The margins of Alex Jones

In 2019, Josh Owens, a former video editor at Infowars, the conspiracy empire run by Alex Jones, wrote for the New York Times Magazine about how he came to work for Jones, and how he came to regret it. Owens said that he had fallen into Jones’s orbit as an angry young man in the late Bush era, seduced by Jones’s narratives in an era of war and financial crisis, and by the aesthetic of X-Files mystique in which he cloaked his conspiracies. Owens didn’t believe everything Jones said, though—the notion that the Sandy Hook school shooting was staged to confiscate people’s guns, for instance, struck him as too far—and, over time, he grew disillusioned with Jones and his erratic behavior. One time, Jones accidentally fired an AR-15 in Owens’s direction and claimed he’d done it on purpose, as a joke. On Election Day in 2016, Owens drove with Jones to a Texas polling place, streaming live on Facebook as the latter weaved through traffic and ranted about stolen elections, the scent of vodka wafting up from a cup on the console. Jones was, of course, barred from filming inside the polling place. “He hoped to turn this into a spectacle,” Owens wrote, “an insult to him personally, another opportunity to play the self-aggrandizing victim.”

Yesterday, Charlie Warzel, who writes a newsletter for The Atlantic, published a rare interview with Owens. Jones had recently gone on trial in Texas to determine how much he would have to pay the parents of Jesse Lewis, a six-year-old child who was shot and killed at Sandy Hook, after Jones suggested that they were actors in a government hoax, failed to comply with court orders in a subsequent defamation case, and was found guilty by default; Warzel wanted to know how Owens felt watching the damages trial, which was broadcast live and heavily covered in the media. “There were some aw-shucks moments Jones tried to create where he’d talk about not having any money and being unfairly persecuted. And I worried the jury might be swayed by his lies,” Owens said. “It’s hard to explain this to people who only know him via his broadcast, but when you’re face to face with Alex and he puts on the charm, he can, momentarily, come off as not so horrible. He can just turn on this charm. Thankfully, they didn’t buy any of it.”

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They certainly did not: late last week, the jury ordered Jones to pay Lewis’s parents more than four million dollars in compensatory damages and more than forty-five million dollars in punitive damages. To any reasonable observer, the trial was a debacle for Jones from start to finish. He stayed away from court while Lewis’s parents testified, but, seemingly inadvertently, returned before Lewis’s mother finished speaking, allowing her to finally confront him face-to-face about the devastating impact of his lies. When she asked Jones if he thought she was an actress, Jones said he didn’t; after Jones himself took the stand, he conceded that the Sandy Hook shooting was “one hundred percent real” and that he had been irresponsible to claim otherwise. The trial’s most viral moment came when Mark Bankston, the lawyer for Lewis’s parents, informed Jones in court that his attorney had accidentally handed over two years’ worth of Jones’s texts, a cache that proved Jones was not telling the truth when he said he didn’t have any Sandy Hook texts on his phone. “You know what perjury is, right?” Bankston asked. Jones said he did.

Jones’s trials are not over, in either a literal or figurative sense. He faces further damages proceedings in both Texas and Connecticut to determine how much he’ll have to pay other relatives of other Sandy Hook victims. He’s also a person of interest to the House committee investigating January 6: he was in DC that day, and helped organize the rally that preceded the insurrection. Jones already appeared before the panel, where he repeatedly pleaded the Fifth. Last week, Bankston said that the committee had asked him to hand over the texts provided by Jones’s lawyer; Jones’s lawyer tried to persuade the judge in the Sandy Hook case to block Bankston from doing so, but the judge declined to intervene. CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported on Monday that the texts are now in the committee’s possession. The same day, Bankston said that the text trove included a nude photo of Jones’s wife that Jones sent to Roger Stone, the Trump consigliere. Jones’s wife told Insider that she had been “unaware” of the graphic text and was “upset” to learn of it. She added, somewhat cryptically, “that’s really the least of my problems right now.”

Still, significant caveats apply to the legal jeopardy that Jones has brought upon himself. The text cache reportedly stops in mid-2020, and so doesn’t cover the period that is most of interest to congressional investigators. During the recent damages trial, meanwhile, Jones put the parent company of Infowars into bankruptcy, a step various experts immediately decried as a gambit to delay the subsequent proceedings in Texas and Connecticut; sure enough, those have been delayed, though a bankruptcy judge will today hear a motion aimed at kick-starting jury selection in the Connecticut case. Despite Jones’s claims of impending ruin and his finances generally being murky, a forensic economist testified last week that Jones’s company has raked in cash in recent years, including by selling supplements and survivalist merchandise; it also has debt, though much of it seems to be owed to a shell company that lists Jones as a manager. (Jones’s lawyer has disputed this characterization.) And Jones seems unlikely to pay the full amount of punitive damages ordered against him due to a cap in Texas law. Questions have been raised as to the constitutionality of the cap, and Bankston plans to argue that it doesn’t apply here, but experts doubt that he will get around it, and, even if he does, he may face other legal obstacles.

