My goodness, but conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is spending quality time with lawyers these days. While he fumes, let’s take a moment to see how we arrived at an epoch where someone with no discernible value can make millions of dollars screaming lies into a microphone.
Jones, who has done the heavy lifting on spreading some of the most vicious fake theories, is facing the business end of a series of defamation suits for lying about one of Connecticut’s worst tragedies. In 2012, just hours after a gunman walked into a Newtown school and killed 26 people – including 20 children – Jones told his audience that the atrocity was staged so that the government could take their guns. He made fun of grieving parents, and called them crisis actors. When those absurdities started bringing in more money, he turned up the heat. In fact, according to one forensic economist, at one point Jones was paying himself an average of $6 million a year.
And then lawsuits from survivors started cropping up, and Jones began to recant but the lies were off and running, and Jones appeared surprised that his take-back didn’t make the lawsuits go away. He recently snapped in court that he is “done apologizing.”
This is a man who built his empire on lies, survival equipment, and snake oil, and in that, the Texas native created the perfect economic ecosystem. He peddles fear, and then he sells products to allay those fears.
Recently in one of my college classes, I showed a PowerPoint about conspiracy theories – how they start, why they gain traction. One of my slides included a guy in a tinfoil hat, with the question, “So who believes this nonsense?” and subsequent slides sought to answer that question. There’s quite a field of study out there, and researchers are adding to the body of knowledge daily.
I spent the next class retracting that tinfoil hat slide. It was too dismissive, and I told the class that. It’s easy to feel superior to people who believe that drinking bleach will cure COVID, or that Trump won the ’20 election, but that doesn’t do much to explain how we got here, does it? And that does precisely nothing to avoid arriving here again.
We got here because social media algorithms are tuned to advance the most outrageous information. Moral outrage keeps us glued to our screens, and the longer we stay, the more money social media platforms make. I log onto Twitter and see my least favorite politicians spouting off on (or lying about) something, and I devote no small amount of time responding.
Boom. I have just given Twitter more time to gather information about me, which they will then sell to the highest bidder. As they say, if a product is free, you are, in fact, the product, and that is especially true for social media. The more outrageous the content, the better it serves Facebook’s/YouTube’s/Twitter’s coffers, as Max Fisher writes in his new book, “The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World.” Fisher, a New York Times reporter, paints a troublesome picture of the negative role social media plays in our public discourse. Read the book with the light on.
Conspiracy theories spread quickest in tumultuous times. We seek reason in the chaos, and we look for patterns to explain the unexplainable. Conspiracy theories allow people to (erroneously) draw connections between dissimilar events. Our electoral system looks imperiled. The COVID virus hasn’t gone away. The time is ripe for looking for patterns – any patterns.
When researchers talk about people who embrace conspiracy theories, they use language similar to that of researchers who talk about gangs. Gang members feel a sense of isolation. They want to belong. They want to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. So, too, with conspiracy theory believers.
And in struts Alex Jones, failed radio DJ with a lot of hot air and a big axe to grind.
But take heart. Recently, Jones tried to treat the courtroom as he did his studio, and that didn’t work, and we were given a few days’ reprieve from his performance on the stand, which perhaps let his ‘roid rage subside.
I actually don’t know if Alex Jones is on steroids, but I read he slugged back some Ivermectin on air, so there’s your pattern.
And this, class, is how conspiracy theories start – or not. There’s no need to clog the airwaves with more nonsense. Instead, let’s hope for a legal shellacking that will leave Alex Jones unable to open his mouth, save for eating and brushing his teeth.