On being ... an attempt at recompense

 By Ingrid Sapona 

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Alex Jones. Indeed, until his defamation trials earlier this year, I couldn’t have told you the name of his website (it’s Infowars). Sure, I had seen him – probably on pieces on The Daily Show (Comedy Central’s late-night satirical news program), but I never paid much attention to his outrageous claims.    

Before the defamation trials, I hadn’t heard any of the unbelievable stories Jones made up about the Sandy Hook shooting. I was shocked when I heard the details about the lies he fabricated and unrelentingly promoted, and about the agony he cause the victims’ families. I couldn’t bare to watch the trial because I was sure that Jones would use it to grandstand, but it was impossible to not hear a bit about the proceedings. 

One tidbit that caught my attention during one trial was about how much money Infowars brought in on a daily basis. I don’t remember the exact amounts mentioned, but it was in the six-figure range. I remembered wondering how it was possible that he was bringing in that much. All I could figure was that Infowars must have been selling t-shirts and hats to fans through the website. (But even then, I couldn’t imagine making that much every day selling shirts and hats.) 

It wasn’t until I read a fascinating New York Times opinion piece by Farhad Manjoo that I understood how Jones and Infowars make money. The short answer is ad revenue. (I know, can I get a DUH…) But it’s not just garden variety advertisers one is likely to encounter on Infowars. Apparently (and I will be the first to admit that I’ve never been on Infowars’s website, nor will I ever) the bulk of the ads are for what you and I would probably think of as snake oil. “Wellness” products, such as diet pills, fluoride-free toothpaste that Jones once claimed kills the SARS-corona family of viruses, and products with names like InstaHard (you can guess what that’s for). 

Manjoo’s article helped me understood how Jones operates. I’ve never thought for a moment that any of the social media “influencers” like Jones honestly believe any of the lies or conspiracies they peddle. But, while politicians might make bold-faced lies – or go along with others’ outrageous lies – to gain or retain power, I long wondered what motivates some like Jones to fabricate a lie about something like the tragedy at Sandy Hook. 

Now I get it though. For Infowars, the more outrageous the lie Jones comes up with, the more people will check out the website. (What else could explain the idea of “crisis actors”?) It doesn’t matter one bit whether people visit the site because they’re believers in the lies or because they want to see for themselves whether Jones is as crazy as they’ve heard. Jones knows that once people are on the site, a given percentage of them are bound to notice the ads for the different miracle cures. Then, the minute folks click on the ads – ka-ching! – Infowars and Alex Jones make money. Somewhere along the road Jones figured out that the bigger the lie, the more views, and the more money. 

Thankfully the families won in all the lawsuits against Jones. But, the question many of us are grappling with in the wake of the verdicts is how to stop Jones and others from creating and spreading such lies. Pointing to a “symbiotic relationship between bogus, unregulated health products and bogus political claims”, Manjoo makes the argument that going after the huge market for “alternative health products” is one way of reducing the ability of Jones and his ilk from profiting from lies. I agree with Manjoo. I have long believed that governments should be doing way more to regulate advertisements and certainly if it weren’t for ad revenue, sites like Infowars would probably not exist. (Indeed, I would also make the cost of advertising a non-deductible business expense – that would rein in a lot of the most flagrant excesses.) 

To try to silence Jones, the Sandy Hook families did about the only thing they could: they sued him for defamation. That route was not without its risks, as Jones tried to hide behind claims of the right to free speech. I applaud the bravery of the families for bringing suit, as the trials meant they had to re-live the pain of Jones’ vitriol. When they won, they argued that the only way to stop Jones from continuing to lie for a living was to hit him with a judgment that is high enough to put him out of business. It seems the Connecticut Superior Court judge agreed. Last week she added $473 million in fees on top of the $965 million in compensatory damages the jury awarded the families. 

Regardless of how much Jones may end up actually paying (he’s already entered bankruptcy and no doubt will do all he can to avoid paying), the CBC offered the most straightforward takeaway. The host of The National (CBC’s flagship nightly news program) put it this way: “The cost of telling lies … has gone WAY up for U.S. radio host Alex Jones and his company. He faces a total judgment of over $1.4 billion U.S. – that’s the price for his repeated lies.” Though putting a price tag on lies and hate speech seems crass, maybe doing so will at least make people who might be tempted to follow Jones’ lead think twice. 

© 2022 Ingrid Sapona


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