If the mere thought of Alex Jones makes your stomach burn, you probably got some Pepcid AC-quality relief last week. That’s when a Texas jury ordered the InfoWars demagogue to pay $49.3 million in punitive and compensatory damages to the parents of one of the Sandy Hook Elementary students slaughtered in 2012 for defamatory lies he told about them.
This case, one of several filed against Jones, accused him of repeatedly asserting on his webcast that the parent of the killed student interviewed on CNN was an actor in a scheme to cover up the truth about the massacre. The Jones segments made the parents targets of harassment and, they argued, caused them additional grief on top of their already considerable pain.
These damages and those likely in other cases look like backbreakers for Jones. But no, not any more than his banishment from YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Apple’s App Store. His business empire, far from scuttled, has an estimated value of between $135 million and $270 million. Jones has profited and is likely to continue to profit from his labors in the Lie Economy, the marketplace where gullible viewers are sorted from the skeptical and delivered to advertisers who make the most of their naïveté. The $49.3 million damages awarded are an eyeful, but no sharp legal knife thinks Jones risks paying much more than a fraction of that in this case and others. Despite the awful headlines the case sent up, Jones’ audience seems steadfast. Jones may have lost here, but he’ll continue to win.
To describe Jones as a Lie Economy worker is not to declare false everything he says and broadcasts. Not even his imagination veers to that polar extreme. But a review of his greatest hits attest to the low truth-value of many of his comments. He has broadcasted warnings about a government weapon being used against Americans. In addition to calling the Sandy Hook massacre a staged event that employed actors, he called Robert Mueller a demon and pedophile, said John McCain was the real leader of the Democratic Party, accused the government of the 9/11 attacks, spread the bogus “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, and claimed the Pentagon has devised perfumes that make men gay to prevent them from procreating.
But as it turns out, the joke is on Jones’ most dedicated viewers. Discerning audiences who stumble on Jones’ show turn him off, but his message excites the credulous who, if they don’t fully subscribe to the man’s views, want to hear more of the same. Lies are almost always more exciting and exploitable than dull truths. Having culled the impressionable from the doubting and boosted their pulse rate, he turns them over to his merchandising wing where he sells survivalist gear and health supplements like Brain Force Ultra, Winter Sun Plus Vitamin D and a variety of “Superblue Silver” products (immune gargle, toothpaste and wound dressing) that Jones claimed could mitigate Covid. It’s not incidental that the products he hawks are presented as the fix for coming apocalyptic perils predicted on his shows. Citing court filings submitted by Jones’ attorneys in discovery, HuffPost reports that InfoWars collected $165 million in sales of these products from September 2015 to the end of 2018.
Jones isn’t the only entrepreneur working the Lie Economy angle. Fox News Channel and its bastard offspring Newsmax and OAN excel at pushing half-truths that stimulate viewer appetite for more outlandish morsels. Tucker Carlson would have you believe that Jan. 6 was a false flag operation. Sean Hannity pushed a baseless conspiracy theory about the murder of Seth Rich. The channel hyped ivermectin as a Covid treatment and drenched its audience in bogus coverage about the “stolen election.” Again, not everything aired on these channels can be dismissed as lies any more than the notion that Jones broadcasts lies only. But the steady stream of spurious segments they do air seems designed to hook accepting viewers whose attention can then be sold to advertisers. Unlike Jones, Fox News commands a more varied advertiser base, including blue-chip companies. But health supplements and pain relief products appear in a recent ranking of its top 10 biggest advertisers. The frequency of ads for gold, testosterone, reverse mortgages and a home-title lock product (pitched by Rudy Giuliani!) on Fox and its neighboring channels remind one that shrewd audiences aren’t the primary target.
But won’t that $49.3 million judgment crush the Jones enterprise? Or the other pending lawsuits, which have Jones on the ropes? Don’t count on it. Legal commentators note that Texas law places a $750,000 cap per plaintiff on punitive damages. “Several defamation lawyers said they were skeptical that the parents will be able to get around the cap,” Reuters’ Jack Queen reported. If Jones ends up paying a few million to a few Sandy Hook parents, he can rationalize it as an acceptable business expense. Meanwhile, the Jones company filed for bankruptcy at the end of June, which will delay the other cases against him, perhaps for years. Will the public shame Jones has endured during this trial injure his show? Not likely. A forensic economist testified in the Jones trial that he and his companies made more after the leading social media companies deplatformed him in 2018 than before.
You can fight the Lie Economy with the truth. But evidently you can’t beat it in court.
Thanks to Tim Noah, whose insights I have stolen once again. Send insights to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed is part of the Truth Economy. My RSS feed wants some of the Superblue Silver Toothpaste.