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Don’t expect Alex Jones’ come-uppance to stop lies

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

Mr Jones, the supplement-slinging 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 who was murdered 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 defaming Mr Heslin and Ms Lewis whom he falsely accused for years as crisis actors in a government-designed ‘false flag’ operation.

For the victims of Mr. Jones, and for those who have followed his career for years, the verdict seemed long overdue — a notorious internet villain who finally had to face 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 just-deserved, we must recognize that the verdict against him probably won’t make a big dent in the phenomenon he represents: belligerent fabulists building profitable media empires with easily refutable lies.

Mr. Jones’ megaphone has shrunk 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 great and he has more influence than you might think.

Court documents showed that Mr. Jones, who sells dubious performance-enhancing supplements and survival gear, made more than $165 million from 2015 to 2018. Despite his deplatforming, Mr. Jones still guest on popular podcasts and YouTube shows, and millions of Americans still consider him if not a reliable chronicler of current events, at the very least a crazy distraction. (And a wealthy one — an expert witness at the trial estimated the net worth of Mr. Jones and Free Speech Systems, his holding company, to be somewhere between $135 million and $270 million.)

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

But a bigger cause for caution is that whether or not Mr. Jones continues to be personally enriched by his lies, his shtick is everywhere these days.

You can see the influence of Mr. Jones on Capitol Hill, where attention-seeking Republican politicians often sound like they’re auditioning for slots at Infowars. When Georgia Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene suggests that a mass shooting could have been orchestrated to convince Republicans to support gun control measures, as she did in a Facebook post On the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, she plays hits from Mr. jones. Mr. Jones also played a role in fueling the January 6, 2021 Capitol attack, in ways we are still learning about. (The House panel investigating the uprising has asked for a copy of the text messages from Mr. Jones’ phone that were mistakenly sent to plaintiffs’ attorneys 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 bizarre conspiracy theory On an attempt by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to have Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh murdered, it’s proof that Infowars’ DNA has entered the conservative bloodstream.

Even outside of politics, Mr. Jones influenced the way a new generation of conspiracy theorists search for fame online.

These makers don’t all rant about goblins and gay frogs, as Mr. Jones has done. But they draw from the same fact-free script. Some of them focus on softer topics, like the crazy wellness influencers who went viral recently for suggesting that Lyme disease is a “gift” caused by intergalactic space matter, or like Shane Dawson, a popular YouTube creator who has racked up hundreds of millions of views with conspiracy theorist documentaries in which he credulously makes claims like “Chuck E. Cheese reused uneaten pizzas’ 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, which is popular with an anti-establishment “post-left” audience, interviewed mr jones and shares some overlapping interests. Much of the unhinged coverage and analysis of the legal battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, which dominated social media this summer, had a Jonesian tinge. Even Joe Rogan, the popular podcast host (who has hosted and has Mr. Jones on his show) defended him as “hilarious” and “entertaining”), borrowed some of the Infowars founder’s connect-the-dots paranoia in to arguefor example, that Covid-19 vaccines can alter your genes.

It would be too easy for Mr. Blaming (or crediting) 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’ve become desensitized to conspiracy theories, and many of the outrageous falsehoods that once got Mr. Jones into trouble—such as the Sandy Hook parenting allegations at the center of his defamation lawsuit—would sound less shocking if it were. being pronounced today.

Other conspiracy theorists are less likely than Mr. Jones to face trial, in part because they learned from his mistakes. Rather than directly accusing the families of mass shooting victims of making it all up, they take a naive stance, “just asking questions” while poking holes in the official story. When attacking an enemy, they tiptoe to the line of defamation, being careful not to do anything that could lead to them being charged or banned from social media. And when they lead harassment campaigns, they choose their targets wisely — often defaming public figures rather than private individuals, giving them wider speech protection under the First Amendment.

That’s not to say there won’t be more lawsuits, or attempts to hold conspiracy theorists to account. Fox News, for example, is facing a defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems alleging that 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 Egypt’s pyramids to TikToks made by yoga mothers who think Wayfair sells trafficked children – and it’s not clear that our legal system can or should try to stop them.

Social media companies can help curb the spread of harmful lies by making it harder for fabulists to amass a large audience. 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 by claiming that Bigfoot is real, attention seeking cranks will just get their millions of views by stating that Bigfoot power real and that their audiences would be wise to do their own research to find out what Bigfoot-related secrets the deep-state cabal is hiding.

For this new, more subtle generation of propagandists and reactionaries, Mr. Jones is an inspiration who has climbed the highest peaks of the business. But he’s also a cautionary tale — about what can happen if you break too many rules, tell too many easily refutable lies, and refuse to back down.

Mr. Jones isn’t done with the music yet. He has two more lawsuits pending against him by Sandy Hook family members, and he would still have to pay millions in damages.

But even if Mr. Jones’ career is ruined, his legacy of brutal, unrepentant dishonesty will live on — enhanced in some ways by the knowledge of just how far you can push a lie before the consequences kick in.

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