If it weren’t so excruciatingly tragic, Alex Jones’ defamation suit could have been cathartic.
Mr Jones, the supplement-sling conspiracy theorist, was ordered to pay more than $45 million in damages to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, parents of a 6-year-old who had been admitted to Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. He was murdered in a mass shooting. In Newtown, Conn. The jury’s ruling came after Mr Jones was found liable for defaming Mr Heslin and Ms Lewis, who for years they had falsely accused of being distressed actors in a government-conspired “false flag” operation.
For the victims of Mr Jones’ harassment campaigns, and for those who have followed his career over the years, the verdict felt long overdue – with a notorious internet villain finally facing real consequences for his actions. is falling The families of the children killed at Sandy Hook, many of whom have waited years for Mr Jones to pay for their lies, are undoubtedly relieved.
But before we celebrate Mr. Jones’ arrival, we must admit that the verdict against him is unlikely to make much of a dent in the phenomenon he represents: belligerent fabulists with easily unacceptable lies in profitable media. Building an empire.
Mr Jones’ megaphone has shrunk in recent years – thanks, in part, to decisions by tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter to ban him from their services. But his reach is still substantial, and he has more influence than you might imagine.
Court records showed Mr Jones’ InfoWars store, which sells questionable performance-enhancing supplements and survival gear, made more than $165 million from 2015 to 2018. Despite his deplatforming, Mr Jones still appears as a guest. popular podcasts And YouTube shows, and millions of Americans still see him as at least a wacky turning point, if not credible historians of current events. (And a wealthy man—an expert witness in the trial—estimated that Mr. Jones and Free Speech Systems, his holding company, owe somewhere between $135 million and $270 million.)
In the coming weeks, Mr Jones – the maestro of martyrdom – will undoubtedly turn his court defeat into hours of amusing content, all of which will generate more attention, more subscribers, more money.
But there is a great deal of caution given that whether or not Mr. Jones is personally enriched by his lies, his sobriety is everywhere these days.
You can see and hear Mr Jones’ influence on Capitol Hill, where attention-seeking Republican politicians often look like they’re auditioning for slots on Infowars. When Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia suggested that a mass shooting could be conducted to persuade Republicans to support gun-control measures, as she did in a facebook post Highland Park, Ill. In about the 4th of July shoot, she’s playing hits from Mr. Jones’ back catalogue. Mr Jones also played a role in promoting the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, a way we are still learning. (The House panel probing the rebellion has asked for a copy of the text messages from Mr Jones’ phone that were mistakenly sent to lawyers representing the plaintiffs in his defamation case.)
You can also see Mr Jones’ influence in the right-wing media. When Tucker Carlson does a spin on his Fox News show or when a Newsmax host spins, the fear of the countrymen is stirred. bizarre conspiracy theory Regarding House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to kill Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, it’s proof that Infowars’ DNA has entered the conservative bloodstream.
Even outside politics, Mr Jones’ bubbly, wide-eyed style has influenced the way a new generation of conspiracy theorists seek fame online.
Not all of these creators boast about goblins and gay frogs, as Mr. Jones does. But they are pulling from the same fact-free playbook. Some of them focus on a softer subject – like kooky wellness influencer Joe recently went viral To suggest that Lyme disease is a “gift” caused by intergalactic space matter, or, like Shane Dawson, a popular YouTube creator who has racked up hundreds of millions of views with conspiracy theory documentaries in which he calls “Chuck E. Cheese.” Reuses pizza without eating” and “Wildfire is caused by directed energy weapons.”
Some elements of left-wing and centrist discourse are also indebted to Mr. Jones. The “Red Scare” podcast, popular with an anti-establishment “post-left” crowd, has interviewed Mr Jones and shares some overlapping interests. Much of the unaltered coverage and analysis of the legal battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard that swept social media this summer had a Jonesian color. Even Joe Rogan, the popular podcast host (who has and is hosting Mr. Jones on his show) defended him “hilarious” and “entertaining”), has borrowed some of the Infowars founder’s connect-the-dots paranoia into the debate, for example, that COVID-19 vaccines can change your genes.
It would be too easy to blame (or credit) Mr. Jones for inspiring the entire modern crankosphere. 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 possible that we have become insensitive to conspiracy theories, and the many outrageous lies that once got Mr. Jones in trouble – such as the allegations about the Sandy Hook parents that are at the center of his defamation lawsuit. Were in – would seem less shocking if called today.
Other conspiracy theorists are less likely to end up in court than Mr Jones, partly because he has learned from his mistakes. Instead of directly accusing the families of the victims of the mass shootings of all this, they adopt a naive, “just ask questions” stance, piercing the official narrative. When attacking the enemy, they go straight toe to the extent of defamation, being careful not to do anything that could lead to them being prosecuted or banned from social media. And when they lead harassment campaigns, they choose their targets wisely – often vilifying public figures rather than private citizens, which gives them broad speech protections under the First Amendment.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be more trials, or efforts to hold conspiracy theorists accountable. Fox News, for one, is facing a defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems, which claims the network intentionally made false statements about voter fraud in the 2020 election.
But these cases are the exception, not the rule. The truth is that today’s media ecosystem is full of Infowars-style conspiracy theories — from History Channel shows about ancient aliens building the Egyptian pyramids to TikTok created by yoga moms who think That Wayfair is selling trafficked children – and it’s unclear whether our legal system can, or should even attempt to stop them.
Social media companies can help stop the spread of harmful lies by making it harder for fabulists to gather huge audiences. But they have their limitations, including the simple fact that conspiracy theorists have gotten more sophisticated about escaping their rules. If you draw a line for claiming that Bigfoot is real, attention-grabbing cranks will get their millions of views by submitting Bigfoot might Get real and his audience would be wise to do their own research to find out what secrets relating to Bigfoot are hiding deep kingdom cabal.
To this new, more nuanced generation of campaigners and reactionaries, Mr Jones is an inspiration to have climbed to the highest peaks of the profession. But he’s also a cautionary tale – what can happen when you cross too many lines, tell too many easily unacceptable lies and refuse to back down.
Mr Jones hasn’t faced music. Two more lawsuits brought against him by members of the Sandy Hook family are still pending, and he could face millions more in damages.
But, even if Mr. Jones’ career is doomed, his legacy of shameless, unrepentant dishonesty will live on – in some ways, reinforced by the knowledge of how far you can push a lie before the results come.