If it hadn’t been so excruciatingly sad, Alex Jones’s defamation trial may need been cathartic.
Mr. Jones, the supplement-slinging conspiracy theorist, was ordered to pay greater than $45 million in damages to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of a 6-year-old who was murdered within the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The jury’s verdict got here after Mr. Jones was found accountable for defaming Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis, whom for years he falsely accused of being crisis actors in a “false flag” operation plotted by the federal government.
To the victims of Mr. Jones’s harassment campaigns, and to those that have followed his profession for years, the decision felt long overdue — a notorious web villain finally facing real consequences for his actions. The families of the youngsters killed at Sandy Hook, a lot of whom have waited years to see Mr. Jones pay for his lies, are little doubt relieved.
But before we have a good time Mr. Jones’s comeuppance, we must always acknowledge that the decision against him is unlikely to place much of a dent within the phenomenon he represents: belligerent fabulists constructing profitable media empires with easily disprovable lies.
Mr. Jones’s megaphone has shrunk lately — thanks, partly, to decisions by tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter to bar him from their services. But his reach continues to be substantial, and he has more influence than you may think.
Court records showed that Mr. Jones’s Infowars store, which sells dubious performance-enhancing supplements and survival gear, made greater than $165 million from 2015 to 2018. Despite his deplatforming, Mr. Jones still appears as a guest on popular podcasts and YouTube shows, and tens of millions of Americans still look to him as, if not a reliable chronicler of current events, no less than a wacky diversion. (And a wealthy one — an authority witness within the trial estimated the web price of Mr. Jones and Free Speech Systems, his holding company, at somewhere between $135 million and $270 million.)
In the approaching weeks, Mr. Jones — a maestro of martyrdom — will little doubt spin his court defeat into hours of entertaining content, all of which can generate more attention, more subscribers, more cash.
But a much bigger reason for caution is that, whether or not Mr. Jones stays personally enriched by his lies, his shtick is in every single place lately.
You possibly can see and listen to Mr. Jones’s influence on Capitol Hill, where attention-seeking Republican politicians often sound like they’re auditioning for slots on Infowars. When Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, suggests that a mass shooting might have been orchestrated to steer Republicans to support gun-control measures, as she did in a Facebook post in regards to the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, Ailing., she’s playing hits from Mr. Jones’s back catalog. Mr. Jones also played a task in fueling the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, in ways we’re still learning about. (The House panel investigating the riot has asked for a duplicate of the text messages from Mr. Jones’s phone that were mistakenly sent to the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in his defamation case.)
You can too see Mr. Jones’s influence in right-wing media. When Tucker Carlson stokes nativist fears on his Fox News show, or when a Newsmax host spins a bizarre conspiracy theory about an effort by Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, to have Justice Brett Kavanaugh of the Supreme Court killed, it’s proof that Infowars’ DNA has entered the conservative bloodstream.
Even outside politics, Mr. Jones’s choleric, wide-eyed style has influenced the way in which by which a recent generation of conspiracy theorists looks for fame online.
These creators don’t all rant about goblins and gay frogs, as Mr. Jones has. But they’re pulling from the identical fact-free playbook. A few of them concentrate on softer subject material — just like the kooky wellness influencers who recently went viral for suggesting that Lyme disease is a “gift” attributable to intergalactic space matter, or like Shane Dawson, a well-liked YouTube creator who has racked up lots of of tens of millions of views with conspiracy theory documentaries by which he credulously examines claims akin to “Chuck E. Cheese reuses uneaten pizza” and “Wildfires are attributable to directed energy weapons.”
Certain elements of left-wing and centrist discourse also owe a debt to Mr. Jones. The “Red Scare” podcast, which is popular with an anti-establishment “post-left” crowd, has interviewed Mr. Jones and shares some overlapping interests. Much of the unhinged coverage and evaluation of the legal battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, which dominated social media this summer, had a Jonesian tinge. Even Joe Rogan, the favored podcast host (who has hosted Mr. Jones on his show and has defended him as “hilarious” and “entertaining”), has borrowed a number of the Infowars founder’s connect-the-dots paranoia in arguing, for instance, that Covid-19 vaccines can alter your genes.
It will be too easy guilty (or credit) Mr. Jones for uplifting all the modern cranksphere. But it surely’s secure to say that a lot of today’s leading conspiracy theorists have found the identical profitable sweet spot of lies and entertainment value. It’s also probable that we’ve turn into desensitized to conspiracy theories, and lots of the outrageous falsehoods that when got Mr. Jones into trouble — akin to the allegations about Sandy Hook parents that were at the middle of his defamation trial — would sound less shocking if uttered today.
Other conspiracy theorists are less likely than Mr. Jones to find yourself in court, partly because they’ve learned from his mistakes. As a substitute of straightforwardly accusing the families of mass-shooting victims of creating all of it up, they adopt a naïve, “just asking questions” posture while poking holes within the official narrative. When attacking a foe, they tiptoe right as much as the road of defamation, being careful to not do anything that might get them sued or barred from social media. And once they lead harassment campaigns, they pick their targets properly — often maligning public figures moderately than private residents, which supplies them broader speech protections under the First Amendment.
That’s to not say there won’t be more lawsuits, or attempts to carry conspiracy theorists accountable. Fox News, for one, is facing a defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems, which claims that the network knowingly made false statements about voter fraud within the 2020 election.
But these cases are the exceptions, not the rule. The reality is that today’s media ecosystem is overflowing with Infowars-style conspiracy theories — from History Channel shows about ancient aliens constructing the Egyptian pyramids to TikToks made by yoga mothers who think Wayfair is selling trafficked children — and it’s not clear that our legal system can, or should even try and, stop them.
Social media corporations may also help curb the spread of harmful lies by making it harder for fabulists to amass huge audiences. But they’ve their very own limitations, including the straightforward proven fact that conspiracy theorists have gotten more sophisticated about evading their rules. In the event you draw a line at claiming that Bigfoot is real, attention-seeking cranks will simply get their tens of millions of views by positing that Bigfoot may be real and that their audiences can be sensible to do their very own research to determine what Bigfoot-related secrets the deep-state cabal is hiding.
To this recent, more subtle generation of propagandists and reactionaries, Mr. Jones is an inspiration who ascended the career’s highest peaks. But he’s also a cautionary tale — of what can occur whenever you cross too many lines, tell too many easily disprovable lies and refuse to back down.
Mr. Jones isn’t done facing the music. Two more lawsuits brought against him by Sandy Hook members of the family are still pending, and he could find yourself owing tens of millions more in damages.
But, even when Mr. Jones’s profession is ruined, his legacy of brazen, unrepentant dishonesty will survive — strengthened, in some ways, by the knowledge of exactly how far you possibly can push a lie before consequences kick in.