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What Did Alex Jones Do?

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An unreasonable $965 million judgment against Alex Jones was awarded to Sandy Hook parents due to Jones "saying mean things."

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On October 12 2022, news that far-right broadcaster Alex Jones was ordered to pay “nearly $1 billion” ($965 million) to eight Sandy Hook families prompted significant discussions about disinformation — alongside a concerted effort to severely downplay Jones’ role in the advancement of conspiracy theories about the mass shooting in which twenty first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut were murdered on December 14 2012.

That evening, liberal political action committee MeidasTouch shared a collage of Twitter reactions sympathetic to Jones, illustrating lockstep attempts to cast Jones in a sympathetic light:

Overall, the development required context to understand why Jones was sued and why the judgment was so large, which Jones’ fellow travelers in disinformation were naturally keen to distort or downplay.

The Tweets

In the collage, a pair of tweets from right-wing college activist Charlie Kirk alleged:

This isn’t about calculating real damages from Alex Jones. This is about sending a message: If you upset the Regime, they will destroy you, completely and utterly, forever.

Did the FBI Report No Deaths at San...
Did the FBI Report No Deaths at Sandy Hook?

If Alex Jones owes a billion dollars for saying mean things on his show, how much should the propagandists at CNN, MSNBC, WaPo, and The New York Times pay to all the Americans they pressured to inject their kids saying it would prevent transmission to grandma?

Far-right blogger Benny Johnson lamented:

Alex Jones was just ordered to pay nearly $1 billion in a second defamation trial Just like deplatforming, This isn’t about Alex Jones, it’s about silencing political enemies The regime is setting a precedent that if you speak out, they will come after you & try to destroy you.

And the right-wing social media personality Mike Cernovich claimed that Jones “apologized for his erroneous reports, of which there weren’t many,” adding that Jones was “not allowed to defend himself on free speech grounds”:

Alex Jones killed no one. He apologized for his erroneous reports, of which there weren’t many. Nevertheless in a trial where he wasn’t allowed to defend himself on free speech grounds, he’s now being ordered to pay hundreds-of-millions of dollars. Stalin’s ghost has returned.

Who is Alex Jones, and What Did He Do?

Political fact-checking site PolitiFact maintained a very brief entry about Alex Jones, under “Personalities.”

It read:

Alex Jones is a conservative radio show host based in Austin, Texas. He hosts The Alex Jones Show and runs InfoWars.com, a website known to traffic in fake news and conspiracy theories.

In 2017, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published a longer backgrounder on Jones, filed under “Antisemitism in the U.S.” and “Extremism, Terrorism & Bigotry.” It read in part:

Alex Jones is a right-wing American radio host and prolific anti-government conspiracy theorist.

Jones rose from public-access television obscurity to national prominence by promoting paranoid allegations against the U.S. government and an alleged shadowy, power-hungry New World Order. Because of a range of legal and political issues, many consider Jones to be one of the most influential right-wing conspiracy theorists in the United States today.

Online and on the air, Jones breathlessly and stridently champions a litany of absurdities. To wit: the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school was a hoax perpetrated to curtail Americans’ gun rights; 9/11 was an inside job perpetrated by the U.S. government; the high school student survivors of the Parkland, FL, school shooting were “crisis actors” paid by the Democratic Party and George Soros; and juice boxes “make kids gay.” Many of his conspiracy theories emanate from the anti-government militia movement, whose ideology Jones adopted in the 1990s.

Another section was labeled “Jones’s conspiracy theories have resulted in real world acts of violence and harassment.” It addressed Jones’ involvement with Sandy Hook conspiracism, how his statements and actions affected families of the murdered children, and referenced earlier legal action by the affected families:

Jones also spread conspiracy theories regarding the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, labeling the tragedy as a hoax perpetrated by “crisis actors,” and his listeners harassed the victims’ families for years. Jones has repeatedly lost his attempts to dismiss the civil suits brought against him by the families of Sandy Hook victims, and now owes those families nearly $150,000 in legal fees. Jones lost his appeal in March 2020.

The Sandy Hook school shooting occurred in December 2012; since then, factors like link rot and Jones’ 2018 deplatforming have rendered the bulk of the coverage of his activity from that tiem inaccessible. Jones was deplatformed in part due to real-world harm resulting from his false claims:

He was also one of the biggest pushers of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which eventually led a gunman to enter a Washington, DC, pizzeria and fire several shots.

