include Mr. Jones, according to a review by Dan Frisson, one of the hosts of the podcast Knowledge Fight, which he and a friend of his created to analyze and chronicle Mr. Jones’ career. More than a third of them sent them off late at night and early morning. Many stations replaced Mr Jones with conservative hosts such as Sean Hannity or Dan Bongino.
Mr Jones’ relationship with Mr Anderson has been on a decline since 2015, when the Minnesota Department of Commerce shut down Midas. The agency described Midas and Mr. Anderson as “incompetent” and ordered the company to pay compensation to customers after “regularly misappropriated funds”.
Now, the Midas website redirects to a multilevel marketing company that sells the same supplements that populate Genesis’ online shop. The founder of the supplement company has a show syndicated by Genesis and has also appeared on Mr. Jones’ show.
But Mr Jones has his own business that sells Infowars-branded supplements as well as products like Infowars masks with bumper stickers declaring Covid-19 a hoax. One of his lawyers estimated that the conspiracy theorist made $56 million in revenue last year.
“The inability to have that kind of symbiotic relationship between the gold sales on the radio allies really hurt their association,” Frisson said of Mr Jones and his former beneficiary. “At the time, Alex needed a little more to diversify how he was funding things, and Ted took a back seat.”
But in 2018, the families of several Sandy Hook victims sued Jones and also named Genesis as a defendant. Lawyers for the families cited Mr Anderson’s frequent appearances on Mr Jones’ show and said that Mr Jones’ distribution of Genesis helped his lies reach “millions, if not millions.”
Mr Jones, Genesis and the other defendants “fabricated conspiracy theories containing elaborate and false paranoia because it moves the product and they make money,” the lawyers wrote.
After the lawsuit was filed, both Genesis and Mr Jones were dismissed for liability claims coverage by West Bend Mutual Insurance, which began working with Genesis in 2012, according to court documents. After being removed as a defendant, Genesis continues to solicit donations online, saying that its “freedom of speech is in limbo.”
Litigation reflects an increasingly prominent role of lawsuits against those accused of spreading false and misleading information. In 2020, Fox News struck a multimillion-dollar settlement with the parents of Seth Rich, a Democratic aide who was murdered, whose death was falsely linked by the network to an email leak before the 2016 presidential election. .
Smartmatic and Dominion sued Fox News and other conservative outlets and figures last year after election technology companies were targeted by unsupported claims about voting fraud and are seeking billions of dollars in damages. When Smartmatic and Dominion were still threatening legal action, many of them shops Broadcast segments that attempted to clarify or debunk conspiracy theories about voting system companies.
Rachel E. Moran said, “It seems like, for the first time in a long time, there’s a very concrete path to actually holding people accountable for the harm they’ve caused and the way they’re taking advantage of that loss. ” , a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Informed Public at the University of Washington.
Genesis told the court in a filing last year that it was charged only with being a “distributor of radio programs — the Radioland equivalent of Paperboy — not an author, not a publisher, not a broadcaster.” The filing argued that the company “does not have the mind; it does not have the memory; it cannot make up the intent.”
Lawyers for the families responded that the network “should be treated like a newspaper or a book publisher” with a high level of awareness of the “deceitful narrative that Genesis has repeatedly circulated over many years”.