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Alex Jones, fake news and insurrection: What next for America’s rotten media?

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Comment writer Matteo Cardarelli on the Alex Jones defamation trial and the prevalence of fake news. 

Few people have contributed so much to the metastasis of America’s rotten media institutions as Alex Jones. Jones, best known for his role as the founder and face of Infowars, has used his platform to repeatedly peddle extravagant lies and conspiracy theories. Bursting with indignant rage, crimson red from the neck up, spittle spraying everywhere, Jones’ meandering, volcanic missives are the stuff of YouTube legend. He is one of the main proponents of the Obama birther theory, has called COVID-19 a hoax, and suggested that New Jersey Muslims publicly celebrated 9/11. But after years of unchecked lies for profit, it seems Jones has overstepped.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting in 2012, Jones made the bold assertion that the whole thing had been a set up: engineered by President Obama and the Democrats to shore up support for harsher gun control. He explained away the twenty victims and their parents as mere paid actors. Not for the first time, Jones found himself in court, sued for defamation by Scarlett Lewis and Neill Heslin, parents of Jesse Lewis, a six-year-old who lost his life at Sandy Hook (as well as two other sets of parents in different cases).

Last week, a Texas court proved that these parents were very real, and their anger very palpable; Heslin and Lewis were awarded a crushing $4.5 million in compensatory damages on top of a further $45 million in punitive fees. The verdict came after Jones had already been found liable by default by the court last year, when he had refused to hand over subpoenaed documents.

As easy as it is to paint Infowars as an aberration of far-right anti-institutionalist media (particularly when the host passionately maintains, among other things, that the government-produced chemicals are turning frogs gay), Jones is a man with a broad viewership and a nouse for running a business. His interview with Megyn Kelly attracted 3.5 million viewers. The Infowars website averages over a million visits a day.

When Jones makes an outlandish claim, supporters are often willing to make a dash for the pitchfork and torch (or in 2022, the AR-15 and 12 gauge shotgun). For instance – lock up your local pizza parlour: after Jones alleged that Democrats were trafficking children in a DC pizzeria, one of his viewers decided to take matters into his own hands. He drove up to Washington, shot three rounds into the ceiling and held the entire restaurant at gunpoint before he was arrested, in what was posthumously dubbed ‘Pizzagate’.

While Jones was more or less unique in his beliefs when he started out in the 1990s, he is now just one (albeit major) part in the constellation of national conspiracy theorists who increasingly gobble up support on the American right wing. Breitbart, OAN, Fox News, Newsmax and others all promote stories that are as baffling as they are fictitious, particularly the Trumpist myth of electoral fraud. They possess several commonalities with Jones – a dogma of underdog status; unapologetically toxic work culture; polemic when faced with the truth. Although Jones tends to be extreme, even for the burgeoning wing of America’s fake news industry, his pattern of behaviour is by no means anomalous.

The new wave of news indulges in unprecedented duplicitousness. Jones has built a fortune from his media empire by using his platform to promote dubious health supplements and vitamins essentially amounting to homeopathy, which his trusting supporters buy in droves. His bogus claim of bankruptcy (to avoid further expensive rulings from the courts) is just more proof of what lurks behind his down to earth man of the people façade.

Others have also sacrificed honesty and personal beliefs in an effort to cling to the limelight. The distinction between a public persona and private beliefs is stark in this new era of mass media. Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, two of Fox’s biggest pundits, recently made headline news as part of the January 6 Hearings. While they had backed Donald Trump and his supporters on their shows, privately they had beseeched the President to reign in his mob of insurrectionists.

Fake news is not the only problem with America’s media right now; the system is structured to be sensationalist and ‘get clicks’. But the rise of misinformation in particular has brought visible consequences; none more so than a rise of political violence. January 6 would have been unthinkable without the climate permeated by wilful misinformation from the both supply and demand components of American press. Some surveys have provocatively posited that significant minorities of Americans would back forms of political violence that favoured their political party or ideology. Physical threats are common, even normalised, in this brave new world of hyper-partisanship.

Most conspiracy theorists have escaped culpability by deploying the same smoke screen. An appeal to first amendment freedoms is common in the playbook of a conspiracy theorist. Jones showed up to his trial wearing a piece of gray tape over his mouth reading ‘Save the 1st’. Some fringe theorists turned the trial into a referendum on the first amendment. Yet experts agreed that Jones had exceeded his first amendment protections in calling grieving parents “actors”. He is a public individual whose words were defamatory: he is entitled to no higher legal respite. Yet that will not stop others from promoting an abusive interpretation of the Constitution that protects their right to lie.

It was once widely believed that the answer to misuse of the megaphone afforded by the first amendment was more free speech. But this is an outdated belief. Social media has made the proliferation of lies and half-truths impossible to combat. America has always had an appetite for conspiracy. More than half of its citizens still believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in Kennedy’s killing.

Americans now have ample newscasters eager to satiate their cravings. Jones and his coterie of helpers are not the cause of the disease, but a symptom. More news will not solve this. Most people prefer to reside within a warm, comfortable echo chamber that constantly reaffirms their core beliefs. They are not willing to interact with a diverse range of sources if these challenge their beliefs. Deception is not just tolerated. It is venerated.

How can two people with two different sets of facts come to an agreement over how to solve a problem? This is, simply put, the issue at the heart of America’s politics today. When you can’t agree on the premise of debate, there is no chance for resolution. First comes gridlock, then violence. This is why limiting the excesses of the new wave of fake news and its suppliers is vital.

The Texan court’s recent ruling takes on new importance when seen through the prism of an important step in a struggle over the future of not just America’s news, but in a way that citizens are able to interact. The Jones case has set a precedent in the counterrevolution. Other newscasters have felt the heat from defamation lawsuits and accordingly diluted their message.

Fox in particular is embroiled in several significant defamation cases, brought by Dominion Voting Systems and Smartech, over its newscasters promoting claims of election fraud. Damage claims reach into the billions. In an increasingly hostile climate, the network has now installed segments where its opinion shows – notoriously biased and rife with misinformation – are fact-checked and its anchors’ claims contradicted. This has come under fire from conservatives for ‘sanitising’ the message, and even Donald Trump has railed against the network. Yet even OAN and Newsmax, Fox’s fringe competitors, have displayed some caution. Newsmax attempted to censor a contributor’s rant that supported the election fraud narrative. Bringing the hammer down on misinformation’s super spreaders is the only way to purify a national dialogue choked by apathy and ignorance.

The Jones Trial is a defeat for the phalanx of so-called journalists who have spread misinformation with impunity. Fringe broadcasters and platforms will worry that similar damages will be extracted from them. This does not fundamentally change the broader truth that taking conspiracy theorists completely off the airwaves is impossible. Yet holding them accountable to simple professional standards, if not basic human decency, is necessary. If purveyors of fake news are left unchecked, America is well and truly doomed.

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