A Connecticut jury on Wednesday ordered that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones must pay nearly $1 billion for defaming the families of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, given Jones’ wealth, who was estimated to be $135 million to $270 million if you count his media company, this ruling seems likely to bankrupt Jones. (To be clear, that number of damages, including fines imposed in a previous Texas lawsuit, is likely to change as well; Jones has one more lawsuit to go, and state penalties and other considerations could ultimately limit the financial payout.) many millions that Jones will eventually have to pay, many find comfort and relief in the fact that he has to pay at all.
This is natural and fair. But we must keep in mind that Jones is just one of many conspiracy theorists and provocateurs spreading hatred and falsehoods. And even he does not go down without a fight.
Once the verdict was announced, Jones called the lawsuit a political weapon for Democrats. He holds his head high, called on his followers to donate money and vowed to continue speaking his truth while he claimed that he did not actually have to pay the damages. Clearly, defamation lawsuits alone cannot break the lying machines created by men like Jones, who have inflicted tremendous pain on individuals, eroded citizens’ trust in democratic institutions, and radicalized sections of our society to commit violence.
For starters, defamation lawsuits don’t cover every kind of misinformation that experts like: Dan Bongino, politicians like Donald Trump and media like OANN feed their audiences. They don’t even cover the lies, like… chemicals in the water have made frogs gay or that Robert Mueller is a pedophile, both of which Jones has promoted in his programs.
That’s because to be called libel, a published statement must be demonstrably false, negatively impact a person’s reputation, and must be done with intent and malice – when it comes to public figures. Many widespread conspiracy theories and falsehoods do not qualify as defamation because they have no identifiable people (e.g., the conspiracy theories that claim the September 11 terrorist attacks were an inside job), because they target government officials who may not be able to prove actual malice or reputational damage (e.g. the Pizzagate conspiracy theory claiming that Hillary Clinton was involved in child sex trafficking) or because they cannot simply be proven false.
Misinformation providers often use a variety of rhetorical techniques to create misleading impressions without demonstrably making false statements.
Indeed, disinformation providers often use a variety of rhetorical techniques to create misleading impressions without demonstrably making false statements. These rhetorical strategies include: half truthsby using partial truths to tell a big lie; decontextualizationby removing the context of information; Humour, by covering false claims with plausible deniability; and insinuation, by asking leading questions. As researchers at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public have shown, many misleading accounts of voter fraud in the 2020 election used such techniques, including using speculative language and removing important context from superficially true statementsto create the false impression that the election has been stolen.
Defamation lawsuits also don’t concern the underlying information infrastructure that allows the lying machines to operate. This includes the internet domain registrars that keep Infowars.com running smoothly; payment companies that processed payment for Jones products and recommendations, such as PayPal; and social media platforms that drive traffic to his website, such as Gab. While some of these companies (like PayPal) have blocked Infowars, like Gabo, embrace it. And virtually all of these companies enjoy broad legal protections against civil liability with regard to third-party content under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act.
To be fair, 10 major tech companies have already banned Jones and his company from using their services. These prohibitions, which took place on multiple layers of the technical stack — involving payment processors, social media platforms and streaming device makers — should significantly reduce Jones’ ability to reach new audiences. However, deplatforming is an endless game of whack-a-mole: bad actors repeatedly appear under different names or from seemingly unrelated accounts. Jones’ content was found on Roku and Facebook even though it has been supposedly banned from those platforms. (I’d also found it on YouTube, but my preview was removed before publishing – yes, whack-a-mole.)
More importantly, misinformation purveyors can quickly rebuild their media empire on the alt-tech stack — an alternative information infrastructure that provides a safe haven for what the University of Washington researchers called “repeated propagators” of misinformation, such as Breitbart News, Candace Owens and Mark Levin. Parallel to the tech stack, the alt-tech stack includes social media platforms such as Gab and SkySilkdomain registrars like Epikcrowdfunding services like GiveSendGo and payment platforms like AlignPay. These different layers present many points of resistance to efforts to hold suppliers of misinformation accountable. At the time of writing, Jones and his Infowars have approximately 433,000 followers on GETTR, 212,000 followers on Gab, 157,000 subscribers on BitChute, and 114,000 subscribers on Rumble. According to the League against defamationJones has already collected more than $385,000 in donations through the Save Infowars Legal Defense Fund campaign on GiveSendGo.
Defamation lawsuits are an important tool in the quest to reduce harm from harassment and abuse. But they are not a solution to the lying machines built by incredibly smart, incredibly cynical experts like Alex Jones. This week’s verdict, coupled with whatever else happens next, will certainly make conspiracy theorists think twice before hurting private individuals in the future. But it won’t solve the bigger problem, which is the dangerous, ubiquitous flow of misinformation in our world.