If it weren’t so excruciatingly sad, Alex Jones’s libel trial might have been cathartic.
Mr. Jones, the accomplished conspiracy theorist, was ordered to pay more than $45 million in restitution to Neal Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of a 6-year-old boy killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The jury’s verdict came after Mr Jones was found liable for defamation of Mr Heslin and Ms Lewis, whom he falsely accused for years of being crisis actors in a government-engineered “false flag” operation.
To the victims of Mr Jones’s harassment campaigns and those who followed his career for years, the verdict 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 to see Mr. Jones pay for his lies, are no doubt relieved.
But before we celebrate Mr. Jones’s appearance, we should recognize that a verdict against him is unlikely to do much for the phenomenon he represents: warmongering storytellers building profitable media empires with easily debunked lies.
Mr Jones’s voice has shrunk in recent years – thanks, in part, to decisions by tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to ban him from their services. But its reach is still significant and more influential than you might think.
Courts shown that the Infowars store of Mr. Jones, which sells dubious performance-enhancing supplements and survival gear, earned more than $165 million from 2015 to 2018. Despite his de-platforming, Mr. Jones still appears as a guest on popular podcasts and Shows on YouTube, and millions of Americans still see him as, if not a reliable chronicler of current events, at least an eccentric diversion. (And a rich one — an expert witness at trial estimated the net worth of Mr. Jones and Free Speech Systems, his holding company, at about $135 million and $270 million.)
In the coming weeks, Mr. Jones – a maestro of torture – will no doubt turn his defeat in court into hours of entertaining content, all of which will generate more attention, more subscribers, more money.
But a bigger reason for caution is that, regardless of whether Mr. Jones remains personally enriched by his lies, his bashing is everywhere these days.
You can see and hear Mr. Jones’ influence on Capitol Hill, where attention-seeking Republican politicians often sound like they’re auditioning for slots on Infowars. When Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, suggests that a mass shooting could have been staged to persuade Republicans to support gun control measures, as she did in a Post on Facebook about the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, Ill., plays hits from the back catalog of Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones also played a role in sparking the January 6, 2021 attack on Capitol Hill, in ways we are still learning. (The House panel investigating the rebellion has requested a copy (of the text messages from Mr. Jones’ phone that were mistakenly sent to the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in his defamation case.)
You can also see Mr. Jones’s influence in the right-wing media. When Tucker Carlson stokes nationalist fears on his Fox News show, or when a Newsmax anchor makes a weird conspiracy theory about an attempt by Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, to assassinate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is proof that Infowars DNA has entered the conservative bloodstream.
Even outside of politics, Mr Jones’ choleric style has influenced the way a new generation of conspiracy theorists seek fame online.
These creators are not all outraged goblins and gay frogs, as Mr. Jones has. But they come out of the same non-event book. Some of them focus on milder subject matter – like the dangerous wellness factors that it recently went viral for the view that Lyme disease is a “gift” caused by intergalactic space matter, or like Shane Dawson, a popular YouTube creator who has amassed hundreds of millions of views with conspiracy theory documentaries in which he credibly examines claims such as “Chuck E .Cheese reuses uneaten pizza” and “Fires are caused by directed energy weapons”.
Certain elements of left and center discourse also owe a debt to Mr. Jones. The “Red Scare” podcast, which is popular with an alternative “post-left” crowd, has been interviewed by Mr. Jones and shares some overlapping interests. Much of the unabashed coverage and analysis of the legal battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard that dominated social media this summer had a Jonesian undertone. Even Joe Rogan, the popular podcast host (who has hosted Mr. Jones on his show and has defended him as “hilarious” and “entertaining”), has borrowed some of the Infowars founder’s paranoid connections to arguingfor example, that Covid-19 vaccines can change your genes.
It would be too simple to blame (or credit) Mr. Jones for inspiring the entire modern crankball sphere. 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 possible that we’ve become desensitized to conspiracy theories, and many of the outrageous lies that once got Mr. Jones into trouble – such as the claims about Sandy Hook’s parents that were at the center of his libel suit – would sound less shocking if told today.
Other conspiracy theorists are less likely than Mr. Jones to end up in court, in part because they have learned from his mistakes. Instead of directly accusing the families of mass shooting victims of making it all up, they adopt a naive “just asking questions” attitude while poking holes in the official narrative. When attacking an enemy, they tiptoe to the line of defamation, being careful not to do anything that could get them sued or banned from social media. And when they run harassment campaigns, they choose their targets wisely—they often malign public figures rather than private citizens, which gives them broader First Amendment speech protections.
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 these cases are the exceptions, not the rule. The truth is, today’s media ecosystem is overflowing with Infowars-style conspiracy theories — from History Channel shows about ancient aliens building the Egyptian pyramids to TikToks made by thinking yoga moms Wayfair sells trafficked children — and it’s not clear that our legal system can, or should even try to stop them.
Social media companies can help curb the spread of harmful lies by making it more difficult for tellers to gather huge audiences. But they have their own limitations, including the simple fact that conspiracy theorists have become more sophisticated at avoiding their rules. If you draw a line at the claim that Bigfoot is real, the attention seeking cranks will just get their millions of views by putting this Bigfoot could to be true and that their audience would be wise to do their own research to find out what Bigfoot-related secrets the deep state cabin holds.
To this new, more refined generation of propagandists and reactionaries, Mr. Jones is an inspiration who has risen to the highest heights 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 with music. Two more lawsuits filed against him by Sandy Hook family members are still pending, and he could end up owing millions more in damages.
But, even if Mr. Jones’s career is destroyed, the legacy of his brazen, unrepentant dishonesty will live on – strengthened, in some ways, by knowing how far you can push a lie before the consequences kick in.