Name one traumatic news event over the past few decades, and it’s almost certain that Alex Jones claimed it didn’t happen — or not the way you thought.
The Boston Marathon bombing in 2013? Staged by the FBI.
The 2011 murder of Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords? A government mind control operation.
The attacks of September 11 ? A job inside.
The conspiracy theorist and radio host was confronted about his history of fabulism this week in an Austin, Texas courtroom. He was on trial to determine how much he should pay for defaming the parents of a first grader killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, after years of falsely claiming no child had died and that the families were “crisis actors” in a “giant hoax”. “designed to carry firearms.
“Would you agree with me that there hasn’t been a mass tragedy, mass bombing, mass shooting that has happened in America in the last 15 years that you don’t didn’t attach the words “false flag”?” Mark Bankston, the parents’ attorney, asked Jones.
“I asked the question because I think a lot of things are provocative or allowed,” Jones replied.
The jury ordered Jones to pay $49.3 million in damages to Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, parents of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, for mental anguish caused by his lies about Sandy Hook.
Jones has a history of prolific fabulism
Jones got his start in public access broadcasting in Austin, Texas in the 1990s. From his on-air debut, he spun conspiracy theories about the Branch Davidian precinct headquarters in Waco, Texas, and the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
When his savage claims got him fired from a local radio station, he founded Infowars in 1999 and began broadcasting on the Internet and in radio syndication.
After the September 11 attacks, Jones rose to fame as a “truthful,” claiming the Bush administration was behind the tragedy.
As his audience grew, Jones popularized a vocabulary for pernicious doubt: not only that officials and the media conceal the truth, but that tragic events are engineered for nefarious ends.
“He’s at least a catalyst for these mainstream narratives that follow almost any newsworthy tragedy, whether it’s a mass shooting or otherwise,” said Sara Aniano, a disinformation researcher at the Anti -Defamation League.
Jones’ response to Sandy Hook was perhaps the most egregious example. For years, Infowars has been spreading lies that the tragedy was made up and implying that the families of the murdered children were lying.
This created a pattern to cast doubt on subsequent mass shootings.
“Many people who share these theories that these were staged by the government for gun control reasons or that children and parents are crisis actors will refer to Sandy Hook as their base. of this conclusion,” Aniano said.
The lies about Infowars have had real-world consequences.
At trial, Lewis and Heslin testified about the harassment and death threats they received from people who believe Jones.
“When you say these things, there is a section of society that believes you, that is actually dangerous,” Lewis said in moving testimony addressed directly to Jones.
Infowars profits from ‘preaching the apocalypse’
Infowars doesn’t just spread harmful lies; he profits.
According to a forensic economist called by the parents’ attorneys, the parent company of Infowars raked in $64 million from sales of supplements, life support equipment and other products last year.
The plaintiffs also presented evidence from Jones’ own cellphone showing that in 2018 Infowars was earning up to $800,000 a day.
The combined net worth of Jones and Infowars is between $135 million and $270 million, the economist estimated.
Jones isn’t the first person to take on conspiracy theories, but Infowars has harnessed the power of the internet to do so on a massive scale — a model that has been emulated by anti-vaccine advocates, cancer deniers. COVID-19 and the champions of baseless claims that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election.
“You preach the apocalypse, then you sell stuff that can help you in an apocalypse,” said Yunkang Yang, a communications professor at Texas A&M.
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Trump and Jones find common ground in conspiracy
Jones also left a mark on conservative politics.
When Barack Obama was president, both Infowars and Donald Trump promoted the racist lie that he was not a US citizen.
Infowars was also a big spreader of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which falsely accused Hillary Clinton and other Democrats of running a child sex trafficking ring out of a Washington, DC pizzeria. Days after Jones urged his audience to investigate, a man, who told the New York Times that he had listened to Jones’ radio show, walked into the restaurant and fired a gun. (Jones later apologized to the restaurant owner for promoting the lie.)
In late 2015, before the Republican primaries, Trump called Infowars for a mutual interview with Jones.
Trump “gave these people who are conspiracy theorists signals that he was their guy and they had a candidate who was a conspiracy theorist for the first time,” said Melissa Ryan, CEO of consulting firm CARD Strategies, which tracks misinformation and extremism.
“Trump won by being willing to appeal to that base of supporters that other party members would have kept at bay,” she said, “lest they be called out for holding extremist views.” .
The early years of Trump’s presidency may have been the height of Jones’ mainstream influence. In 2018, pressure intensified on tech companies to crack down on hate speech and harmful lies. Jones and Infowars have been launched on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the Apple App Store.
This limited his ability to reach a wider audience, but according to evidence presented in court, he still makes a lot of money. The forensic economist called by the plaintiffs said the removal of Jones’ platform did not hurt his earnings.
Now Jones and Infowars face multiple lawsuits that could put them on the hook for further damages to the victims of his lies.
Jones is trying to protect his assets through bankruptcy, but has pledged to keep Infowars alive.
But even if Jones were to shut up and Infowars closed tomorrow, the seeds of doubt he so effectively planted will flower.
“The conspiracy has become an integral part of our political and cultural discourse,” Ryan said. “I think you can say Alex Jones was an innovator in this area.”