If it hadn’t been so excruciatingly sad, Alex Jones’s defamation trial 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 for years he falsely accused of being crisis actors in a “false flag” operation plotted by the government.
To the victims of Mr. Jones’s harassment campaigns, and to those who have followed his career for years, the verdict felt 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 comeuppance, we should acknowledge that the verdict against him is unlikely to put much of a dent in the phenomenon he represents: belligerent fabulists building profitable media empires with easily disprovable lies.
Mr. Jones’s megaphone has shrunk in recent years — thanks, in part, to decisions by tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter to bar him from their services. But his reach is still substantial, and he has more influence than you might think.
Court records showed that Mr. Jones’s Infowars store, which sells dubious performance-enhancing supplements and survival gear, made more than $165 million from 2015 to 2018. Despite his deplatforming, Mr. Jones still appears as a guest on popular podcasts and YouTube shows, and millions of Americans still look to him as, if not a reliable chronicler of current events, at least a wacky diversion. (And a wealthy one — 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 coming weeks, Mr. Jones — a maestro of martyrdom — will no doubt spin his court defeat into hours of entertaining content, all of which will generate more attention, more subscribers, more money.
But a bigger reason 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 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 could have been orchestrated to persuade Republicans to support gun-control measures, as she did in a Facebook post about the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, Ill., she’s playing hits from Mr. Jones’s back catalog. Mr. Jones also played a role in fueling the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, in ways we are still learning about. (The House panel investigating the insurrection has asked for a copy 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 also 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 a new 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 same fact-free playbook. Some of them focus on softer subject matter — like the kooky 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 racked up hundreds of millions of views with conspiracy theory documentaries in which he credulously examines claims such as “Chuck E. Cheese reuses uneaten pizza” and “Wildfires are caused by 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 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 Mr. Jones on his show and has defended him as “hilarious” and “entertaining”), has borrowed some of the Infowars founder’s connect-the-dots paranoia in arguing, for example, that Covid-19 vaccines can alter your genes.
It would be too simple to blame (or credit) 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 probable that we’ve become desensitized to conspiracy theories, and many of the outrageous falsehoods that once got Mr. Jones into trouble — such as the allegations about Sandy Hook parents that were at the center of his defamation trial — would sound less shocking if uttered today.
Other conspiracy theorists are less likely than Mr. Jones to end up in court, in part because they’ve learned from his mistakes. Instead of straightforwardly accusing the families of mass-shooting victims of making it all up, they adopt a naïve, “just asking questions” posture while poking holes in the official narrative. When attacking a foe, they tiptoe right up to the line of defamation, being careful not to do anything that could get them sued or barred from social media. And when they lead harassment campaigns, they pick their targets wisely — often maligning public figures rather than private citizens, which gives them broader speech protections under the First Amendment.
That’s not to say 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 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 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 made by yoga moms who think Wayfair is selling trafficked children — and it’s not clear that our legal system can, or should even attempt to, stop them.
Social media companies can help curb the spread of harmful lies by making it harder for fabulists to amass huge audiences. But they have their own limitations, including the simple fact that conspiracy theorists have gotten more sophisticated about evading their rules. If you draw a line at claiming that Bigfoot is real, attention-seeking cranks will simply get their millions of views by positing that Bigfoot might be real and that their audiences would be wise to do their own research to figure 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 ascended the profession’s highest peaks. But he’s also a cautionary tale — of what can happen when 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 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, in some ways, by the knowledge of exactly how far you can push a lie before consequences kick in.