[…]

More recently [as of 2018], Jones has been embroiled in a series of lawsuits filed by people about whom he has made repeated false assertions, like Marcel Fontaine: Infowars declared him to be the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida (despite the fact that Fontaine had never even visited the state of Florida). There’s also Leonard Pozner, the father of a Sandy Hook victim, Noah Pozner, whose family has endured endless harassment by followers of Jones who believe that Pozner’s son never existed.

A small handful of reports about Alex Jones’ insistence that the Sandy Hook massacre was “staged” or a “false flag” were accessible as of October 2022. A November 2016 New York Daily News article quoted statements made by Jones in a piece titled “SEE IT: Right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones doubles down on ‘completely fake’ Sandy Hook massacre claims”:

Right wing conspiracy theorist and talk show host Alex Jones denied ever calling the Sandy Hook massacre a hoax on [November 17 2016] — moments before doubling down on claims that the tragic school shooting was staged.

[..]

In a seemingly complete 180, Jones then reaffirmed his debunked conspiracy theories that Sandy Hook Elementary “was closed years before” the shooting; that CNN anchor Anderson Cooper reported on the shooting “using a green screen” and that “weird videos” revealed that grieving parents were in fact actors.

“We’ve sent reporters up there [to Connecticut], man, and that place is like Children of the Corn or something. I mean it is freaking weird,” Jones said of the elementary school, which reopened this summer. “All I know is something’s going on and you don’t like us looking at it. You don’t like us questioning you.”

In that reporting, Jones was quoted as saying, “they clearly used actors.” In June 2017, the New York Times covered a controversy over Jones’ appearance on television presenter Megyn Kelly’s since-canceled NBC show, including a quote where Jones appeared to claim that the show’s purportedly deceptive editing nullified his claims that the massacre was a hoax:

In a segment on Infowars on [in June 2017], even Mr. Jones called on NBC to not broadcast the interview.

“They did not have me in there saying that I believed children died at Sandy Hook,” Mr. Jones said about a preview clip that was shared on Twitter. He claimed that he was misled by Ms. Kelly and that the clip was edited to misrepresent him.

Some of the families of Sandy Hook victims have endured harassment and threats by conspiracy theorists for years. Nelba Márquez-Greene, whose daughter Ana Grace Márquez-Greene, was killed, tweeted several photos of her daughter at Ms. Kelly.

An embedded tweet portrayed the segment Jones described:

The October 2022 judgment against Jones involved eight separate families of children who died during the December 2012 Sandy Hook shooting. A March 2019 segment of the public radio show This American Life (“Beware the Jabberwock”) profiled the experience of one parent, Lenny Pozner; Pozner discussed one of many run-ins with individuals influenced by false claims about the massacre.

In that exchange, Pozner described one of his many encounters with Sandy Hook deniers, a bar patron in November 2016. Pozner explained that after he identified himself as the father of Noah Pozner, who was killed in the shooting, the man became enraged with him:

[Ira Glass]: When he wants to explain to people what his life is like these days, Lenny sometimes tells this story. On election night in 2016, he says he went to a bar, got a seat near a TV, ordered a beer, and started making small talk.

[Lenny Pozner]: And I turned to the guy to my right, and I said, “Did you vote”? And from there, he went into a long explanation about– just some shadow government ideas, and whether voting makes a difference. And probably 10 minutes into it, he was talking about mass shootings, and then eventually Sandy Hook.

[Ira Glass]: Sandy Hook, of course, where a gunman killed 20 children, all in first grade, as well as seven adults. This random stranger then started telling Lenny this particular story about Sandy Hook. He thought the whole shooting was fake. It had to be fake, he said, because one of those first graders also showed up as a victim in a second mass shooting, all the way over in Pakistan.

In the corners of the internet where people trade Sandy Hook conspiracy stories, this is a key piece of evidence that Sandy Hook was not real. Of course, it was real. And what happened in Pakistan was, in reality, about two years after Sandy Hook. The Taliban gunned down more than 100 kids there. And there was a public vigil, and at the public vigil, probably as a sign of solidarity with other kids who had died in school shootings, mourners had this photo of a boy from Sandy Hook, smiling and wearing a Spider-Man shirt under a corduroy jacket with a furry collar.

