If it weren’t so excruciatingly sad, the Alex Jones defamation trial might have been cathartic.
Mr. Jones, a conspiracy theorist, was ordered to pay more than $45 million in damages to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of a 6-year-old boy killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. in Newtown, Conn. The jury’s verdict came after Mr Jones was found guilty of defaming Mr Heslin and Ms Lewis, whom he falsely accused over the years of being crisis actors as part of a government-sponsored “false flag” operation.
For victims of Mr Jones’s harassment campaign and those who have followed his career over the years, the verdict was a long time coming – a notorious internet bully finally facing real consequences for his actions. The families of the children killed at Sandy Hook, many of whom have waited years to pay for Mr. Jones’s lies, are no doubt relieved.
But before we celebrate the arrival of Mr. Jones, we must recognize that a verdict against him is unlikely to do much damage to the phenomenon he represents: militant fabulists building profitable media empires out of easily debunked lies.
Mr Jones’ megaphone has waned in recent years – thanks in part to decisions by tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to ban him from their services. But its reach is still substantial, and it has more impact than you might think.
Court records show that Mr. Jones’ Infowars store, which sells dubious performance-enhancing supplements and survival tools, made more than $165 million between 2015 and 2018. Despite the deplatforming, Mr. Jones still makes a guest appearance. A popular podcast and YouTube shows, and millions of Americans still watch it as, if not a reliable chronicler of current events, at least the odd diversion. (And one wealthy expert witness at trial estimated the net worth of Mr. Jones and his holding company Free Speech Systems at somewhere between $135 million and $270 million).
In the coming weeks, Mr. Jones – the maestro of martyrdom – will no doubt turn his court defeat into hours of entertaining content that will generate more attention, more subscribers, more money.
But the bigger reason for caution is that whether or not Mr. Jones remains personally enriched by his lies, his streak is everywhere these days.
You can see and hear Mr. Jones’ influence on Capitol Hill, where attention-seeking Republican politicians often sound like they’re auditioning for slots on Infowars. When Representative Marjorie Taylor Green, Republican of Georgia, suggested that mass shootings could be staged to convince Republicans to support gun control measures, it did. Facebook post About the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, Ill., he plays hits from Mr. Jones’ back catalog. Mr. Jones also played a role in instigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol that we are still learning about. (The House panel investigating the scandal has requested a copy of text messages from Mr. Jones’ phone that were mistakenly sent to lawyers representing plaintiffs in his defamation case.)
You can also see Mr. Jones’ influence in the right-wing media. When Tucker Carlson stokes the fears of nativists on his Fox News show, or when a Newsmax anchor spins Weird conspiracy theory House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to assassinate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is proof that the DNA of Infowars has entered the conservative bloodstream.
Even beyond politics, Mr. Jones’s choleric, expansive style has influenced the way in which a new generation of conspiracy theorists seek fame on the Internet.
These creators don’t freak out about goblins and gay frogs like Mr. Jones. But they get the same fact-free playbook. Some of them focus on softer topics – like wellness influencers It recently went viral To suggest that Lyme disease is a “gift” from intergalactic space matter, or as Shane Dawson, a popular YouTube creator who has garnered hundreds of millions of views for his conspiracy theory documentaries in which he painstakingly investigates claims such as “Chuck E. Cheese Reuses Uneaten Pizza’ and ‘Forest Fires Caused by Directed Energy Weapons’.
Certain elements of left-wing and centrist discourse also owe a debt to Mr. Jones. The “Red Scare” podcast, popular with the anti-establishment “post-left” crowd, interviewed Mr. Jones and shares some overlapping interests. Much of the unvarnished coverage and analysis of the legal battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, which has dominated social media this summer, has had a Jonesian undertone. Even Joe Rogan, the popular podcast host (who hosted Mr. Jones on his show and has protected him as “funny” and “entertaining”), borrowed some of the Infowars founder’s paranoia, such as claiming that Covid-19 vaccines can change your genes.
It would be too easy to blame (or credit) Mr. Jones for inspiring the entire modern cracksphere. But it’s safe to say that many of today’s leading conspiracy theorists have found the same fertile ground for lies and entertainment value. It’s also likely that we’ve become desensitized to conspiracy theories, and many of the outrageous falsehoods that once got Mr. Jones in trouble — such as allegations about the Sandy Hook parents who were at the center of his libel trial — sound less shocking. If spoken today.
Other conspiracy theorists are unlikely to find Mr. Jones on trial, in part because they have learned from his mistakes. Instead of directly accusing the families of mass shooting victims of making it all up, they adopt a naive, “just asking questions” posture when poking holes in the official narrative. When attacking the enemy, they tiptoe to the line of defamation, being careful not to do anything that could get them sued or banned from social media. And when they do lead harassment campaigns, they choose their targets wisely—often blaming public figures rather than private citizens, giving them broader First Amendment protections for speech.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be more lawsuits, or attempts to hold conspiracy theorists accountable. Fox News is the first to face a defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems, which claims the network knowingly made false claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election.
But these cases are the exception, not the rule. The truth is, today’s media ecosystem is overloaded with Infowars-style conspiracy theories—from story channel shows about ancient aliens building the pyramids of Egypt to TikToks made by yoga moms who think Wayfair sells trafficked children—and it’s unclear that our legal system can. , or at least should try to stop them.
Social media companies can help curb the spread of malicious lies by making it harder for fabulists to gather huge audiences. But they have their own limitations, not least of which is the simple fact that conspiracy theorists are more sophisticated at circumventing their rules. If you emphasize the claim that Bigfoot is real, attention-seeking crackpots will simply get millions of views by posting this Bigfoot. it is possible be real and that their audience would be wise to do their own research to find out what secrets the deep state cabal is hiding regarding Bigfoot.
To the propagandists and reactionaries of this new, more sophisticated generation, Mr. Jones is the inspiration that has risen to the highest heights of the profession. But it’s also a cautionary tale—about what can happen when you cross too many lines, tell too many easily debunked lies, and refuse to back down.
Mr. Jones wasn’t done facing the music. Two other lawsuits filed against him by Sandy Hook family members are still pending and could cost him millions more in damages.
But, even if Mr. Jones’s career crumbles, his legacy of brazen, unrepentant dishonesty will live on—enhanced, in part, by knowing just how far you can push a lie before the consequences hit.