Will the Alex Jones verdict tame conspiracy culture?

Alex Jones.
Alex Jones. Illustrated | Getty Images
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A Texas jury last week ruled that Infowars founder Alex Jones should pay the parents of one of the children killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting nearly $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages for claiming the massacre was a hoax. Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, who had sought $150 million from Jones, said during the trial that Jones' bogus claim that the government staged the attack to justify taking away Americans' guns had resulted in harassment and death threats from his followers. During the trial, Jones acknowledged that the shooting, which left 20 children and six educators dead in 2012, was "100 percent real."

During Jones' testimony, plaintiff attorney Mark Bankston confronted Jones with text messages from his phone that were accidentally handed over by his own lawyers, and he suggested the texts proved that Jones had lied on the witness stand. He then pointed out several texts and other evidence that contradicted Jones' previous testimony. Jones' company declared bankruptcy during the trial.

Has this case delivered a death blow to the conspiracy theories Jones and other extremist voices have used to fuel controversy, make millions, and stoke political division?

This isn't going to end Jones' attack on the truth

Jones made his "reluctant admission of the truth" only "with his sweaty back pinned against the wall," says Pamela Paul in The New York Times. That's something, but it "doesn't matter nearly enough." Seeing Jones embarrassed and taken down a peg by an accidental email provided "a certain small satisfaction." It was gratifying to see "technology, media, and information decisively bit back at someone who had abused all three." But Jones' leaked texts also showed beyond a doubt that he "continues to spread disinformation, whether about the coronavirus pandemic or the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Even when the truth comes out, it can feel like an afterthought, and worse, irrelevant."

This case hurt Jones, but not his business model

Watching Jones "squirm on the stand" was "its own form of justice for all the pain he caused the families of victims after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Connecticut," says the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in an editorial. It's significant that he admitted his "wild conspiracy theories" were "fictitious," which he obviously has "known all along." But the business model that "built his Infowars empire," which "is rooted in the adage that there's a sucker born every minute," still works. Financial records introduced in the trial showed that Jones made up to $800,000 per day hawking his Infowars lies and merch. "No wonder, then, that Donald Trump adopted the same model before his 2016 presidential run: Say anything. Improvise on the spot. Make anything up. Lie like there's no tomorrow." And now "dupes of Jones and Trump" are winning elections to positions where they'll oversee elections and "enforce policies based on the conspiracies they've been brainwashed into believing." Maybe Jones didn't lose much, after all.

Jones isn't the only bad guy here

Mainstream media outlets are gloating now, says Jim Geraghty at National Review, but they're the ones who fueled his rise by "following him everywhere" and showcasing his "lunacy to their own audiences." They devoured "whatever nutty conspiracy theory he would offer," spreading it at the same time as they mocked it. "It doesn't matter if 90 percent of your audience thinks he's a nutcase. He doesn't care. It doesn't matter if you 'win the issue' or 'expose' him as a liar." He just needs an audience to spread his lies. "All that ABC, CNN, and NBC did in these cases was help make Jones a household name, guaranteeing him more subscribers and a larger profile moving forward. It's a numbers game, and Jones knows it." It's all a game to him, and as long as you keep him in the news, "he wins."

We need social media reform to make Big Tech accountable, too

Making Jones pay for "the defamation campaign that painted the families who lost children as liars or actors" is just a start, says The Dallas Morning News in an editorial. But don't forget that social media companies "allowed this false narrative to catch fire on their platforms." When these sites' users "make baseless, incendiary, and defamatory claims in the way Jones did — describing the murder of children as a government plot and saying families faked their own children's deaths — it can create echo chambers" that suck in gullible people scrolling through for something interesting to read. "Algorithms often facilitate and even boost this material. For their role in this, social media giants enjoy near total immunity from any liability."

Unless Jones' public spanking is followed by changes to a 1996 law called Section 230, "which safeguards websites from lawsuits targeting third-party posts," this will be a hollow victory. As a society, we can't let people spread vile "fake news" or hate speech and let the platforms that let these lies "fester and spread" cash in with no repercussions. There are already Facebook and Twitter groups spinning similar "false flag" lies about the Uvalde school shooting. It's time to impose "legal accountability" on Big Tech.

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