Technology · August 6, 2022

Don’t expect Alex Jones’ comeuppance to stop the lies

If it hadn’t been so excruciatingly sad, the Alex Jones defamation trial might have been cathartic.

Mr. Jones, the conspiracy theorist who slung nutritional 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 murdered 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 for years of being crisis actors in a government-planned “false flag” operation.

For victims of Mr Jones’ harassment campaigns and for those who have followed his career for years, judgment seemed 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 for Mr. Jones to pay for his lies, are no doubt relieved.

But before we celebrate Mr. Jones’ comeuppance, we should acknowledge that the verdict against him is unlikely to do much harm to the phenomenon he represents: belligerent fabulists who build profitable media empires with easily debunked lies.

Mr Jones’ megaphone has dwindled in recent years – thanks in part to decisions by tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter to ban him from their services. But his reach is still significant, and he’s more influential than you might think.

Court records showed that Mr. Jones’ Infowars store, which sells shady performance-enhancing supplements and survival gear, grossed more than $165 million from 2015-2018. Despite his deplatforming, Mr. Jones still makes guest appearances popular podcasts and YouTube shows, and millions of Americans still regard him as, if not a reliable chronicler of current events, at least a crazy distraction. (And a wealthy — an expert at law — estimated the net worth of Mr. Jones and Free Speech Systems, his holding company, at somewhere between $135 million and $270 million.)

In the coming weeks, Mr. Jones – a maestro of martyrdom – will no doubt turn his court defeat into hours of entertaining content, all of which will generate more exposure, more subscribers and more money.

But a bigger cause 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 the influence of Mr. Jones on Capitol Hill, where attention-grabbing Republican politicians often sound like they’re auditioning for slots at Infowars. When Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene suggests that a mass shooting may have been orchestrated to persuade Republicans to support gun control measures, as they did in a Facebook post She performs hits from Mr. Jones’ back catalog over the July 4th shoot in Highland Park, Illinois. Mr. Jones also played a role in fueling the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, in ways we are still learning from. (The House panel investigating the riot has asked for a copy of text messages from Mr Jones’ phone, which were mistakenly sent to the attorneys representing plaintiffs in his defamation case.)

You can also see Mr Jones’ influence in right-wing media. When Tucker Carlson stirs up nativist fears on his Fox News show, or when a Newsmax host spins one bizarre conspiracy theory about an attempt by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to have Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh killed is evidence that Infowars DNA entered the bloodstream of Conservatives.

Outside of politics, too, Mr. Jones’ choleric, wide-eyed style has influenced the way a new generation of conspiracy theorists seek fame online.

These creators don’t all rant about goblins and gay frogs like Mr. Jones did. But they draw from the same fact-free playbook. Some of them focus on softer issues — like the 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 has come to grips with conspiracy theory documentaries making gullible claims like “Chuck E. Cheese reuse uneaten pizza” and “wildfires are caused by directed energy weapons.”

Certain elements of leftist and centrist discourse also owe something to Mr. Jones. The Red Scare podcast, popular with an anti-establishment “post-left” crowd, has interviewed Mr Jones and shares some overlapping interests. Much of the off-kilter coverage and analysis of the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard legal battle that dominated social media this summer had a Jonesian cast. Even Joe Rogan, the popular podcast host (who has and has hosted Mr. Jones on his show defended him as “hilarious” and “entertaining”), has borrowed some of the Infowars founder’s connect-the-dots paranoia by arguing, for example, that Covid-19 vaccines can alter your genes.

It would be too easy to blame (or give credit) to 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 profitable sweet spot of lies and entertainment value. It’s also likely that we’re desensitized to conspiracy theories, and many of the outrageous untruths that once got Mr. Jones into trouble — like the allegations about Sandy Hook’s parents who were the focus of his defamation trial — would sound less shocking if it were is pronounced today.

Other conspiracy theorists are less likely to end up in court than Mr. Jones, partly because they have learned from his mistakes. Instead of directly blaming the families of mass shooting victims for making it all up, they take a naïve stance, “just asking questions” while punching holes in the official narrative. When attacking an enemy, they tiptoe to the defamation line, careful not to do anything that could result in them being sued or banned from social media. And when they conduct harassment campaigns, they choose their targets carefully — often they defame public figures rather than private individuals, giving them broader First Amendment protections from speech.

That’s not to say there won’t be more lawsuits or attempts to hold conspiracy theorists accountable. Fox News, for example, is facing a defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems, which alleges the network knowingly made false statements about voter fraud in the 2020 election.

But these cases are the exceptions, not the rule. The truth is that today’s media ecosystem is overflowing with Infowars-style conspiracy theories — from History Channel shows about ancient aliens building the Egyptian pyramids to TikToks of yoga moms who believe Wayfair is selling trafficked children — and it’s not clear that our legal system can, or even should try, to stop them.

Social media companies can help curb the spread of harmful lies by making it difficult for fabulists to attract massive audiences. But they have their own limitations, including the simple fact that conspiracy theorists have become more sophisticated when it comes to getting around their rules. If you draw a line by claiming that Bigfoot is real, attention-grabbing weirdos will get their millions of views simply by postulating that Bigfoot could 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.

To 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 – about what can happen when you cross too many lines, tell too many easily debunked lies, and refuse to back down.

Mr. Jones isn’t done confronting the music yet. Two other lawsuits filed against him by family members of Sandy Hook are still pending, and he could end up owing millions in damages.

But even if Mr. Jones’ career is ruined, his legacy of brazen, unrepentant dishonesty will live on – bolstered in some ways by the knowledge of how far a lie can be pushed before consequences ensue.