NEW YORK — A Connecticut jury ruling this week that ordered Alex Jones to pay $ 965 million to the parents of Sandy Hook shooting victims he slandered was encouraging to people disgusted by the mire of disinformation.
Don’t expect it to make conspiracy theories go away.
The appetite for such a hokum and the narrowness of judgments against Jones, who falsely claimed that the 2012 elementary school shootings were a hoax and that the bereaved parents were actors, virtually guarantee a prompt supply, experts say.
“It’s easy to enjoy Alex Jones’ punishment,” said Rebecca Adelman, a communications professor at the University of Maryland. “But there is a certain short-sightedness in that celebration.”
There is a deep tradition of conspiracy theories in American history, from people who do not believe the official explanation of the John F. Kennedy assassination to various allegations of cover-ups of extraterrestrial visits to baseless allegations of rigging the 2020 presidential election. the Salem witch trials in 1692 even preceded the formation of the country.
What’s different today? The internet allows such stories to spread quickly and widely and helps members find like-minded communities. This in turn can push such false theories into traditional politics. Now the willingness to spread false narratives online has cleverly spread among governments, and the technology to document photos and videos allows vendors to make misinformation more credible.
In today’s media world, Jones has found that there is a lot of money to be made – and quickly – in creating a community that is willing to believe the lies, no matter how outlandish.
In a libel trial in Texas last month, a forensic economist testified that Jones’s Infowars operation achieved annual revenues of $ 53.2 million between 2015 and 2018. He integrated his media business by selling products such as survival gear. His company Free Speech Systems filed for bankruptcy in July.
For some, disinformation is the price America pays for the right to free speech. And in a society that popularized the term “alternative facts,” one person’s effort to curb misinformation is another person’s attempt to crush the truth.
Will the Connecticut ruling have a chilling effect on those willing to spread disinformation? “It doesn’t even seem to cool it,” said Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida. Jones, he noted, reacted in real time on Infowars on the day of the verdict.
“This won’t affect the flow of stories full of bad faith and extreme opinion,” said Howard Polskin, who publishes The Righting, a newsletter that monitors the content of right-wing websites. He says fake stories about the 2020 election and COVID-19 vaccines remain particularly popular.
“It seems to me that the people who sell this information for profit may see this as the cost of doing business,” Adelman said. “If there is an audience for it, someone will satisfy the question of whether there is money to be made.”
Of course, people who believe Jones and those like him are company-suppressed rumors of truth won’t be dissuaded by the jury’s verdict, he said. In fact, the opposite is likely to be true.
The plaintiffs compensated in the Sandy Hook case were all private citizens, an important distinction in considering its impact beyond this case, said Nicole Hemmer, a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American. Politics in the 1990s. “
The case is reminiscent of Seth Rich, a young Democratic Party aide killed in a Washington robbery in 2016, he said. Rich’s name was dragged – posthumously – into political conspiracy theories, and his parents later sued and struck a deal with Fox News Channel.
The message, in other words: be wary of dragging private citizens into extravagant theories.
“The spread of conspiracy theories about the Biden administration will not sue the Fox News Channel,” Hemmer said. “Tucker Carlson will not be sued.”
Tracing the history of the extravagant theories that sprout and thrive in the dark corners of the web is also difficult. Much of it is anonymous. It is still unclear who is responsible for what is being leaked on QAnon or who earns it, says Fenster.
If he was a lawyer, he said, “Who should I go after?”
Despite any pessimism about what Sandy Hook’s nearly $ 1 billion judgment might ultimately mean by misinformation, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication says it still sends an important message.
“What it says is that we cannot simply invent truths to satisfy our ideological predilections,” said John Jackson. “There is hard and fast ground for facts that we can’t stray too far as storytellers.”
Consider the lawsuit filed against Fox News Channel by Dominion Voting Systems, a company that manufactures election systems. He claims Fox knowingly spread false stories about domination as part of former President Donald Trump’s claims that the 2020 election had been stolen from him. Dominion sought a staggering $ 1.6 billion from Fox and the case moved into the deposition phase.
Fox defended himself vigorously. He says that instead of spreading untruths, he was reporting noteworthy claims made by the president of the United States.
A loss in a trial, or a significant deal, could impose real financial hardship on Fox, Hemmer said. However, as he proceeds, there has been no indication that any of his commentators are throwing punches, particularly regarding the Biden administration.
Distrust of traditional news sources also fuels many conservatives’ taste for theories that fit their worldview and a vulnerability to disinformation.
“I don’t think there is any incentive to switch to well-founded relationships or move in the direction of news and information instead of commenting,” Hemmer said. “That’s what they want. They want the wild conspiracy theories. “
Although the overwhelming verdict in Connecticut this week – along with the $ 49 million ruling against him in August by the Texas courthouse – silences or downplay Jones, Adelman says others are likely to take over: “It would be wrong to misinterpret. this as the death knell of disinformation ».
David Bauder is the media author for the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/dbauder