If it weren’t so excruciatingly sad, Alex Jones’ libel trial might be cathartic.
Mr. Jones, a supplement-slinging conspiracy theorist, was ordered to pay more than $45 million in restitution to Neil Hesslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of a 6-year-old boy killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The jury’s verdict in Newtown, Conn., came after Mr. Jones was found liable for defaming Heslin and Ms. Lewis, whom he falsely accused of being crisis actors in a “false flag” operation plotted by the government over the years.
To victims of Mr. Jones’ campaign of harassment and to those who have followed his career over the years, the verdict seems long overdue – a notorious internet villain finally facing real consequences for his actions. The families of the children killed at Sandy Hook, many of whom have waited years to see Mr. Jones pay for his lies, no doubt.
But before we celebrate the arrival of Mr. Jones, we should recognize that the verdict against him won’t do much damage to the phenomenon he represents: warmongering fabulists building profitable media empires out of easy-to-disclose lies.
Mr. Jones’ megaphone has shrunk in recent years — thanks, in part, to the decision to block tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter from their services. But his reach is still considerable, and he has more influence than you might think.
Court documents show that Mr. Jones’ InfoStore, which sells questionable performance-enhancing supplements and survival gear, made more than $165 million from 2015 to 2018. Despite his meltdown, Mr. Jones still makes guest appearances Popular podcasts and YouTube shows, and millions of Americans still see him as a reliable chronicler of current events, at least as a distracting diversion. (And a rich one — an expert witness at trial estimated the net worth of Mr. Jones and his holding company, Free Speech Systems, at between $135 million and $270 million.)
In the coming weeks, Mr. Jones — a master of martyrdom — will no doubt spin his court defeats into hours of entertaining content, all of which will generate more attention, more subscribers, more money.
But one big reason for caution is that, whether or not Mr. Jones is personally enriched by his lies, his push is everywhere these days.
You can see and hear Mr. Jones’s influence on Capitol Hill, where attention-seeking Republican politicians often sound like they’re auditioning for a slot on the infomercial. When Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia suggested that a mass shooting could be used to convince Republicans to support gun-control measures, as she did Facebook post About the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, he plays hits from Mr. Jones’ back catalog. Mr. Jones was also instrumental in fueling the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, as we are still learning. (The House panel investigating sedition has sought a copy of text messages from Mr. Jones’ phone that were mistakenly sent to lawyers representing plaintiffs in his defamation suit.)
You can also see the influence of Mr. Jones in the right-wing media. When Tucker Carlson spews nativist scaremongering on his Fox News show, or when a Newsmax host spins a Weird conspiracy theories As for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to assassinate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, it’s proof that the informants’ DNA has entered the conservative bloodstream.
Even beyond politics, Mr. Jones’s choleric, wide-eyed style has influenced the way a new generation of conspiracy theorists seek fame online.
Not all these builders speak of goblins and gay frogs, as Mr. Jones does. But they pull from the same information-free playbook. Some of them focus on soft topics — like cookie wellness influencers Recently went viral To suggest that Lyme disease is a “gift” caused by intergalactic space matter, or like Shane Dawson, a popular YouTube creator who has amassed millions of views with his conspiracy theory documentaries in which he credibly tests claims like “Chuck E.” Reuse pizza without cheese” and “Fires caused by directed energy weapons.”
Some elements of left-wing and moderate rhetoric are also indebted to Mr. Jones. The “Red Square” podcast, popular with the anti-establishment “post-left” crowd, interviewed Mr. Jones and shared some overlapping interests. The legal battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard that has dominated social media this summer has had a Jonesian tinge to the largely unspecified coverage and analysis. Even Joe Rogan, the popular podcast host (who has hosted Mr. Jones on his show and saved him As “hilarious” and “entertaining”), some of the connect-the-dots paranoia of Infors’ founders borrowed, for example, that the Covid-19 vaccine could change your genes.
It would be too easy to blame (or credit) Mr. Jones for inspiring the entire modern cranksphere. But it’s safe to say that many of today’s leading conspiracy theorists have found the same lucrative sweet spot of lies and entertainment value. It’s also possible that 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 that were at the center of his libel trial — would sound less heinous if uttered today.
Other conspiracy theorists are less likely to end up in Mr. Jones’ court, because they have learned from his mistakes. Instead of directly accusing families of victims of mass shootings of making it all up, they adopt a naive, “just asking questions” posture while poking holes in the official narrative. When attacking the enemy, they tiptoe up to the line of defamation, careful not to do anything that could get them sued or banned from social media. And when they lead harassment campaigns, they choose their targets wisely—often defaming public figures rather than private citizens, which afford them broad speech protections under the First Amendment.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be more lawsuits, or attempts to hold conspiracy theorists accountable. Fox News, for one, 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 this is the exception, not the rule. The truth is that today’s media ecosystem is overflowing with InfoWorld-style conspiracy theories — from the History Channel to ancient aliens building the Egyptian pyramids to TikTok to yoga moms who think Wayfair is selling trafficked children — and it’s not clear that our legal measures, or even attempts to stop them.
Social media companies can help prevent the spread of harmful falsehoods by making it harder for fabulists to gather large audiences But they have their own limitations, including the general fact that conspiracy theorists have become more sophisticated about avoiding their rules. If you draw the line at claiming that Bigfoot is real, attention-seeking cranks will get their millions of views just by posing that Bigfoot. may be Be realistic and their audience would be wise to do their own research to find out what Bigfoot-related secrets they are hiding.
To this new, more refined generation of preachers and reactionaries, Mr. Jones was an inspiration who had climbed to the highest pinnacle of the profession. But he’s also a cautionary tale — of what can happen when you cross too many lines, tell unverifiable lies too easily, and refuse to back down.
Mr. Jones did not work with his eyes on music. Two other lawsuits brought against him by Sandy Hook family members are still pending, and he could pay millions more in damages.
But, even if Mr. Jones’s career is ruined, his legacy of brazen, unrepentant dishonesty will live on — strengthened, in some ways, by his knowledge of just how far you can push a lie before the consequences come.