If he hadn’t been so excruciatingly sad, Alex Jones’ libel lawsuit might have been cathartic.
Mr Jones, the conspiracy theorist who sells 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 child who was murdered during the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The jury’s verdict came after Mr Jones was found guilty of defaming Mr Heslin and Ms Lewis, whom he falsely accused for years of being crisis actors in a ‘false flag’ operation plotted by the government.
For the victims of Mr Jones’ stalking campaigns and for those who have followed his career for years, the verdict was long 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 waited years to see Mr Jones pay for his lies, are undoubtedly relieved.
But before we celebrate Mr. Jones’ improvement, we must recognize that the verdict against him is unlikely to affect much the phenomenon he represents: warmongering fabulists building profitable media empires on easily rebuttable lies.
Mr Jones’ bullhorn has dwindled in recent years, in part due to decisions by tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to exclude him from their services. But its reach is still significant and it has more influence than you might think.
Court records showed that Mr. Jones’ Infowars store, which sells dodgy performance-enhancing supplements and survival gear, grossed more than $165 million from 2015 to 2018. Despite his platform, Mr. Jones still appears as a guest on popular podcasts and YouTube shows, and millions of Americans still regard him as, if not a reliable news columnist, at least a goofy diversion. (And a wealthy – expert trial witness estimated the net worth of Mr. Jones and Free Speech Systems, his holding company, at between $135 million and $270 million.)
In the weeks to come, Mr. Jones – a maestro of martyrdom – will no doubt turn his court 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 or not Mr. Jones remains personally enriched by his lies, his shtick is everywhere these days.
You can see and hear Mr. Jones’ influence on Capitol Hill, where attention-seeking Republican politicians often look like they’re auditioning for slots on Infowars. When Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, suggests that a mass shooting could have been orchestrated to persuade Republicans to support gun control measures, as she did in a Facebook post about the Fourth of July shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, she plays hits from 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 insurrection has requested a copy of text messages from Mr. Jones’ phone that were mistakenly sent to attorneys representing plaintiffs in his defamation case.)
You can also see Mr. Jones’ influence in the right-wing media. When Tucker Carlson stirs up nativist fears on his Fox News show, or when a Newsmax host shoots a bizarre conspiracy theory about an effort by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to have Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh killed is proof that Infowars DNA has entered the blood of conservatives.
Even outside of politics, Mr Jones’ hot-tempered, wide-eyed style has influenced how a new generation of conspiracy theorists seek fame online.
These creators aren’t all about gay goblins and frogs, like Mr. Jones did. But they pull from the same playbook with no facts. Some of them focus on softer topics — like wacky wellness influencers who recently went viral for suggesting that Lyme disease is a “gift” caused by intergalactic space matter, or like Shane Dawson, a popular YouTube creator who racked up hundreds of millions of views with conspiracy theory documentaries in which he gullibly examines claims such as “Chuck E. Cheese reuses uneaten pizza” and “Forest fires are caused by directed energy weapons.
Elements of leftist and centrist discourse also owe Mr. Jones. The “Red Scare” podcast, which is popular with a “post-left” anti-establishment crowd, interviewed Mr. Jones and shares some overlapping interests. Much of the messy coverage and analysis of the legal battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard that dominated social media this summer had a Jonesian tinge. Even Joe Rogan, the popular podcast host (who hosted Mr. Jones on his show and defended him as “hilarious” and “entertaining”), borrowed some of the Infowars founder’s paranoia by arguing, for example, that Covid-19 vaccines can alter your genes.
It would be too simple to blame (or credit) Mr. Jones for inspiring all of the modern crank. But it’s safe to say that many of today’s leading conspiracy theorists have found the same profitable meeting point of lies and entertainment value. It’s also likely that we’ve become desensitized to conspiracy theories, and many of the outrageous lies that got Mr Jones in trouble – like the allegations about Sandy Hook’s parents who were at the center of his libel suit – would seem less shocking. if it is pronounced today.
Other conspiracy theorists are less likely than Mr Jones to end up in court, in part because they learned from his mistakes. Instead of outright accusing the families of mass shooting victims of making it all up, they take a naïve posture, “just asking questions,” while poking holes in the official narrative. When attacking an enemy, they tiptoe to the defamation line, being careful not to do anything that could get them sued or banned from social media. And when they conduct harassment campaigns, they choose their targets wisely — often slandering public figures rather than private citizens, giving them broader First Amendment protections of expression.
That’s not to say there won’t be any more lawsuits or attempts to hold conspiracy theorists accountable. Fox News, for its part, 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 exceptions and not the rule. The truth is, today’s media ecosystem is full of 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 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 following. But they have their own limitations, including the simple fact that conspiracy theorists have become more sophisticated in evading their rules. If you brush off the claim that Bigfoot is real, attention-seeking cranks will simply get their millions of views by postulating that Bigfoot strength be real and that their audience would be wise to do their own research to find 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 scaled the highest peaks of the profession. But it’s also a cautionary tale — of what can happen when you cross too many lines, tell too many easily rebuttable lies, and refuse to back down.
Mr. Jones is not done with facing the music. Two other 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’ career is ruined, his legacy of brazen and unrepentant dishonesty will survive – bolstered, in some ways, by knowing exactly how far you can push a lie before the consequences hit.