TV stations have been headlining sanctimonious stories about how ordinary people tend to react when faced with real-life situations. One particular show is actually named “Life Lessons”. The episodes lead people to believe that what they are seeing are actual people, that the drama is real, consuming real-life families. In fact (and it’s what the TV station stipulates in a disclaimer at the end of each episode), everything is staged, the “people” are actors, and the plot is not “some real-life happening”, but a well-designed scenario.
Well, some people perceive the whole world as a predetermined TV script. They see design even in the most mundane news stories. Everything happens according to a code, and someone (more often than not an adept) will help you use the code to decipher “the truth” behind these “real-life occurrences”. It may well be years before this way of looking at reality will move past the phase of petty controversies people chat about with their friends and relatives. However, a time may come when reality catches up and rebels against the absurd templates it has been confined to. This is precisely the story of Alex Jones and the strategies he used to distort real events. Romanian audiences don’t have an Alex Jones in the traditional media landscape they can relate to. There are some occasional wannabes in politics, although they are but pale copies of the original. Some “decoders” might have upped their game since the pandemic, although their performance is nowhere near the success of their American peers. The latest example (and perhaps the most eloquent) is the Sandy Hook massacre, when reality fought back against Alex Jones’s repeated abuses.
An unprecedented tragedy and the cynicism of an “influencer” who made a fortune promoting fake news
In December 2012, an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Newtown in the State of Connecticut witnessed an unimaginable tragedy. A young male with a history of mental illness entered the school and fatally shot twenty-six people, of whom twenty were first-graders, children aged six or seven. It may not be an isolated incident, but it is, however, the bloodiest massacre that targeted an elementary school in the United States. Hours away, Alex Jones was already decoding the event: the shooting wasn’t real, there are no victims, the whole thing was made up by the government in order to curtail Americans’ gun rights. The children, parents and teachers involved are all actors, hired by the authorities to feature in this “televised drama”.
Were this nothing more than a half-baked story made up by some boozed-up guys who are not in their right mind, Alex Jones’s drivel would be simply pointless. A couple of drinks (which is more than we can say for some) is enough to make most people fathom and entertain even the most far-fetched ideas. Yet Alex Jones is more than that. He owns a genuine online media empire resting on millions of viewers thirsting to know more about Jones’ take on the world. Whatever Jones had to say about the shooting was absorbed and carried over, becoming a “legitimate” version of what happened at the school in Connecticut, mesmerizing audiences in terms of scale and emotional impact. It’s not enough the devastated families of the Sandy Hook massacre victims had to go through the tragedy of losing their children, but they were also harassed by Alex Jones’s conspiracy mongers, who wanted to know how much money the government was paying them.
In the end, eight families who were flagrantly defamed ended up receiving money, yet not from the government, but from Alex Jones himself. And this is not petty cash we’re talking about, but nearly one billion dollars. This is the amount Alex Jones’s company has been forced in court to pay in punitive damages to the families he defamed. No matter how incredible this might sound, all it took was for Scarlett Lewis, one of the mothers of the victims, to take the stand and tell Alex Jones: “Jesse was real. I am a real mom”. Alex Jones retorted: “Do these people actually think they’re getting any money?” and called on his supporters to help him appeal the verdict. Jones’ podcasts, films and website earned him a sizable fortune and made him rich, yet not as much as to be able to afford to pay the ordered amount. And this is real money we’re talking about, that cannot be disputed or mystified.
The right to lie vs. taking responsibility for one’s lies
What is interesting about Alex Jones’s trial was the moment when Alex Jones ultimately admitted that what happened at the Sandy Hook elementary school was real. After years of repeating and referring to evidence he never actually got to produce, branding the shooting as a government hoax, when faced with the hard facts, Alex Jones backed down. He did, however, remain adamant about his “freedom of expression”. Jones felt “proud” for being targeted for voicing his opinions. In other words, Jones admitted he promoted a false theory, but he reckons he had every right to behave the way he did. Of course he did, but everything comes at a cost, at least this is what the court believed when passing the sentence. A sentence that The Economist at one point described as less about the money than the truth.
