In the American clash between information and disinformation, the facts have just won a rare round: Alex Jones conceded that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, that he had repeatedly told millions of readers of his alt-right website Infowars was “a hoax” perpetrated by “actors”, was, in fact, “100% real”.
He told that truth on Wednesday in the witness box in a defamation trial, but only after lying repeatedly under oath and only after failing to produce documents and testify in previous trials. He only told this truth after plaintiffs’ attorney revealed that Jones’ attorney had inadvertently sent him several hundred gigabytes of Jones’ cellphone recordings, suggesting that Jones had perjured himself at the stand, apparently even lying about his own lies and knowingly withholding crucial libel evidence. lawsuits filed against him.
Jones only told the truth after coming face to face in the courtroom with Scarlett Lewis, one of many grieving parents of children killed in Sandy Hook, who told Jones of her son : “Jesse was real. I’m a real mom.”
Jones was ordered to pay more than $4 million in compensatory damages and $45.2 million in punitive damages to Lewis and Neil Heslin, the parents of Jesse Lewis, shot when he was 6 years old. Jesse was among 20 young children and six educators killed that day. at Sandy Hook. Heslin had wept on the stand as she described her son’s final moments.
This is the first time Jones has been penalized financially for his years-long disinformation campaign on Sandy Hook, a charade that earned him up to $800,000 a day. And he’ll probably pay more in at least two other pending cases. It was also the first time that Jones admitted the truth about what happened in Newtown.
This vindication of truth, while rewarding, raises three disturbing questions: First, does a single truth harassed by a serial liar matter? Second, does Jones’ apology, obtained only with his sweaty back against the wall, mean anything? And third, will his admission or apology have any effect in a mediasphere in which a single lie can quickly metastasize into an intractable web of lies?
These are depressing questions to ask, but not hard to answer.
The answer to the first question is that Jones’ reluctant admission of truth doesn’t matter enough. Whatever comfort he offers Lewis and Heslin, he cannot change the grotesque fact that for years the family members of Sandy Hook victims have become Jones’ victims, that the parents suffer the unimaginable loss of a child were then harassed, threatened to the point of needing to move into new homes and hire security. This cannot change the fact that an unscrupulous fabulist has exploited the weaknesses of our current media ecosystem – its fragmentation, lack of standards and polarization – to his financial advantage.
There was a certain small satisfaction in the fact that Jones was shot by an accidental email – that technology, media and information responded decisively to someone who misused all three. But these leaked texts also made it clear that Jones continues to spread misinformation, whether about the coronavirus pandemic or the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Even when the truth comes out, it can feel like an afterthought. , and worse, irrelevant.
“Just because you pretend to think something is true doesn’t mean it’s true,” the judge in the case, Maya Guerra Gamble, had to remind Jones as he disappeared from the stand. It wasn’t his radio show, she explained.
As for the second question, nothing in Jones’ apology deserves forgiveness. He threw out a flimsy excuse, saying he had suffered from “a form of psychosis”. He emitted a meager note of contrition, a non-apology to surpass the non-apologies, constructed in the patois “mistakes have been made” of our time: “I participated without wanting to in things that offended the feelings of these people and I’m sorry for that.”
Remorseless, publicized, bloodless. It was the only thing he said on the stand with a complete lack of conviction.
The third question – what kind of effect did the events of the day have on Alex Jones and the warped world he helped build? – has an equally grim response. Just hours after the jury’s decision, Jones, who had once described himself to The Times’ Elizabeth Williamson as the victim of a ‘media conspiracy’, sneaked back onto his radio show – by one metric, the 42nd most popular radio/podcast show in the country, second only to “Planet Money” and ahead of “Pod Save America”. There he disparaged the day’s legal proceedings as an “attack” by “globalists”, promising listeners, “I will fight”. In common doublespeak, he called the decision a “major victory for truth.”
Which truth? Confronting Jones in court, Scarlett Lewis said: “The truth, the truth is so vital to our world. Truth is what we base our reality on. And you have to agree on that to have a civil society. Sandy Hook is a hard truth.
Hundreds of school shootings later, what’s even more difficult is how many people in this country struggle to know what the truth means.