Conspiracy Theory: Why America Can’t Let Go


A Connecticut grand jury this week ordered Alex Jones to pay $965 million to the parents of the Sandy Hook shooting victim that he maliciously disgusted with misinformation.

Just don’t expect it to make conspiracy theories go away.

According to experts, the covetousness of such slander and the narrowness of judgments against Jones, who falsely claimed that the 2012 elementary school shooting was a hoax, and that grieving parents are actors, virtually guaranteeing the availability of supplies.

“It’s easy to enjoy having Alex Jones punished,” said Rebecca Adelman, a professor of communications at the University of Maryland. “But there’s a certain short-sightedness to that celebration.”

There is a deep tradition of conspiracy theories in American history, from people’s distrust of the official explanation of John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the numerous cover-up allegations of extraterrestrial visits to aliens. baseless allegations that the 2020 presidential election is being rigged. With the Salem witch trials in 1692, they even predated the formation of the country.

What else is there today? The internet allows such stories to spread quickly and widely – and helps hobbyists find communities of like-minded people. That could push such bogus theories into mainstream politics. Now, the desire to cleverly spread false stories online has spread to governments, and doctors’ photo and video technology allows disinformation providers to become credible. than.

In today’s media world, Jones sees a lot of money to be made – and fast – in creating a community willing to believe lies, no matter how outlandish.

During a defamation trial in Texas last month, a forensic economist testified that Jones’ Infowars operation generated $53.2 million in annual revenue from 2015 to 2018. He has supplemented 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 has to pay for freedom of speech. And in a society where the term “alternative truth” is popular, one person’s attempt to curb misinformation is another’s attempt to stifle the truth.

Will the Connecticut ruling impact those willing to spread misinformation? “It didn’t even seem to chill his spine,” said Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida. Jones, he noted, reacted in real time on Infowars on the day of sentencing.

“This will not affect the flow of news stories filled with bad faith and extremist views,” said Howard Polskin, publisher of The Righting, a newsletter that tracks content on right-wing websites. He said false stories about the 2020 election and the COVID-19 vaccine remained particularly common.

“It seems to me that people who sell this information for a profit can see this as a cost of doing business,” says Adelman. “If there’s an audience for it, someone will fill the need if there’s money.”

Certainly, those who believe that Jones and people like him are voices of truth are being persecuted by society will not be stymied by the jury’s verdict, she said. In fact, the opposite is likely true.

Nicole Hemmer, a Vanderbilt University professor and author of “Participants: Conservative Revolutionaries Remaking American Politics in the 1990s,” says the Sandy Hook plaintiffs all are private citizens.”

The case is reminiscent of Seth Rich, a young Democratic aide killed in a robbery in Washington in 2016, she said. Rich’s name was embroiled – posthumously – into political conspiracy theories, and his parents later sued and reached a settlement with Fox News Channel.

In other words, the message: Beware of luring private citizens into outlandish theories.

“The spread of conspiracy theories about the Biden administration is not going to get Fox News sued,” Hemmer said. “Won’t get Tucker Carlson sued.”

Tracing the history of the strange theories that sprouted and flourished 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 spread on QAnon or who is monetizing it, Fenster said.

If he were a lawyer, he would say, “Whom shall I go with?”

Despite any pessimism about what the final nearly $1 billion Sandy Hook verdict might mean for disinformation, the dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania said: know it still sends an important message.

“What this says is that we cannot simply create facts to match our ideological projections,” says John Jackson. “There’s a solid and fast platform to deliver facts that we can’t go too far as storytellers.”

Consider the lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems, a company that manufactures voting systems, against Fox News Channel. It claims Fox knowingly spread false stories about Dominion as part of former President Donald Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stripped from him. Dominion sought a staggering $1.6 billion from Fox, and the case has moved past the deposition stage.

Fox has defended himself vigorously. It said that instead of spreading falsehoods, it covered credible claims made by the president of the United States.

Losing a substantial test or settlement could cause real financial hardship for Fox, Hemmer said. As it progresses, however, there is no indication that any of its commentators are taking the punches, especially in regards to the Biden administration.

Distrust of mainstream news sources also fuels many conservatives’ taste for theories that fit their worldview – and a vulnerability to misinformation.

“I don’t think there’s any incentive to move towards authoritative reporting or move towards news and information instead of commentary,” Hemmer said. “That’s what they want. They want conspiracy theories.”

Even if this week’s crushing verdict in Connecticut – along with the Texas court’s $49 million judgment against him in August – relieves or mitigates Jones, Adelman says others are likely. would take his place: “It would be a mistake to misinterpret this as the death knell of misinformation.”


David Bauder is a media writer for the Associated Press


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