Sandy Hook deniers saw that in the coverage, and they pounced. “Did he die twice?” “Did he die at all?” So the guy at the bar with Lenny is rattling through all this Pakistan stuff. And then, as Lenny explained to one of my co-workers, Miki Meek, the guy mentions the kid’s name– Noah Pozner.

[Lenny Pozner]: I didn’t really need to hear much more than that. I just needed to shut him down, basically.

[Miki Meek]: So what did you do?

[Lenny Pozner]: I took out my driver’s license, and I said, “Look who you’re talking to. You know, show some respect.”

[Ira Glass]: The boy in the photo was Lenny’s son, Noah, who was six when he died.

[Miki Meek] Does he connect it, or–

[Lenny Pozner]: Oh, sure. He connected it instantly, yeah. And he just became more agitated. Very angered. Went outside and maybe had a cigarette, came back, yelled at me some more. “Oh my god. How much did they pay you? How can you do this?” He was committed to his belief. I was the villain.

[Ira Glass]: People like this man at the bar pretty much redefined everything about the way Lenny lives his life. Where he lives, how he lives. He runs into these hoaxers in person, and pretty much every day online. They think the government has paid him millions to play the part of a grieving dad. In their minds, Lenny is the sick one. Noah wasn’t ever even his kid. And the person who has popularized these theories more than anybody is Alex Jones, who runs the website Infowars, and who pushed these theories with his radio show, and his YouTube videos.

Immediately thereafter, the segment quoted one of Jones’ many statements about Sandy Hook, and again later in the segment:

Sandy Hook is a synthetic, completely fake, with actors, in my view, manufactured. I couldn’t believe it at first. I knew they had actors there, clearly. But I thought they killed some real kids. And it just shows how bold they are, that they clearly used actors.

Folks, we’ve got video of Anderson Cooper with clear blue screen out there. He’s not there in the town square. We’ve got people clearly coming up and laughing and then doing the fake crying. We’ve clearly got people where it’s actors playing different parts of different people. I’ve looked at it, and undoubtedly there’s a cover-up. There’s actors. They’re manipulating. They’ve been caught lying. And they were pre-planning before it, and then rolled out with it.

Pozner added that in his early efforts to dispel conspiracy theories about Noah, he joined a Facebook group, “Sandy Hook Hoax,” explaining his reasoning. Pozner described increasingly hostile interactions with the group’s members:

People who are conspiracy-minded see these tragedies unfold on the internet or on television. They still feel separate from these events. And I considered that bridging that gap could be an important step.

[…]

[Users began asking] “Why weren’t these children rushed to hospitals?” “Why wasn’t anything done?” “Why aren’t you suing the EMTs?” Or “why aren’t you doing this?” “Why wasn’t a rescue helicopter called from Hartford?” And I started to recognize some of the patterns that were there … They were young parents with small children, and they just couldn’t wrap their minds around the reality that an adult can look at children in their eyes, and pump bullets into their head. They just can’t deal with that.

The segment also described the effects of the rumors on Noah’s mother and their surviving children. Pozner was among the families forced to repeatedly move after being doxxed:

[Wolfgang] Halbig ordered a background check on Lenny, then sent it out in an email to lots of people. It was almost 100 pages, listing everything from his social security number and phone number to almost every address he’d ever lived at with photos. Names of his relatives were included too.

The online harassment had become so intense that Lenny and Veronique, and their two girls, went into hiding. They moved into separate high security gated communities. But Lenny’s address kept getting exposed, and hoaxers started posting videos of where he lived.

In June 2017, another Sandy Hook denier was sentenced to five months in prison for repeatedly threatening the Pozner family:

[Lucy Richards] admitted to sending threatening messages last year [2016] to Pozner, telling him multiple times that death was coming to him “real soon”. According to court filings, Richards was angry at a news story she had read about Pozner’s interactions with Florida university professor James Tracy, another Sandy Hook denier, who was fired after the Pozners wrote an op-ed describing him as “chief among the conspiracy theorists”, a man who had “even sent us a certified letter demanding proof that Noah once lived”. (Tracy is suing the university for wrongful termination.)

