Alex Jones Is a Symptom of a Much Larger Problem in America
After harassing and defaming grieving Sandy Hook parents, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones may finally get what’s coming to him. But as long as the nation’s most powerful institutions fail to earn the public’s trust, hucksters like Jones will always find an audience.
Alex Jones responded to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 by accusing the victim’s families of being part of a conspiracy to fake the massacre in order to promote gun control. The result of Jones’s claim was a nightmare for the parents, and several of them sued him for defamation.
After years of delays and obstruction, judges in Texas and Connecticut ruled him liable by default for his failure to fulfill his legal obligation to cooperate with the process. The only remaining issue is how much he’ll have to pay out.
Developments in Jones’s trial this week have greatly increased the chance that he’ll have to start shelling out serious money. That’s a good thing. Jones made wildly inflammatory accusations against grieving parents without a shred of evidence — and he did it in order to draw viewers, listeners, and clicks to his media business Infowars and related profit-making ventures. He’s a despicable person.
But he’s also a symptom of a much larger problem. While Jones certainly traffics in ludicrous falsehoods, the uncomfortable truth is that he has plenty of real material to blend with his nonsense. If Americans could trust government and mainstream media to tell them the truth, Alex Jones wouldn’t have been able to find a significant audience in the first place. Unfortunately, that’s not the society we live in, and so dangerous conspiracy theories abound.
Just Asking Questions?
Jones is on his second Sandy Hook trial. The first one ended last month in Texas with a jury awarded $4.1 million in compensatory damages and an additional $45.2 million in punitive damages to the parents of a six-year-old boy who was murdered at Sandy Hook. The parents, Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, had been subject to death threats and even an attempted shooting by people who believed Jones’s initial conspiracy theory. (More recently, he’s switched to a more moderate conspiracy theory: that the shooting really happened but that the government chose to allow it to happen.)
This second trial, which will decide what he owes to the families of eight of the other victims, is in progress in Connecticut. It doesn’t seem to be going much better for Jones. On Tuesday, the judge ordered new personnel to oversee the investigation of Jones’s finances, citing evidence that he’s continuing to spend lavishly even as he pleads poverty. Jones’s predictable response has been to find every camera anyone’s willing to point in his direction and rant about how the judge is a “tyrant.”
One moment in the trial went viral. Mark Bankston, an attorney for Neil and Scarlett, dramatically revealed as he cross-examined Jones that Jones’s attorneys had “messed up” and inadvertently given him a digital copy of Jones’s entire cell phone. Jones had previously claimed that there were no text messages about Sandy Hook on his phone — a claim the records obtained by Bankston showed to be nonsense.
Seeing Jones get what’s coming to him in these trials is satisfying. I care deeply about free speech but I’m not enough of an absolutist to think we shouldn’t have defamation laws — and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of why such laws are in place. But despite my enjoyment of the Bankston clip, I found a moment later in Jones’s interaction with Bankston even more interesting. Jones, with his showman’s instinct for getting in a good line — even when it wouldn’t help in court — turned the tables and asked Bankston how much all the people who lied about Iraqi WMDs (“Weapons of Mass Destruction”) should have to pay out for their falsehoods.
In his “tyrant” rant this week in Connecticut, Jones performed a version of the same rhetorical move. He said he hadn’t been “wrong on purpose” in his earlier belief that Sandy Hook was a hoax but that he’d simply “questioned” it because all “major events” should be questioned — “just like the Gulf of Tonkin, just like WMDs.”
The claim that all he’d ever done was to ask questions is a considerable distortion of the record. One of the earliest Infowars headlines about Sandy Hook baldly proclaimed that it looked like a “false flag,” i.e., an event staged by the authorities. And it’s hard to take seriously Jones’s portrayal of himself as a person of integrity who may sometimes say misguided things motivated by a sincere search for truth when you remember that a major source of his income has always been the medically worthless “brain supplements” he hawks on his show. (Really.)
But there’s also a clue in there about one important source of his appeal. Jones exploits public distrust in powerful institutions — distrust that, of course, has been richly earned.
A Much Larger Problem
When Alex Jones tells stories about powerful people in government concocting false narratives with the assistance of big corporate media, that resonates with his audience because, well, powerful people in government do concoct false narratives with the assistance of big corporate media. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and their numerous accomplices and enablers really were lying through their teeth about WMDs, for example, and none of them have been held to account in any way. Those lies were world-changing, but smaller-scale official falsehoods often ripple across our collective consciousness over the course of a handful of news cycles before disappearing.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress, under oath, that the National Security Agency wasn’t collecting data on millions of Americans in 2013. The Edward Snowden revelations left no doubt that he’d perjured himself, but nothing happened to Clapper. Nine years later, James Clapper is still being invited on CNN as a respected source of expert analysis of the latest news events.
Just two years ago, hawks within the intelligence community asserted without a shred of evidence that Russia was paying bounties to Taliban fighters for killing American soldiers in Afghanistan, and as outlandish as the accusation was at its face, major media outlets dutifully reported it. Now everyone’s more or less admitted that it was bullshit, and even though it could have had major consequences — both in escalating already-dangerous great power tensions and in prolonging the twenty-year nightmare that was America’s war in Afghanistan — the whole episode has been forgotten. This stuff happens all the time.
None of this means that Jones himself should be forgiven for the hell he put the Sandy Hook families through. What it does is shed some light on the ecosystem within which a parasite like Jones can thrive.
The New York Times relentlessly spread the Bush administration’s lies about WMDs through the “reporting” of Judith Miller. Those lies led to millions of Iraqis being mutilated, killed, or displaced from their homes, and thousands of ordinary Americans coming back in body bags. Everyone knows all of this, and the New York Times was able to say, in effect, “Whoops, sorry about that” and carry on as if nothing had happened. Hell, Bush himself recently made a Freudian slip in a speech about Russia and referred to his own invasion of Iraq, rather than Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, has “unprovoked and unjustifiable.” And the slipup was greeted with warm and affectionate laughter by the crowd, as if the sin he’d just screwed up and admitted to was something fundamentally innocent — something closer to sneaking off and smoking a joint one day during his stint in the Texas Air National Guard than invading a country based on lies.
All of this makes it difficult for the guardians of respectable opinion to make Alex Jones into a pariah on account of his own falsehoods. And it enables Jones to make his conspiracy theories sound plausible as he mixes all-too-real examples of government lies with whatever lunacy he cooks up to earn clicks and sell brain supplements. We should be worried that even if the courts strip Jones of every asset and he isn’t even left with sufficient funds to buy himself a new microphone, it’s going to be equally easy for whoever comes next to fill the same niche.
I’d love to live in a society where someone like Jones would be reduced to screaming his theories on street corners while passers-by quickened their pace. But if we’re going to get there we need to start holding far more powerful liars to account.