Alex Jones paying out millions in damages will fuel conspiracy theorists, not stop them – iNews

Among the devastating testimonies, rehashed trauma and decade’s worth of havoc wreaked on grieving families, there was one silver lining in the recent trial surrounding the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting: watching conspiracy theorist Alex Jones be made to pay nearly $50m in damages, including a payout to parents of one of the victims.
Jones and his misinformation-laden media outlet, InfoWars, rose to global fame during the 2010s in large part due to proudly claiming that the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was a hoax planned by the US government, and falsely accusing bereaved parents of being “crisis actors” in a “false flag” operation.
It’s hard to overstate Jones’s influence on how modern conspiracy theories spread or on what modern conspiracy theorists look like (often social media-savvy personalities who are part of the “alt-right”). He gathered tens of millions of followers and viewers before ultimately filing for bankruptcy at the beginning of this year. His company was worth a potential estimated $270m.
So, understandably, the jury’s verdict on 6 August felt, for some, like a kind of atonement. Many commentators have described his court loss as a “small battle won” and good news for stemming the spread of conspiracy theories, seeing the takedown of this giant as one of the first steps to taking apart these dangerous movements.
But, while there is of course value in this moment – for the parents of Sandy Hook victims, the victims themselves, as well as those who have been directly affected by Jones’s lies – the impact of this verdict has been wildly overstated, if there even is any real impact at all. For there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Jones now means to these movements or how conspiracy theories spread in 2022.
Part of what has always made most conspiracy theories so potent is the message they send to believers, saying that anything that could be seen as a “loss” for the movement – or their theories disproved – is merely proof of the powerful conspiracy systems flexing control to discredit them.
Modern conspiracy theorists peddle this narrative well, using all evidence that goes against their theory as a reason why the movement actually needs to fight harder. One of the most recent examples can be seen in Covid “Plandemic” conspiracy theorists, who argue the past two years were a grand plot cooked up by Bill Gates.
Rather than seeing the evidence that vaccines are reducing numbers of deaths and severe illness, they simply take this information and build it into their theory, claiming that the “fake vaccines” were always part of the plan.
You are not being vaccinated, the narrative goes, but having a microchip inserted, and now that enough people are chipped, the lower death and hospitalisation shows that the people faking the pandemic don’t need to pretend anymore.
This same type of logic fuels almost every modern conspiracy theory (anti-vaxxers, QAnon believers, even flat Earthers). So when it comes to Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists – or really anyone who believes any of the countless theories Jones publicised at InfoWars – sure, maybe a handful will have their minds changed following this trial. However, it seems unlikely that a group of people who believed that the government faked a massacre of primary-school-aged children will be persuaded so easily.
What seems more likely is that, instead, they will see this as a sign of those in power tightening their grip, and Jones himself as a martyr who was taken down by the establishment for being brave enough to speak the truth. Rather than be cowed by this verdict, or questioning their beliefs, they will get fired up and be motivated to fight harder.
The notion that the verdict will create shockwaves that help stem the tide of conspiracy theories more broadly seems to be more hopeful than rooted in reality. Many have argued that this will put off other characters like Jones – but, while he is without question one of the 21st century’s most prominent theorists, this puts far too much stock on the influence Jones carries now, and fails to grasp how conspiracy theories have evolved since he first emerged.
Figureheads, while undoubtedly useful, are increasingly unimportant to a conspiracy theory’s sustained growth, with the idea itself and “movement” superseding a focus on a specific person.
The rise of QAnon (the unfounded conspiracy theory that claimed Donald Trump was trying to stop a Satanic group of A-list celebrities from trafficking young children) is the best example of this. Although Trump engaged with the theory publicly, he was its beacon rather than its founder or disseminator. QAnon still exists since his presidency ended, and even saw his failure to be re-elected as evidence that they needed to fight even harder.
The global power of QAnon also points to a troubling fact missed in this discussion around Jones: that the group was able to gain a grip on the beliefs of millions of people despite being founded by a shadowy, often quiet, anonymous figure (known as “Q”).
Even since Q’s effective disappearance around the time of the Capitol Hill riots on 6 January last year, the movement has thrived. In the 2020s, figureheads aren’t necessary for growth, and once it has a stronghold in enough people’s minds, the theory runs away with its followers, who morph it into different offshoots. The leader becomes almost irrelevant.
Another element of Jones’s influence is that he has made this type of celebrity he popularised – what could be described as a conspiracy theorist media personality, or even a conspiracy theorist influencer – look attractive and, most importantly, lucrative to a whole new generation.
When we look at YouTube, Instagram, as well as TikTok, we can see that other similar figures have begun to flourish, particularly during the past few years. Accounts adopt and mimic elements of Jones’s personality-led lifestyle brand of disinformation dissemination.
The crucial difference with these accounts, though, is that they have mostly been craftier than Jones about the way they present information, engaging with conspiracy theories that are broader, such as The “New World Order” or Covid conspiracy theories, making them less prone to being charged with defamation.
This may not, until now, have been by design. But the Sandy Hook case helpfully shows these Jones-esque influencers what territory they need to avoid in order to continue thriving as Jones once did. Rather than putting them off, it will merely make them cleverer and more slippery, allowing them to carefully circumvent legal issues while continuing to draw in devoted subscribers that line their pockets.
Last week’s case was the first of three Sandy Hook-related trials that Jones is set to face in the next year. Jones is also appealing against the verdict of this most recent one, meaning he will almost certainly be appearing on podcasts and YouTube shows with sympathisers who know the kind of audience figures an episode with him is guaranteed to bring in.
Regardless of what happens with his appeal or in any other trial, the impact will matter little to the future of conspiracy theorism. No financial penalty, no matter how great, will be enough to undo the impact Jones had. The damage has been done – the wheels are set in motion.
All rights reserved. © 2021 Associated Newspapers Limited.

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