If it weren’t so terribly sad, Alex Jones’s libel trial might have been cathartic.
Mr. Jones, the conspiracy theorist who harnesses the supplements, has sentenced to pay more than $ 45 million in damages to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of a 6-year-old boy who was murdered in the 2012 mass shooting. at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut The jury’s verdict came after Mr. Jones was found responsible for defaming Mr. Heslin and Mrs. Lewis, who for years were falsely accused of being crisis actors in a ‘ “false flag” operation planned by the government.
For the victims of Mr. Jones’ harassment campaigns and those who have followed his career for years, the verdict seemed long overdue: a notorious internet villain finally facing real consequences for his actions. The families of the children killed in Sandy Hook, many of whom have waited years to see Mr. Jones pay for his lies, are no doubt relieved.
But before celebrating Mr. Jones’s punishment, we should recognize that the verdict against him is unlikely to much affect the phenomenon he represents: warlike fabulists who build profitable media empires with easily refutable lies.
Mr. Jones’s megaphone has shrunk in recent years, thanks, in part, to the decisions of 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 think.
Court records showed that Mr. Jones’s Infowars store, which sells performance-enhancing supplements and dubious survival equipment, made more than $ 165 million from 2015 to 2018. Despite his deplatform, Mr. Jones appears still as a guest in popular podcast and YouTube shows, and millions of Americans consider him, if not a reliable news reporter, at least an extravagant diversion. (And a wealthy – an experienced witness in the trial estimated the net worth of Mr. Jones and Free Speech Systems, his holding company, to be between $ 135 million and $ 270 million.)
Over the next few weeks, Mr. Jones, a master of martyrdom, will no doubt turn his court defeat into hours of fun content, which will generate more attention, more subscribers, more money.
But a more important reason for caution is that regardless of whether Mr. Jones gets personally enriched by his lies, his shit is everywhere these days.
You can see and hear Mr. Jones’ influence on Capitol Hill, where Republican attention-seeking politicians often sound like they’re auditioning for slots on Infowars. When Georgia Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene suggests that a mass shooting could have been orchestrated to persuade Republicans to support gun control measures, as she did in a Facebook post on the July 4th shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, is playing the hits from the Mr. Jones catalog. Mr. Jones also played a role in fueling the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, in ways we are still learning. (The House panel investigating the insurgency asked for a copy of the text messages from Mr. Jones’ phone that were mistakenly sent to the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in his defamation case.)
You can also see Mr. Jones’ influence in the right-wing media. When Tucker Carlson feeds nativist fears on his Fox News show, or when a Newsmax host spins a bizarre conspiracy theory on an effort by Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, to have Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh killed, is evidence that Infowars DNA has entered the conservative bloodstream.
Even outside of politics, Mr. Jones’s angry, wide-eyed style has influenced how a new generation of conspiracy theorists seek fame online.
These creators don’t all complain about gay goblins and frogs, like Mr. Jones did. But they’re pulling from the same factless playbook. Some of them focus on more sensitive topics, like whimsical wellness influencers who it recently went viral for suggesting that Lyme disease is a “gift” caused by intergalactic space matter, or as Shane Dawson, a famous YouTube creator who has amassed hundreds of millions of views with conspiracy theory documentaries in which he examines in credulity claims such as “Chuck E. Cheese reuses unconsumed pizza” and “Fires are caused by direct energy weapons”.
Some elements of leftist and centrist discourse also owe a debt to Mr. Jones. The “Red Scare” podcast, which is popular with an anti-establishment “post-left” crowd, interviewed Mr. Jones and shares some overlapping interests. Much of the wild coverage and analysis of the legal battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, which dominated social media this summer, had a jonesian undertone. Even Joe Rogan, the popular podcast host (who hosted Mr. Jones on his show and has defended him as “hilarious” and “funny”), he borrowed some of the Infowars founder’s paranoia by arguing, for example, that Covid-19 vaccines can alter your genes.
It would be too easy to blame (or credit) Mr. Jones for inspiring the entire modern eccentric sphere. But it’s safe to say that many of today’s leading conspiracy theorists have found the same advantageous sweet spot of lies and entertainment value. It’s also likely we’ve become desensitized to conspiracy theories, and many of the outrageous lies that once got Mr. Jones in trouble, such as the allegations about Sandy Hook’s parents who were at the center of his libel trial, would sound less shocking if pronounced today.
Other conspiracy theorists are less likely than Mr. Jones to go to court, in part because they have learned from his mistakes. Instead of directly accusing the families of the victims of mass shootings of making it all up, they adopt a naïve attitude, “just asking questions” while poking holes in the official narrative. When they attack an enemy, they tiptoe to the defamation line, being careful not to do anything that would get them denounced or banned from social media. And when they conduct harassment campaigns, they choose their targets wisely – they often defame public rather than private figures, which gives them broader language protection under the First Amendment.
This is not to say that there will be no more lawsuits or attempts to hold conspiracy theorists accountable. Fox News, for example, is facing a libel suit from Dominion Voting Systems, which claims the network knowingly made false statements about election fraud in the 2020 election.
But these cases are the exceptions, not the rule. The truth is, today’s media ecosystem is overflowing with Infowars-style conspiracy theories – from History Channel shows about ancient aliens building Egyptian pyramids to TikToks made by yoga moms who think Wayfair is selling trafficked children. – and it is unclear whether our legal system can, or should even attempt to stop them.
Social media companies can help curb the spread of harmful lies by making it harder for fabulists to amass a large audience. But they have their limitations, including the simple fact that conspiracy theorists have gotten more sophisticated in evading their rules. If you draw a line that Bigfoot is real, attention-seeking maniacs will simply get their millions of views by postulating that Bigfoot could be real and that their audience would be wise to do their own research to figure out what Bigfoot-related secrets the deep state cabal is hiding.
For this new, more subtle generation of propagandists and reactionaries, Mr. Jones is an inspiration who has climbed to the highest heights of the profession. But it’s also a caveat – what can happen when you push too many limits, tell too many easily deniable lies, and refuse to back down.
Mr. Jones is not done with the music. Two more lawsuits filed against him by Sandy Hook’s family members are still pending and he could end up having to pay millions more in damages.
But, even if Mr. Jones’s career is ruined, his legacy of blatant and unrepentant dishonesty will survive, reinforced, in some ways, by the knowledge of how exactly you can push a lie before the consequences take effect.