In other words, Jones was not ordered to pay the families damages because he “said mean things.” His sustained actions (spanning nearly a decade) caused years of tremendous anxiety, financial hardship, and compounded grief for the families of children killed in the Sandy Hook shooting and those around them, further destroyed their already shattered lives, and was part of a larger and direct attack on individual and societal resilience that clearly inspired routine, ongoing harassment campaigns targeting the relatives and loved ones of victims in future mass shootings:

Survivors of mass shootings are facing relentless harassment and renewed trauma from conspiracy theorists who claim the attacks were staged by the federal government.

From Sandy Hook to Parkland, the idea that the victims are hired actors who stage tragedies in order to achieve sinister political goals has drifted from dark corners of right-wing media into the mainstream.

Jodi Mann and Robert Ussery, the pair of conspiracy theorists who run the website, “Side Thorn Journalist,” have been harassing survivorsof the November shooting on a Texas church for months.

Did Alex Jones Apologize?

One of the tweets transcribed above claimed that Jones had “apologized for his erroneous reports, of which there weren’t many.”

A search for “Alex Jones apologizes” largely returned results about Jones apologizing about matters unrelated to Sandy Hook in March 2017. Once again, false claims repeatedly made by Jones had led to real-life harassment:

Longtime conspiracy theorist and propagator Alex Jones has apologized to the Washington, D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong and its owner James Alefantis for his show’s role in promoting the false “pizzagate” conspiracy theory involving a child sex-abuse ring.

Jones, the host of the radio and web show bearing his name and the owner of the website Infowars, said from a prepared statement that to his knowledge, “neither Mr. Alefantis, nor his restaurant Comet Ping Pong, were involved in any human trafficking as was part of the theories about Pizzagate that were being written about in many media outlets and which we commented upon.”

He continued: “I want our viewers and listeners to know that we regret any negative impact our commentaries may have had on Mr. Alefantis, Comet Ping Pong, or its employees. We apologize to the extent our commentaries could be construed as negative statements about Mr. Alefantis or Comet Ping Pong, and we hope that anyone else involved in commenting on Pizzagate will do the same thing.”

Jones’ apology [in March 2017] came the same day a 28-year-old man pleaded guilty to charges related to a December [2016] incident when he brought an AR-15 rifle and other weapons into the restaurant and fired shots inside. Edgar Maddison Welch, of Salisbury, N.C., said he drove from his home to the Washington restaurant to “self-investigate” the conspiracy theory.

During a Texas damages trial preceding the October 2022 judgment against Jones in Connecticut, Associated Press reported that Jones (under oath) conceded that the shooting did occur. A headline, “Alex Jones concedes Sandy Hook attack was ’100% real,'” alluded to the newsworthiness of Jones’ admission:

For years, bombastic far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones ranted to his millions of followers that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax, that children weren’t killed and that parents were crisis actors in an elaborate ruse to force gun control.

Under oath and facing a jury that could hit him with $150 million or more in damages for his false claims, Jones said [on August 3 2022 that] he now realizes that was irresponsible and believes that what happened in the deadliest school shooting in American history was “100% real.”

[…]

“I unintentionally took part in things that did hurt these people’s feelings,” said Jones, who also acknowledged raising conspiracy claims about other mass tragedies, from the Oklahoma City and Boston Marathon bombings to the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland, Florida, “and I’m sorry for that.”

That “public contrition,” however, appeared to be short lived. On September 22 2022, NBC News reported that Jones was “done being sorry” for his role in advancing the conspiracy. In a quoted excerpt, Jones appeared to rescind any prior apologies. Jones also encouraged his fans to place InfoWars stickers in the vicinity of the courthouse, in view of the plaintiffs:

In an angry outburst, conspiracy theorist and Infowars host Alex Jones said “he’s done being sorry” as he took the stand [on September 22 2022] during his second defamation trial for saying the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax.

“Is this a struggle session? Are we in China?” he exclaimed during his testimony after being reminded of those who were murdered and shown a clip of Robbie Parker at a press conference the day after his daughter Emilie died in the 2012 mass shooting.

“I’ve already said I’m sorry hundreds of times and I’m done saying I’m sorry,” Jones said.

Several of the victims’ families were sitting in the courtroom [on September 22 2022], many crying during parts of the testimony.