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One defamation lawyer told Reuters that even if the cap kicks in, the high initial amount of the award will persist as a deterrent against the spreading of disinformation in society more broadly, and Lewis’s parents have said, for their part, that this is more important to them than the money. Others have echoed this analysis; Elizabeth Williamson, who wrote a book about Sandy Hook and covered the Jones trial for the New York Times, noted on the paper’s Daily podcast this week that while the outcome is unlikely to deter Alex Jones himself, “there are a lot of other people who want to be the next Alex Jones” but can’t afford to pay out millions of dollars in damages. But there are obvious reasons to doubt that the Jones verdict will make a serious dent in America’s broader disinformation ecosystem, not least the fact that defamation law only applies to specific claims about people or companies, and not to ideas—election denialism, anti-vax propaganda, and so on—that are less individual-specific but can be no less harmful. (As NBC’s Ben Collins put it, “a concept cannot sue you.”) Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick wrote that while it was important for Jones to be forced to confront his victims, the trial as a whole felt like an inadequate way to address “the grievous harms done, the booming economics of grifting off lies, and the permanence of the problem of post-truth.” The post-trial vibe “is still very much ‘yes but.’”

Lithwick continued that “any expectation that any given legal proceeding—such as the Mueller probe, Trump’s two impeachments, and even the very effective Jan. 6 committee hearings—might lift us out of the misinformation quagmire in which we find ourselves has proven again and again to be too fanciful.” The fact that Jones has also been implicated in at least one of the matters Lithwick describes is a testament to the fact that, in the decade since Sandy Hook, he has only become a more relevant figure in American politics, as the poison he spreads has eaten ever closer to the heart of American public life. Jones, of course, is a consequential figure who deserves to be held individually accountable for spreading the poison—and it would be a consequential thing if his empire were to now collapse under the weight of that accountability. But that seems unlikely. Either way, the poison is out there now, and plenty of others are spreading it. The Daily referred to Jones this week as “America’s most prominent conspiracy theorist.” Warzel called him its “second-most prominent conspiracy theorist.” There is, at least, competition these days.

If reasonable observers saw the recent trial as a debacle for Jones, the problem is that plenty of unreasonable observers were also watching, including via Infowars, and will have seen not a humiliating comeuppance but yet another government conspiracy, with Jones playing the self-aggrandizing victim. Jones continued to broadcast during the trial, and to raise funds off of it; when he showed up at court, he wore a mock gag across his mouth with “Save the 1st” printed across it. One observer who eventually found reason—Josh Owens—may have been pleased by the verdict, but he was also wary of the platform the trial gave Jones to spread his narrative. When, several years ago, major social media platforms moved to ban Jones, he “took this thing that would’ve crushed somebody else and made it into a selling point for his audience,” Owens told Warzel. “I think the question to ask now is, How is he going to use these three trials to boost himself, and how can it be stopped?” (Again, Jones is not the only right-wing agitator to have played on such a dynamic in a recent trial. See also: Steve Bannon.)

Owens told Warzel that in speaking out about his past, he isn’t trying to take Jones down; “from my perspective,” Owens said, “that’s a futile task.” Rather, he’s trying to reach people “on the margins”—those, for example, who might still listen to Jones because they think he’s entertaining, and don’t yet believe everything he spouts. On the margins, the Jones verdict might also deter some would-be imitators from copying his rhetoric. If even one family is spared the pain Jones inflicted on Lewis’s parents, that’ll be worth something. Margins can really matter—particularly these days, when they seem so fine across the breadth of American political life. Ultimately, though, what’s already bolted into the mainstream matters more.

Below, more on Alex Jones:

  • “A horrifically meta turn of events”: Last week, while the trial was ongoing, Anna Merlan, of Vice, tracked how Infowars was covering it. “In most cases, the defendants in a civil case, especially ones for whom things seem to be going disastrously poorly, wouldn’t immediately start talking about it on a live broadcast. Infowars has taken a different approach,” Merlan wrote. As a “parallel universe of the trial continued to play out on Infowars, and as Alex Jones weaves in and out of the courtroom to appear on air,” Lewis’s parents declined interviews and sat “quietly in court, day in and day out.”
  • “He doesn’t care”: Also last week, Slate’s Aymann Ismail discussed the trial with Dan Friesen, who cohosts a podcast, called Knowledge Fight, where he spends “hours upon hours chronicling Jones’s show and public statements, creating a dizzying ledger of what America’s foremost conspiracist is pumping out to his audience.” It’s “more important to understand this case more from the plaintiffs’ perspective than Alex’s,” Friesen said. “We’re talking about years and years of suffering. How do you put a value on being able to speak your piece to someone who has caused you years and years of pain?”
  • “Shitting himself”? A source told Lachlan Cartwright, of the Daily Beast, that Tucker Carlson messages regularly with Jones and is “shitting himself” that “highly embarrassing” texts they have exchanged will be leaked from the cache that is now in the hands of the January 6 committee. “Carlson and Jones have maintained a friendly relationship for years,” Cartwright writes. Carlson “has made multiple appearances on Infowars, gushed over Jones’s unhinged rhetoric, branded him ‘more talented than I am,’ and supplied a fawning blurb for the bullshitting blowhard’s upcoming book.”
  • “Snake oil salesmen”: LZ Granderson, a columnist at the LA Times, argues that we shouldn’t describe Jones and his ilk as conspiracy “theorists,” and that “snake oil salesmen” would be a more accurate term. “Theorists would be more like scientists. Building on knowledge with hypotheses, perhaps even testing them with research and experiments with controls, collecting data,” Granderson writes. “People like Jones are only interested in getting an audience to believe them.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: FILE - In this Aug 3, 2022 file photo, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones attempts to answer questions about his emails during trial at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin. An attorney representing two parents who sued Jones over his false claims about the Sandy Hook massacre says the U.S. House Jan. 6 committee has requested two years’ worth of records from Jones’ phone. Attorney Mark Bankston said in court Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022 that the committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol has requested the digital records. (Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman via AP, Pool, File)