Published1 day ago
“The money you donate does not go to these people. It goes to fight this fraud.”
Those were the words of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones broadcasting live from his studio as a court in Connecticut ordered him to pay $965m (£869m) in damages for pushing the false theory that the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax.
“These people” he refers to are the parents of the victims of that shooting, one of whom you can see in tears on screen on Jones’ live stream.
They’d taken Jones to court after the online abuse they received following the conspiracies he promoted on his Infowars website and talk show,
The split screen on his live stream is a stark moment where the conspiracy world he has created comes up against reality.
Never have his words sounded colder when contrasted with the emotion of grieving families. They have had to deal with the loss of their children while at the centre of this disinformation campaign.
This marks a moment of reckoning. Jones has never been handed damages of this scale before, nor has any other conspiracy theorist – and it sets a huge precedent.
The question everyone is asking now: Will this put an end to these kinds of conspiracies and the harm they can cause? That’s what the Sandy Hook parents hope.
When it comes to Alex Jones himself, a former insider who worked at Infowars tells me that he thinks this could be the beginning of the end. He’ll struggle to continue if he does have to pay these damages.
Jones’ livestream during the court hearing is very revealing of the approach he plans to take in the coming weeks. After the comments about donations, he goes on to say: “They want us shut down”.
He’s already attempting to claim this verdict is just more proof that the State is trying to stop him telling the truth. The bereaved families who were in court know all too well that what he’s been doing is far from that.
The problem is that Alex Jones’ audience isn’t these families.
Polling from the Journal of Social and Political Psychology suggests that almost 20% of Americans believe high-profile mass shootings have been staged, usually by the government. This survey was carried out in 2020 but there’s no reason to believe that figure would be any less if carried out today.
Conspiracy movements have swelled online during the Covid pandemic, and there’s a growing group of people vulnerable to the tactics and rhetoric used by a conspiracy theorist like Jones.
People who often start with legitimate questions are drawn into these social media worlds that offer definitive answers to great uncertainty and horrific events. They make up a captive audience for the outspoken proponents of conspiracy theories.
And this isn’t limited to the United States.
Conspiracy theories about hoaxes and crisis actors, turbo-charged by Jones, have gone global. Their tentacles have reached as far as the UK.
The jury’s out on whether the huge damages that Jones has been ordered to pay will deter others promoting disinformation or damaging conspiracies.
For the Sandy Hook families and others I’ve interviewed who’ve been targeted by disinformation and hate – this court case hasn’t been about money. It’s about the truth.
For them, the huge sum of money in this trial symbolises a turning point. Many have told me how they feel let down by social media sites and policy makers. They often tell me how they feel like no-one cares. Now, it seems they’re turning to the courts to seek justice – and the message sent from this jury to those victims is loud and clear.
Pandora’s box of conspiracies is wide open and it’s very hard to close. At the very least, this shows the tide may be starting to turn.