How Alex Jones founded conspiracy theories: NPR

How Alex Jones founded conspiracy theories: NPR

A jury has ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay millions of dollars for spreading lies about the Sandy Hook school massacre. But his influence in right-wing media and politics remains strong.

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Matt York/AP


A jury has ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay millions of dollars for spreading lies about the Sandy Hook school massacre. But his influence in right-wing media and politics remains strong.

Matt York/AP

Name a traumatic news event in recent decades, and Alex Jones has almost certainly claimed it didn’t happen — or not in the way you think.

The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing? Made by the FBI.

The 2011 shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords? A government mind control operation.

9/11 terrorist attacks? Internal work.

All lies.

The conspiracy theorist and radio host faced his own fabulism experience in an Austin, Texas courtroom this week. 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. “designed to carry weapons.

“Would you agree with me that there is no mass tragedy, mass explosion, shooting that has happened in America in the last 15 years, so that you don’t attach the word “false flag” to it? the parents’ attorney, Mark Bankston, asked Jones.

“I asked that question because I believe a lot of things are being subversive or allowed to happen,” Jones replied.

A jury ordered Jones to pay Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, parents of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, $49.3 million in damages for emotional distress caused by lies about Sandy Hook.

Jones has a prolific history of fabulism

Jones started public broadcasting in Austin, Texas in the 1990s. From his first days on the air, he promoted conspiracy theories about the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

When his wild claims reached him fire from a local radio station, founded Infowars in 1999 and began broadcasting over the Internet and in radio syndication.

After the 9/11 attacks, Jones gained a reputation as a “truther” by claiming that the Bush administration was behind the tragedy.

As his audience grew, Jones popularized the vocabulary for malicious suspicion: not only are officials and the media hiding the truth, but tragic events are being engineered for nefarious purposes.

“He’s at least the catalyst for these dominant stories that follow almost every newsworthy tragedy, whether it’s a mass shooting or something else,” 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 spread lies that the tragedy was fabricated and that the families of the murdered children were lying.

This set the template for the suspicion of subsequent mass shootings.

“A lot of people who share these theories that the government is doing gun control, or that children and parents are crisis actors, are going to cite Sandy Hook as a conclusion,” Aniano said.

The lies at Infowars had real-world consequences.

In court, Lewis and Heslin testified about the persecution and death threats they received from people who believed Jones.

“When you say these things, there’s a community that believes you, which is actually dangerous,” Lewis told Jones in an emotional statement.

Infowars profits from “promoting the apocalypse”.

Infowars doesn’t just spread malicious lies; profits from them.

Infowars’ parent company made $64 million last year selling supplements, survival tools and other products, according to a forensic economist called by the parents’ lawyers.

Plaintiffs also presented evidence from Jones’ own cell phone that Infowars was making $800,000 a day in 2018.

The economist estimates that Jones and Infowars have a combined net worth of between $135 million and $270 million.

Jones isn’t the first to debunk conspiracy theories, but Infowars has harnessed the power of the internet to do so on a large scale — a model that has been emulated by anti-vaccination advocates, COVID-19 deniers and fightback champions. unfounded claims Former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election.

“You’re promoting the apocalypse, and then you’re selling things that can help you in the apocalypse,” said Yunkang Yang, a communications professor at Texas A&M.

Jones inside the Georgia State Capitol during the ‘Stop Stealing’ rally against the US presidential election results on November 18, 2020 in Atlanta, Ga.

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Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images


Jones inside the Georgia State Capitol during the ‘Stop Stealing’ rally against the US presidential election results on November 18, 2020 in Atlanta, Ga.

Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Trump and Jones find common ground in the conspiracy

Jones also left a mark on conservative politics.

When Barack Obama was president, Infowars and Donald Trump promoted the racist lie that he was not an American citizen.

Infowars was also a major spread of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which accused Hillary Clinton and other Democrats of running a child sex trafficking ring out of a Washington pizzeria. A few days after Jones called his listeners to investigate, a man, who He told the “New York Times” newspaper After listening to Jones’ radio show, he entered the restaurant and opened fire. (Jones later apologized to the restaurant owner for promoting the lie.)

In late 2015, before the Republican primary, Trump reached out to Infowars for a mutual interest interview with Jones.

Melissa Ryan, CEO of CARD Strategies, a consulting firm that tracks disinformation and extremism, said Trump “has signaled to conspiracy theorists that he is their man, and for the first time they have a candidate who is a conspiracy theorist.”

“Trump won by being willing to appeal to this base of supporters who would stay away from other people in the party to avoid being called out for having extremist views,” he said.

The early years of Trump’s presidency may have been the height of Jones’ major influence. By 2018, the pressure on tech companies to combat hate speech and harmful lies has increased. Jones and Infowars were removed from Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Apple’s 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. A forensic economist called by the plaintiffs said Jones’ deplatforming did not reduce his earnings.

Now, Jones and Infowars face multiple trials that could put them on the hook for further damage to the victims of their lies.

Jones is seeking to protect his assets through bankruptcy, but has vowed to keep Infowars alive.

But even if Jones shuts up and Infowars goes out of business tomorrow, the seeds of doubt he planted so effectively are flourishing.

“Conspiracy is now a permanent part of our political and cultural discourse,” Ryan said. “I guess you could say Alex Jones was an innovator in that.”

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