A Connecticut jury’s ruling this week ordering Alex Jones to pay $965 million to parents of Sandy Hook shooting victims he maligned was heartening for people disgusted by the muck of disinformation.
Just don’t expect it to make conspiracy theories go away.
Experts say that the appetite for such hokum and narrowness of the judgments against Jones, who falsely claimed that the 2012 elementary school shootings were a hoax and that grieving parents were actors, virtually ensures a ready supply.
“It’s easy to revel in Alex Jones being punished,” said Rebecca Adelman, a communications professor at the University of Maryland. “But there’s a certain shortsightedness in that celebration.”
There’s a deep tradition of conspiracy theories across American history, from people not believing the official explanation of John F. Kennedy’s assassination to various accusations of extraterrestrial-visit coverups to unfounded allegations of the 2020 presidential election being rigged. With the Salem witch trials in 1692, they even predated the country’s formation.
What’s different today? The internet allows such stories to spread rapidly and widely — and helps adherents find communities of the likeminded. That in turn can push such untrue theories into mainstream politics. Now the will to spread false narratives skillfully online has spread to governments, and the technology to doctor photos and videos enables purveyors to make disinformation more believable.
In today’s media world, Jones found that there’s a lot of money to be made quickly in creating a community willing to believe lies, no matter how outlandish.
In a Texas defamation trial last month, a forensic economist testified that Jones’ Infowars operation made $53.2 million in annual revenue between 2015 and 2018. He has supplemented his media business by selling products like survivalist gear. His company Free Speech Systems filed for bankruptcy in July.
To some, disinformation is the price America pays for the right to free speech. And in a society that popularized the term “alternative facts,” one person’s effort to curb disinformation is another person’s attempt to squash the truth.
Will the Connecticut ruling have a chilling effect on those willing to spread disinformation? “It doesn’t even seem to be chilling him,” said Mark Fenster, a University of Florida law professor. Jones, he noted, reacted in real time on Infowars on the day of the verdict.
“This will not impact the flow of stories that are filled with bad faith and extreme opinion,” said Howard Polskin, who publishes The Righting, a newsletter that monitors the content of right-wing websites. He says false stories about the 2020 election and COVID-19 vaccines remain particularly popular.
“It seems to me that the people who peddle this information for profit may look upon this as the cost of doing business,” Adelman said. “If there’s an audience for it, someone will meet the demand if money is to be made.”
Certainly, the people who believe that Jones and those like him are voices of truth being suppressed by society aren’t going to be deterred by the jury verdict, she said. In fact, the opposite is likely to be true.