Alex Jones defamation ruling over mass shooting at Sandy Hook primary school will not stem the flow of disinformation – Martyn McLaughlin
The successful legal action against Alex Jones, one of the world’s most prominent conspiracy theorists, was satisfying to watch on two fronts.
Not only did it deliver a degree of justice to those he had smeared, it offered hope that we are not powerless against the rising tides of disinformation that have become a fixture of our political and cultural discourse.
For decades, Jones and his Infowars website have promulgated lies and conspiracy theories around any number of issues, from climate change and the September 11 attacks to, more recently, the US election and the Covid vaccination programme. This is not someone with a fleeting disregard for facts; the foundation of his media empire is comprised of reckless falsehoods.
The most devastating untruths, however, were reserved for the Sandy Hook atrocity, which left 20 children and six adults dead after a gunman rampaged through a Connecticut primary school in 2012.
Jones claimed the massacre was a so-called “false flag” operation, “staged” so that the US government could “go after our guns”. He openly mocked the grieving parents and dismissed them as “actors” complicit in the entire conspiracy.
Such vicious and vile smears hit hard. Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, who lost their six year-old son, Jesse, told of how they were hounded and harassed by zealots emboldened by the wild theories pushed by Jones. They faced abuse online and on the street, with shots fired at their home and car.
It is beyond most people’s comprehension to understand the impact of such psychological terror on this family and others like them. The most unbearable personal tragedies have been weaponised against them and monetised by those who understand the currency of fear.
Any decent person will draw a degree of catharsis from seeing Jones finally facing consequences for his actions. As Mark Bankston, the lawyer for Jesse’s parents, told the jury in his opening statement, speech is free, but lies you have to pay for.
The jury’s order in Texas will be followed next month by a separate defamation case in Connecticut brought by eight families. Having failed to turn over records to lawyers, Jones is already liable. The only question remaining is for how much.
With a trove of the provocateur's text messages also handed over on Monday to the US House select committee investigating the US Capitol riots, things could very quickly go from bad to worse for the 48 year-old.
Yet it would be naive to presume that the successful legal action, and whatever else follows, will substantially curtail the pernicious disinformation ecosystems that have been built by Jones and his ilk.
The case against Jones was predicated not on his dissemination of fake news, nor was it focused on his freedom of speech rights. It was concerned solely with the defamatory statements he made against individuals. Jones was found liable in the civil lawsuit because he had made false statements of fact about the Sandy Hook parents publicly, and did so while purporting they were true.
It is unusual for conspiracy theorists to train their ire against individuals. Instead, most favour vague, sweeping plots which do not target legal entities such as the wild deceptions peddled about the pandemic vaccination programme and the last US election.
The Jones ruling will serve as a stark reminder of this to those who trade in untruths. They will better understand the line they cannot cross. Some might be deterred altogether from following in his footsteps. Others will be content to play the game of risk versus reward.
Jones himself is not going away any time soon. Within hours of the jury’s decision, he was back on air, disparaging the legal proceedings as an attack by “globalists” and vowing to “go down fighting". He later told his listeners that the decision against him was a “major victory for truth”.
But come Monday, he was back in full flow with his cocktail of anger, grievance, and paranoia, warning that Barack Obama “and his people” may launch a cyber attack to disrupt the upcoming US mid-term elections and blame it on the Russians.
There are millions of reasons why Jones seems intent on doubling down on his harmful rhetoric; £136 million, in fact – that is how much Infowars generated between September 2015 and the end of 2018, with sales of more than £650,000 a day at times. Like any experienced conspiracist, Jones will continue to grift via his various revenue streams until the financial and political damage becomes too great to bear.
That eventuality would not change anything. Even if Jones falls silent tomorrow, others will fill the vacuum. He did not invent the market for deceit, he merely serves it. For all his prominence, Jones is just a node in a disinformation network that grows bigger in its scale and reach by the day, while adopting increasingly sophisticated methods of dissemination.
The likes of Facebook and YouTube may have made progress in culling bad actors from their networks, but as Jones has proved, there is always a workaround – namely, hosting content on lightly regulated platforms, amplifying it elsewhere, and monetising it via crowd-funding.
But the real trick in all of this is not just taking action against those who sow and spread malignant and knowing false information. It is about addressing the demand for it. The audiences amassed by Jones and others like him have radicalised. They return time and again to digest the anger and hatred not because it is factual, or even coherent, but because it speaks to their emotional state.
Countering that is a complex pursuit, and it will require much more than a few isolated defamation lawsuits, but counter it we must. As Scarlett Lewis testified in court: “Truth is so vital to our world. Truth is what we base our reality on, and we have to agree on that to have a civil society.”
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