A defiant Jones said he believed Sandy Hook was a hoax when he spread his lies. “I legitimately thought it might have been staged and I stand by that. I don’t apologize for it.”

[…]

During his testimony, Jones commended his followers for putting Infowars stickers on street signs and businesses outside the Connecticut courthouse, which [attorney Christopher] Mattei referred to as “vandalism.”

An extremely popular October 13 2022 submission to Reddit’s r/PublicFreakout (“After being found liable for mocking the grief of a Sandy Hook father, Alex Jones then mocks the father’s reaction to the verdict”) featured video of Jones remotely reacting as the jury awarded damages to Robbie Parker, father of Sandy Hook shooting victim Emilie Parker. Jones laughed throughout, and expressed no contrition as Parker was visibly emotional:

After being found liable for mocking the grief of a Sandy Hook father, Alex Jones then mocks the father’s reaction to the verdict from PublicFreakout

A tweet featured additional video footage of Jones reacting to the verdict, and quoted him:

As the jury reads the damages and the Sandy Hook parents weep, Alex Jones is on his broadcast, laughing and assuring his audience that he won’t actually be paying any of this money.

“Do these people actually think they’re getting any of this money?”

Why Was the Judgment Against Alex Jones So High?

An October 12 2022 New York Times liveblog about the verdict broke down the $965 million figure, explaining who was awarded damages and why.

The section mentioned nine individuals and families affected by Jones’ behavior, briefly mentioning genuinely distressing instances of harassment in many of the individuated sections:

Robbie Parker, father of Emilie, 6, who was killed at Sandy Hook … Mr. Parker was singled out for years of attacks by Mr. Jones, who repeatedly aired a clip of a news conference the night after the shooting in which Mr. Parker, the first Sandy Hook relative to speak publicly, let out a short, nervous laugh upon finding a sea of cameras and reporters, when he expected to find only one. Mr. Jones falsely claimed that the laugh was “proof” Mr. Parker was an “actor.”

Defamation/slander damages, past and future: $60 million
Emotional distress damages, past and future: $60 million
Total damages: $120 million

William Sherlach was the husband of Mary Sherlach, the Sandy Hook school psychologist, who was killed in the hallway shortly after the gunman entered the school. Mr. Sherlach said he received notes and emails from conspiracy theorists, including a printed note on his car windshield, saying Robbie Parker was an actor.

Defamation/slander damages, past and future: $9 million
Emotional distress damages, past and future: $27 million
Total damages: $36 million

David and Francine Wheeler, parents of Ben Wheeler, 6. The Wheelers met while working in theater in New York. Their work as performers opened them up to particular abuse by conspiracy theorists who believed they were actors … Ms. Wheeler said she attended a conference for grieving mothers where a fellow attendee told her that Sandy Hook never happened.

David Wheeler:

Defamation/slander damages, past and future: $25 million
Emotional distress damages, past and future: : $30 million

Francine Wheeler:

Defamation/slander damages, past and future: $24 million
Emotional distress damages, past and future: $30 million

Total damages: $109 million

Jacqueline and Mark Barden, parents of Daniel Barden, 7. The couple described receiving messages from conspiracy theorists who said they had urinated on their son’s grave and wanted to dig up his body. Mr. Barden also received a doctored photo of a man with his own face superimposed, standing over the remains of a murdered child, accusing him of killing his own son as part of the imagined “plot.”

Jacqueline Barden:

Defamation/slander damages, past and future: $10 million
Emotional distress damages, past and future: $18.8 million

Mark Barden:

Defamation/Slander Damages, past and future: $25 million
Emotional distress damages, past and future: $32.6 million

Total damages: $86.4 million

Summary

On October 12 2022, a Connecticut jury ordered Alex Jones to pay Sandy Hook families $965 million in damages, after nearly a decade of Jones publicly, falsely insisting that the tragedy was a hoax perpetrated in order to allow the United States government to confiscate Americans’ guns. A collage of tweets featured reactions by people claiming that Jones was punished for simply “saying mean things” for which he previously “apologized,” suggesting that the outcome was politically motivated. In reality, Jones’ role in establishing and amplifying Sandy Hook conspiracies was well documented, as were the demonstrable harms suffered by the families of children killed in the massacre.

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