Another defamation-trial verdict lands Alex Jones with an impressive price tag for his falsehoods. But is the financial cost enough to deter others committed to disinformation?

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In the second of three major trials against conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the jury’s verdict was overwhelming: Jones has been ordered to pay $965 million to families of Sandy Hook victims. These are grieving people whose lives were further upended by years of harassment thanks in strong part to Jones’s insistence that the massacre of 20 children aged six or seven years old, along with six staff members and the mother of the shooter, never happened.

Sandy Hook “truthers” stalked the families and the grave sites of the murdered children. They disseminated widely their hateful conspiracy theories about this horrific US gun massacre. When one grieving father, Jeremy Richman, took his life—having “succumbed to grief” over their daughter’s death, according to his widow, the “truthers” harassed her for that loss, too.

By the time Jones faced his first of three defamation trials, in which he was ordered to pay $45.2 million to two of the parents, he had modified his earlier claims about Sandy Hook. He acknowledged then, under oath, that the massacre had happened. But this was far too little, too late. His work through InfoWars, his internet and radio-broadcast platform, had already netted him millions of monthly viewers—and as NPR noted in August, it still brings in millions of visitors a month today. Moreover, his die-hard fans had been following up on his conspiracy claims with real-world antagonism toward victims’ families for years after the December 14, 2012 atrocity.

It should have been a time of healing. It should have been the breaking point, too, on US toleration for gun laws that allow the country to remain a record-holder for massacres of this type. But it was also the tail-end of past-President Barack Obama’s first term in office. Gun sales were already surging under a general paranoia that this massacre would serve as an excuse for the government to “take” people’s firearms. Accidental gun deaths spiked soon after.

In other words, it was easy for people already at odds with a Democratic presidency to buy into the belief that Sandy Hook was a “false flag”, a conspiracy intended to provide a government they loathed with the political leverage needed to pass gun laws that would restrict what many saw (thanks to Justice Antonin Scalia’s egregious misreading in Columbia v. Heller*) as a second amendment that only had one clause of any importance.

*Scalia expressly said in his majority opinion for this case that the Second Amendment “protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia”, which is absolutely at odds with the text of the amendment itself, which expressly reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” There was zero “originalism” in this highly selective Supreme Court argument.

Alex Jones leveraged that paranoia through his ensuing InfoWars coverage. He leaned on it for many years, to stir up hatred, paranoia, and animosity toward mainstream media among his viewers. And now? Yes, now a jury has put a price tag on some of the damage done. But does this impressive price tag do enough?

An optimistic reading of today’s verdict is that it will serve as a deterrent for future peddlers in falsehood for personal gain.

A retributive reading is that it doesn’t go far enough; many wish that Jones had eligible for prison time, to “rot” in punishment for the trauma his falsehoods heaped upon families already grieving the loss of so many young people who should, today, have been celebrating their milestones as 16- and 17-year-olds: first drivers’ licenses, high school accolades, and all the other messy, wonderful steps toward adulthoods that would have made their surviving families and communities proud.

And speaking of which, lest we forget—

The names of the murdered

  • Charlotte Bacon, 6
  • Daniel Barden, 7
  • Rachel Davino, 29
  • Olivia Engel, 6
  • Josephine Gay, 7
  • Ana M Marquez-Greene, 6
  • Dylan Hockley, 6
  • Dawn Hochsprung, 47
  • Madeline F. Hsu, 6
  • Catherine V. Hubbard, 6
  • Chase Kowalski, 7
  • Jesse Lewis, 6
  • James Mattioli, 6
  • Grace McDonnell, 7
  • Anne Marie Murphy, 52
  • Emilie Parker, 6
  • Jack Pinto, 6
  • Noah Pozner, 6
  • Caroline Previdi, 6
  • Jessica Rekos, 6
  • Avielle Richman, 6
  • Lauren Rousseau, 30
  • Mary Sherlach, 56
  • Victoria Soto, 27
  • Benjamin Wheeler, 6
  • Allison N Wyatt, 6

But is it enough?

The danger with a verdict like Jones’s latest, in the second of three trials, is that it pins the blame too much on a single person, and thus deflects from reckoning with the broader cultures that also bear responsibility. The surrounding journalists and politicians who didn’t do enough, in all those years, to shut down Jones’s flat-out inaccurate and destructive speech. The laws that didn’t come sufficiently to civilian defense, against the dissemination of so much damaging fake news.

In Canada, hate speech laws are more robust: to combat Holocaust denialism especially, criminal legislation emphasizes that the right to free speech does not entitle one to a public forum with impunity. If you target specific groups for violence via public media up north, you could be subject to criminal consequences.

But in the US, a 2011 eight-to-one decision for Snyder v. Phelps found in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to picket the funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, killed in the line of duty in Iraq. The reasoning? That even though a single funeral had been targeted, the “overall thrust and dominant theme” of their protest dealt with “a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public” (namely, “the moral conduct of the U.S., the fate of the U.S., and homosexuality in the military”), and “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open”.

That’s the broader legal and societal context in which these defamation trials against Alex Jones and InfoWars are now playing out—and this matters, because a single human being can only do so much damage on their own. What remains to be addressed is whether a single verdict (however sensationally unpayable the price tag attached may be!) will ever be sufficient enough to heal a system of disinformation as vast and entrenched as the one currently gripping the US.

So long as private enterprises are given legal license to game a system that upholds an idealistic approach to individual free speech, can we ever hope for anything more than the occasional awarding of damages well after the most ruinous of facts?

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.

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