Links between Alex Jones and Radio Network Show Economics of disinformation

Ted Anderson, a precious metals dealer, was hoping to generate some business for his gold and silver dealer when he started a radio network in a Minneapolis suburb a couple of decades ago. Soon after, he hired a brash young radio host named Alex Jones.

Together, they ended up shaping today’s disinformation economy.

The two built a lucrative operation out of a tangled system of niche advertisers, fundraising campaigns, and promotion of media subscriptions, dietary supplements, and survival products. Jones became a conspiracy theory heavyweight, while Anderson’s company, Genesis Communications Network, prospered. His money-making model was replicated by many other disinformation peddlers.

Mr. Jones eventually veered away from his reliance on Genesis as he expanded beyond radio and attracted a large following online. However, they were once again closely linked in lawsuits that accused them of feeding a false narrative about the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Mr. Jones was found liable by default in those cases. Last month, attorneys for the plaintiffs dropped Genesis as a defendant. Christopher Mattei, one of the attorneys, said in a statement that having Genesis involved in the trial would have distracted him from the main target: Jones and his media organization.

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 severe penalties that are likely to await Jones. But the cases, which soon headed before juries to determine damages, continue to shine a light on the economics that help spawn misleading and false claims in the media landscape.

The proliferation of falsehoods and misleading content, especially ahead of this fall’s midterm elections, is often blamed on gullible audiences and a growing partisan divide. Misinformation can also be hugely profitable, not just for bold names like Mr. Jones, but also for companies that host websites, run ads, or distribute content in the background.

“Disinformation exists for ideological reasons, but there’s always a link to very commercial interests — they always meet,” said Hilde Van den Bulck, a Drexel University media professor who has studied Jones. “It’s a small world full of networks of people finding ways to help each other.”

Mr. Jones and Mr. Anderson did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Genesis originated in the late 1990s as a marketing ploy, operating “hand-in-hand” with Midas Resources, Mr. Anderson’s gold bullion business, he said. He told media watchdog FAIR in 2011: “Midas Resources needs clients, Genesis Communications Network needs sponsors.”

Alex Jones and his pessimistic worldview fit perfectly into the equation.

Genesis began unionizing Jones around the time he was laid off by an Austin station in 1999, the host said this year on Infowars, a website he operates. It was a complementary if sometimes jarring partnership: “a kind of marriage made in hell,” Van den Bulck said.

Archived footage shows a bellicose and pontificating Jones broadcasting dire statements about the dollar’s inevitable demise before introducing a bespectacled and generally mild-mannered Anderson to offer lengthy arguments in favor of haven metals like gold. Mr. Jones sometimes interrupted pitches with tirades, like that time in 2013 when he cut Mr. Anderson over 20 times in 30 seconds to yell “racist.”

The Genesis roster has also included a gay comedian; former ACLU attorney; Hollywood actor Stephen Baldwin; longtime psychologist Dr. Joy Browne; a home improvement expert known as the “Cajun Contractor”; and a group of self-styled “normal guys with normal views” talking about sports.

But eventually, the network developed a reputation for a certain type of programming, promoting its “conspiracy” content on its website and telling the MinnPost in 2011 that its advertisers “specialize in preparedness and survival.”

Several shows were headlined by firearms enthusiasts. There was a Christian rocker who opposed gay rights and a politician who espoused unfounded theories about crisis actors and President Obama’s nationality. One show promoted lessons on how to “store food, learn the importance of precious metals, or even survive a gunfight.” Jason Lewis, a Republican politician from Minnesota who faced a backlash during the 2018 election season after misogynistic comments about him resurfaced on the air, had a syndication deal with Genesis and a campaign office at the Genesis address.

Ties between Mr. Jones and Genesis began to loosen about a decade ago, when Mr. Jones reached an agreement for Genesis to handle only about a third of his syndication deals. Now, about 30 stations include Jones in their schedules, according to a review by Dan Friesen, one of the hosts of the Knowledge Fight podcast, which he and a friend created to analyze and chronicle Jones’s career. Of those, more than a third relegated it to late at night and early morning. Various stations replaced Mr. Jones with conservative hosts like Sean Hannity or Dan Bongino.

Jones’s relationship with Anderson continued to weaken after 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 restitution to customers after they had “regularly embezzled money”.

Now the Midas website redirects to a multi-level marketing company that sells the same supplements that populate the Genesis online store. The supplement company founder has a show syndicated by Genesis and has also appeared on The Mr. Jones Show.

But Mr. Jones has his own business selling Infowars-branded supplements, as well as products like Infowars masks along with stickers declaring Covid-19 a hoax. One of his attorneys estimated that the conspiracy theorist generated $56 million in revenue last year.

“The inability to have that kind of symbiotic connection between gold sales at radio affiliates really hurt their connection,” Friesen said of Jones and his former benefactor. “At the time, Alex had a little more of a need to diversify the way he financed things, and Ted took a backseat.”

But in 2018, the families of several Sandy Hook victims sued Mr. Jones and also named Genesis as a defendant. Attorneys for the families cited Mr. Anderson’s frequent appearances on Mr. Jones shows and said that Genesis’s distribution of Mr. Jones helped his falsehoods reach “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people”.

Mr. Jones, Genesis and other defendants “invent elaborate and false conspiracy theories tinged with paranoia because they move products and make money,” the attorneys wrote.

After the lawsuits were filed, West Bend Mutual Insurance, which began working with Genesis in 2012, turned down Genesis and Mr. Jones for coverage of the liability claims, according to court documents. After being removed as a defendant, Genesis has continued to solicit donations, saying online that his “freedom to speak is at stake.”

The litigation demonstrates the increasingly prominent role of lawsuits as a stick against those accused of spreading false and misleading information. In 2020, Fox News reached a million-dollar settlement with the parents of Seth Rich, a slain Democratic aide 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 came under fire for unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and are seeking billions of dollars in damages. When Smartmatic and Dominion were still threatening legal action, several of the points of sale aired segments that attempted to clarify or debunk conspiracy theories about voting system companies.

“It seems to be, for the first time in a long time, a very tangible route to holding people accountable for the harm that they are causing and the ways that they are benefiting from that harm,” said Rachel E. Moran. , postdoctoral fellow at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington.

Genesis told the court in a filing last year that he was simply accused of being “a radio show distributor, the radioland equivalent of the paperboy, not the author, not the publisher, not the announcer.” The presentation argued that the company “has no brain; has no memory; cannot form intention.”

The families’ lawyers responded that the network should be “treated in the same way as a newspaper or a book publisher” with a high degree of awareness of “the misleading narrative that Genesis repeatedly broadcast to large audiences, over several years.” .

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