Why don’t you expect Alex Jones’ retribution to stop the lies

If it wasn’t so excruciatingly sad, The defamation case against Alex Jones it may have been cathartic.

mr. Jones, the supplement-distributing conspiracy theorist, was ordered to pay more than $45 million in damages to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of a 6-year-old child killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The jury’s decision came after Mr. Jones was held liable for defamation of Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis, whom he falsely accused for years of being an actor in the crisis in a government-planned “false flag” operation.

To the victims of Mr. Jones’ harassment campaigns, and to those who have followed his career for years, the sentence 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 paid for his lies, no doubt relieved.

But before we celebrate Mr. Jones’ responsibility, admittedly, a conviction against him is unlikely to do much harm to the phenomenon he represents: bellicose mythologists building profitable media empires with easily debunked lies.

mr. Jones’ megaphone has shrunk in recent years — thanks in part to decisions by tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter to remove him from their services. But its reach is still significant, and it has more influence than you might think.

Court records shown said mr. Jones’ Infowars store, which sells questionable performance-enhancing supplements and survival gear, made more than $165 million from 2015 to 2018. Despite being de-platformed, Mr. Jones still makes guest appearances on popular podcasts and YouTube shows, and millions of Americans still view him as, if not a reliable chronicler of current events, at least a wacky diversion. (And rich — an expert witness in the trial estimated the net worth of Mr. Jones and Free Speech Systems, his holding company, at somewhere between $135 million and $270 million.)

In the following weeks, Mr. Jones – a maestro of martyrdom – will no doubt turn his defeat in court into hours of entertaining content that will generate more attention, more subscribers, more money.

But a greater cause for caution is that whether or not Mr. Jones remains personally enriched by his lies, his nonsense 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 Green, R-Georgia, suggested that a mass shooting might have been staged to persuade Republicans to support gun control measures, as she did in Facebook post for the 4th of July shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, she played hits from Mr. Jones front catalogue. mr. Jones also plays a role in nurturing yang. 6, 2021, an attack on the Capitol, in ways we are still learning about. (The House committee investigating the riot has request a copy of the text messages from mr. Jones’ phone number, which was mistakenly sent to the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in his defamation suit.)

You can also see Mr. Jones’ influence in the right-wing media. When Tucker Carlson stokes nativist fears on his Fox News show or when a Newsmax anchor spins a weird conspiracy theory on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s efforts to assassinate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, this is proof that the DNA of Infowars has entered the conservative bloodstream.

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

All these creators are not bubbling goblins and merry frogs, nor does Mr. Jones come across. But they are pulling from the same fact-free playbook. Some of them focus on softer subjects—like crazy wellness influencers who recently went viral for suggesting that Lyme disease is a “gift” caused by intergalactic space matter, or as Shane Dawson, a popular YouTube creator who has amassed hundreds of millions of views with conspiracy theory documentaries in which he credulously considers claims such as “Chuck E. Cheese reuses uneaten pizza” and “Forest fires are caused by directed energy weapons.”

Certain elements of left and centrist discourse also owe a debt to Mr. Jones. The “Red Scare” podcast, which is popular with the anti-establishment “post-left” crowd, has interviewed mr. Jones and shares some overlapping interests. Much of the reckless coverage and analysis of the legal battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, which dominated social media this summer had a Jonesian undertone. Even Joe Rogan, the popular podcast host (who hosted Mr. Jones on his show and is protect him like “funny” and “funny”), has borrowed some of the Infowars founder’s dot-connecting paranoia in arguingfor example, that Covid-19 vaccines can change your genes.

It would be too simple to blame (or attribute) Mr. Jones for inspiring the entire modern crank. But arguably many of today’s leading conspiracy theorists have found the same profitable sweet spot of lies and entertainment value. It is also likely that we have become desensitized to the conspiracy theories and many of the outrageous lies that once made Mr. Jones in trouble—like the allegations about the Sandy Hook parents that were at the center of his libel trial—would sound less shocking if they were uttered 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 directly accusing the families of mass shooting victims of making it all up, they adopt a naive, “just asking questions” posture while messing with the official narrative. When attacking an enemy, they tiptoe right up to the line of defamation, being careful not to do anything that could get them sued or banned from social media. And when they wage harassment campaigns, they choose their targets wisely — often defaming public figures rather than private citizens, giving 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 example, is sued for defamation by Dominion Voting Systems, which alleges the network knowingly made false statements about voter fraud in the 2020 election.

But these cases are 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 created by yoga moms who think 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 falsehoods by making it harder for fabulists to build up huge audiences. But they have their own limitations, including the simple fact that conspiracy theorists have become more sophisticated at evading their rules. If you draw a line at the claim that the Big Step is real, the attention-seeking geeks will just get their millions of views by claiming that the Big Step could, could to be real and that their audience would be wise to do their own research to find out what Big Step secrets the deep state holds.

To this new, more sophisticated generation of propagandists and reactionaries, Mr. Jones is an inspiration who has climbed the highest peaks of the profession. But he’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 ruined, his legacy of brazen, unrepentant dishonesty will live on – strengthened somehow by knowing just how far you can push a lie before the consequences hit.

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