What’s going to happen to the other hogwash stories promoted by Alex Jones? That the 1995 Oklahoma bombing was also a government hoax, much like the 9/11 attacks. Or that the moon landing of 1969 was also a government-sponsored TV programme, presented to the whole world as an achievement of American science and technology, when in fact no one actually set foot on the moon, Jones argues. Or that the COVID pandemic was orchestrated by “the New World Order”. After the Sandy Hook massacre sentence, it will be hard for all these long-held conspiracy theories to hold water. Trapped into a corner, Alex Jones might admit he has been disseminating a bunch of nonsense. Yet his claim he had a right to lie and deceive in good conscience didn’t seem to impress the judge panel.
The gun-lobbying far right – the ideal breeding ground for conspiracy theories
The American right-wing (and its extreme variations in particular) can be a breeding ground for the type of conspiracies fostered by Alex Jones. Jones did not shoot to fame overnight, and his success (his website had three million daily viewers in 2020) is not exclusively owed to strategies discovered by the like of Goebbels, according to whom repeating a lie often enough will make it the truth. Calling the Sandy Hook massacre a government hoax meant to enact gun control, Alex Jones fits the broader profile of anti-establishment American movements. Apart from the heavily armed citizen militia, which Alex Jones claims he is a part of, two other associations are worth mentioning: the sovereign citizens’ movement and the tax protest movement. Trivialized at first, militia groups quickly became a serious issue after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. If the government was truly behind the attacks, then “responsible” citizens felt compelled to mobilize in order to prevent them, even or especially with the use of force. There’s also one other concept that bears the Alex Jones conspiracy brand, which in fact is an older construct: the New World Order. America’s armed militias have explained ever since the ‘90s that this New World Order was mostly using the UN in order to instate a global government of Socialist origin, which should govern the lives of people across the planet. From this point onward, the narrative spirals out of control: yes, America is still free, but not for long. Pressure runs high. The government is already creating concentration camps for dissidents, whereas hostile forces are amassing in national parks. The time to act is now if we want to take back our government, conspiracy adepts claim.
All these are but a few in a longer series of conspiracy theories that have been circulated in the last century.
From the agnostic theories that provided Early Christians with an alternative key to understanding the world, these theses reinterpret major historical or current events in a more or less coherent manner. The Holocaust is an invention (the domain of denialists), the death of Princess Diana was no accident, CIA was behind the JFK assassination, American Democrats (the US equivalent of president Iohannis) are at the center of a children trafficking ring (one of the flagship theories spearheaded by QAnon), Area 51 is crawling with aliens with whom the government has long been in contact, the Covid-19 pandemic is a method of keeping the global population in check, and finally, the Earth is flat (“flatlanders”), etc.
The Sandy Hook defamation verdict, a temporary win in the greater anti-fake news war
The Sandy Hook verdict dealt a heavy blow to Alex Jones and his supporters. Facing financial ruin and with limited resources at his disposal from now on, Alex Jones’s reach will narrow down considerably. Another possible effect is that other conspiracy mongers out there will think twice before following in his footsteps. In other words, the verdict also serves as a warning to the leaders of these movements, who much like Alex Jones consider they have a right to manipulate and spread lies, all in the name of the freedom of expression.
Another way of combating these narratives that favor social anarchy was developed by journalists themselves. Mass-media is one of the favorite targets of conspiracy theorists, both as a direct opponent, as well as a collateral victim of the information war that broke out with the advent of the Internet. Journalists have been stressing the importance of fact-checking, partly to defend their own trade, and have even specialized in debunking fake news and disinformation. This kind of “debunking”, to use a specialized term, is also the mission of the online publication you are reading, Veridica.ro. Overall, the process involves a number of specific steps: focusing on a specific item of information that can be checked using independent sources; a clear definition of the “myth” under scrutiny; explaining how the false theory is misleading; going through the whole process again, with a focus on top counter-arguments; and finally, maintaining a sustained rhythm of debunking fake news, which have a high rate of proliferation.
The problem with “debunking” is that the message seldom gets across to the target audience. Fake news adepts usually stay in their own “bubble” and support each other with familiar arguments. The art of “debunking” consists in reaching out to these people, which more often than not takes a very long time. And finally, as philosopher David Hume notes, opting for one belief over the other is a matter of personal preference, which people seldom have the strength to resist. The Sandy Hook trial was an important victory, but only a fleeting one.