If it hadn’t been so terribly sad, the Alex Jones libel trial might have been cathartic.
Mr. Jones, the conspiracy theorist who launches supplements, has been ordered to pay more than $45 million in damages to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of a 6-year-old boy who was killed in the 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. in Newtown, Conn. The jury’s verdict came after Mr. Jones was found liable for defaming Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis, whom he falsely accused for years of being crisis actors in a “false flag” operation hatched by government.
For the victims of Mr. Jones’s harassment campaigns, and for those who have followed his career for years, the verdict felt overdue: a notorious Internet villain is finally facing real consequences for his actions. The families of the children killed at Sandy Hook, many of whom have waited years to see Mr. Jones pay for his lies, are no doubt relieved.
But before we celebrate Mr. Jones’s comeuppance, we must acknowledge that the verdict against him is unlikely to dent the phenomenon he represents: belligerent fabulists who build profitable media empires on easily refuted lies.
Jones’s megaphone has dwindled in recent years, thanks in part to decisions by tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter to bar him from their services. But its reach is still substantial and it has more influence than you think.
Court records showed that Mr. Jones’s Infowars store, which sells dubious performance-enhancing supplements and survival gear, made more than $165 million between 2015 and 2018. Despite his removal from platforms, Mr. Jones still appears as a guest on popular podcasts and YouTube shows, and millions of Americans still watch it, if not as a reliable chronicler of current events, then at least as wacky fun. (And a rich one: An expert witness at trial estimated the net worth of Mr. Jones and Free Speech Systems, his holding company, at somewhere between $135 million and $270 million.)
In the coming weeks, Mr. Jones, a master of martyrdom, will no doubt turn his courtroom defeat into hours of entertaining content, all of which will generate more attention, more subscribers, more money.
But a bigger reason for caution is that, whether Mr. Jones continues to enrich himself personally from his lies or not, his gimmick is everywhere these days.
You can see and hear Mr. Jones’ influence on Capitol Hill, where attention-grabbing Republican politicians often sound like they’re auditioning for spots on Infowars. When Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, suggests a mass shooting could have been staged to persuade Republicans to support gun control measures, as she did in a facebook post about the 4th of July shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, is playing hits from Mr. Jones’s back catalogue. Mr. Jones also played a role in fueling the January 6, 2021 attack on Capitol Hill, in ways we are still learning about. (The House panel investigating the insurrection has requested a copy of text messages from Mr. Jones’s phone that were mistakenly sent to attorneys representing the plaintiffs in their defamation case.)
You can also see the influence of Mr. Jones in the right-wing media. When Tucker Carlson stokes nativist fears on his Fox News show, or when a Newsmax anchor spins a weird conspiracy theory about an attempt by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to kill Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is proof that Infowars DNA has entered the conservative bloodstream.
Even outside of politics, Jones’ wrathful, wide-eyed style has influenced the way a new generation of conspiracy theorists seek fame online.
Not all of these creators rant about homosexual leprechauns and frogs, as Mr. Jones has. But they are drawing from the same fact-free playbook. Some of them focus on softer topics, like eccentric wellness influencers who recently went viral for suggesting that Lyme disease is a “gift” caused by matter from intergalactic space, or as Shane Dawson, a popular YouTube creator who has amassed hundreds of millions of views with conspiracy theory documentaries in which he credulously examines claims like “Chuck E. Cheese reuses uneaten pizza” and “Wildfires are caused by directed energy weapons.”
Certain elements of leftist and centrist discourse also owe Jones a debt. The “Red Scare” podcast, which is popular with an anti-establishment “post-left” crowd, has interviewed Jones and he shares some overlapping interests. Much of the insane coverage and analysis of the legal battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, which dominated social media this summer, had a Jonesish tint. Even Joe Rogan, the popular podcast host (who has hosted Mr. Jones on his show and defended him as “hilarious” and “entertaining”), has borrowed some of the Infowars founder’s connect-the-dots paranoia by arguing, for example, that covid-19 vaccines can alter your genes.
It would be too simple to blame (or give credit) to Mr. Jones for inspiring all the modern wacko. But it’s safe to say that many of today’s top conspiracy theorists have found the same profitable sweet spot of lies and entertainment value. We’ve also likely become desensitized to conspiracy theories, and many of the outrageous falsehoods that once got Mr. Jones in trouble, like the allegations about the Sandy Hook parents that were at the center of his trial for defamation, they would sound less shocking. if it is pronounced today.
Other conspiracy theorists are less likely than Jones to end up in court, in part because they have learned from their mistakes. Instead of directly accusing the families of the mass shooting victims of making it all up, they take a naive “just asking questions” stance as they delve into the official narrative. When attacking an enemy, they tiptoe to the line of smear, being careful not to do anything that could be sued or banned from social media. And when they lead harassment campaigns, they choose their targets wisely, often smearing public figures rather than private citizens, giving them broader First Amendment speech protections.
That’s not to say there won’t be any more trials or attempts to hold conspiracy theorists accountable. Fox News, meanwhile, 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 the exceptions, not the rule. The truth is, today’s media ecosystem is teeming 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 even should try to stop them.
Social media companies can help curb the spread of harmful lies by making it harder for fabulists to amass large audiences. But they have their own limitations, including the simple fact that conspiracy theorists have become more sophisticated at getting around their rules. If you draw a line by claiming that Bigfoot is real, attention-seeking crackpots will simply get their millions of views by claiming that Bigfoot maybe be real and that its audiences would do well to do their own research to find out what Bigfoot-related secrets the deep state cabal is hiding.
To this new, more subtle generation of propagandists and reactionaries, Mr. Jones is an inspiration who has risen to the highest peaks of the profession. But it’s also a cautionary tale: what can happen when you cross too many lines, tell too many easily refutable lies, and refuse to back down.
Mr. Jones is not done facing the music. Two more lawsuits filed against him by members of the Sandy Hook family are still pending, and he could end up owing millions more in damages.
But, even if Mr. Jones’s career is ruined, his legacy of blatant and unrepentant dishonesty will live on, strengthened, in some way, by the knowledge of how far a lie can take before the consequences kick in.