Media Analysis

Alex Jones verdict is a small victory in the war against misinformation

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Alex Jones has been ordered to pay compensation to families of Sandy Hook victims after defaming them on air (Screenshot via YouTube)

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has been ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages from misinformation, but Dr Victoria Fielding argues that it may be too little, too late.

INFOWARS HOST, Alex Jones, has been ordered to pay a whopping U.S.$45.2 million (AU$65.4 million) in punitive damages, on top of U.S.$4.1 million (AU$5.9 million) in compensatory damages, to grieving Sandy Hook parents who he defamed.

For many years, Alex Jones, motivated by his opposition to gun control, told his listeners that the Sandy Hook school shooting was “completely fake” and a “giant hoax”, and that the families of children killed at Sandy Hook were “crisis actors”. Jones claimed that 20-year-old Adam Lanza never went into the elementary school and shot 26 people, including 20 children aged six and seven.

Jones used this unspeakable tragedy to weaponise lies, which led his audience to harass and even send death threats to the families of the children killed, multiplying their suffering.

The judge may still reduce that figure due to a Texas law capping punitive damages, but either way, it is a welcome change to see a media personality face consequences for spreading dangerous and hurtful disinformation. But, will this accountability change anything?

Jones’ InfoWars site, run by his ironically named company Free Speech Systems, has long been a hotbed of conspiracy theories and – let’s call a spade a spade – lies.

InfoWars has waged an information war for over 20 years on a range of topics, pushing false narratives about vaccination, climate change, Pizzagate, 9/11, the COVID-19 pandemic and any other topic he could opportunistically distort.

Jones’ conspiracy vernacular has also infected many other spreaders of disinformation. A shocking example emerged in April when the Kremlin claimed Russian troops did not bomb a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, and that images shared of the attack were staged by crisis actors.

Despite being banned by Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Apple and Twitter in 2018, Jones maintains audiences in the millions who he uses for two purposes: radicalising them to support right-wing politicians like Donald Trump and monetising them by selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of survivalist gear and supplements.

When you consider the longevity, popularity and profitability of InfoWars, it makes the accountability Jones is experiencing now seem a case of far too little, far too late.

The reason Jones has come undone over his Sandy Hook lies is that defamation law can be used to hold people to account if they make up information that hurts a person’s reputation and causes them harm. These two criteria were easily met by the family of a Sandy Hook victim as, tragically for them, the massacre did happen and they are not paid crisis actors pretending to grieve their child.

Defamation is one of the few ways to hold someone accountable for disinformation but is only appliable if people are the subject of lies. The question is, how do we hold people responsible for publishing disinformation when that information does not meet traditional defamation criteria?

One example of this problem is society’s lack of consequences for spreaders of anti-vaccine lies. When dangerous people like Jones use their power and platforms to broadcast disinformation about vaccines, they are indirectly contributing to the deaths of members of their audience who believe their lies, don’t get vaccinated and then succumb to COVID-19.

Just as one example of Jones’ ranting about COVID-19 vaccines, he responded to Kiss bassist Gene Simmons’ pleas for fans to get vaccinated by saying:

“...we don't want you and Big Pharma to literally rape us with your Frankenshot GMO. And then you claim that we're gonna get you sick and you're gonna die if we don't take the shot. I thought the shot protects you. They admit it doesn't protect you. That was all a lie. In fact, it doesn't give you a little bit of protection. It actually lowers your immunity. That's in the real studies.”

The problem with this type of disinformation is that it is very difficult to regulate. How does a vaccine scientist or epidemiologist sue for defamation when the thing being defamed is the vaccine itself? How does a family of a COVID-19 victim sue Jones for encouraging their loved one not to be vaccinated, when it was their loved one’s choice to accept the lies?

As of the end of 2021, 15 per cent of Americans were not vaccinated against COVID-19, with a study finding those who remained unvaccinated ‘don’t trust the COVID-19 vaccine’. This lack of trust is multifaceted and complex but is influenced in no small part by the media audiences of disinformation spreaders like Jones believing dangerous lies.

When audiences believe those lies, they often also choose to spread them, contributing to a worldwide epidemic of disinformation about the pandemic, which leaves millions unprotected by choice. This worldwide campaign is part of a wider information crisis impacting society, where media audiences are finding it increasingly difficult to know what is real and where to find legitimate information. Facts and knowledge are the glue that holds society together. Once that glue is gone, everything falls apart.

The U.S. has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the world – 1.03 million people – and ranks highly in the number of deaths per capita. How many of those who died listened to InfoWars?

As a fitting postscript to the Alex Jones saga, I couldn’t help but notice Jones provided a fascinating excuse for not turning up to two court appearances in his Sandy Hook defamation trial.

He is reported to have posted an audio message to his InfoWars site to explain his absence, which said:

“I started getting sick after I got COVID last year… like everybody else, it attacked the cardiovascular system, okay?”

Perhaps Alex Jones is meeting some consequences for his anti-vaccine disinformation after all. Or perhaps, he lied about that, too.

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @DrVicFielding.

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