We are having a Goldilocks moment in American media. We simply can’t decide how much truth we really want. Too many lies can lead to expensive lawsuits, as Alex Jones proved this week with a $49M verdict for spreading misinformation about Sandy Hook. Too much truth, on the other hand, can lead to lawsuits by special interests afraid to have infamous stories made famous, as hundreds of writers have learned (including this author).
Is a healthy midpoint actually possible, or would the news simply lose all meaning? Or can we as consumers bend the news back towards the truth? Jones’ story should be a clarion call for both the right and the left to demand more truth from their storytellers. The future of democracy depends on it.
Too Many Lies
Last week, Alex Jones was caught lying about the Sandy Hook massacre . On December 14th, 2012, 26 people were killed by a mass shooter, including 20 children between six and seven years old. Before families could even take a moment to grieve their profound loss, Jones had already gone on air to deny the mass shooting, saying “why does government stage these things, to get our guns.” and referring to grieving parents as “crisis actors.”
It’s hard to know if his motivation was earning money, but certainly, that was an outcome. InfoWars was already a relatively successful media business, with 4 million unique views a month in 2010, and in 2013 estimated revenues of $10M a year. By 2018 he had 10 million unique views a month, more than mainstream publications like Newsweek and the Economist. During the trial, it was estimated that Jones’ businesses were collectively worth somewhere between $135M and $270M.
His bread and butter are what is sometimes politely referred to as “conspiracy theories,” a term that implies that stories like PizzaGate could actually be true. But a theory can ultimately be scientifically tested, and those peddled by Alex Jones have come up false. He is often known for spreading “misinformation,” a sanitized way to say “lying.” His site is aptly named InfoWars—it is a provider of information in deep war with the truth.
Given the strength of defamation law in this country protecting people from damaging speech, the parents were ultimately awarded $49M by a Texas court (which they may not fully receive given state limits in Texas). However, with more rulings likely to come from states like Connecticut without such a cap this upcoming year, it is likely that figure will rise substantially and send a very strong message to those who aim to manipulate people’s understanding of the truth for political gain.
Many have suggested that his motivation in the case of Sandy Hook was not in fact money, but a desire to push back against gun control efforts. It’s reasonable that in the wake of mass shootings, communities start to think long and hard about greater gun control, and that those who believe that more guns are good for America (like some Republicans proposing to further arm teachers) are troubled to see what they view as an infringement on their rights. But even that debate can happen on the basis of truth—that mass shooters exist, that they are 98% men, and that children have died in these shootings causing infinite devastation on the part of their families.
The Truth Hurts, but Its Negation Hurts More
Most parents at some point will suffer their very own version of an info war, as their children deliberately twist facts for personal gain. Jones’s actions are not unlike those of a child who breaks a beloved porcelain vase and quickly blames their younger sibling. The parents are not mad necessarily about the vase—they are mad about being lied to, and the lack of empathy that implies.
But children generally grow out of such deflection and blame games, whereas Jones apparently did not. It wasn’t just a vase that broke—the lives and hearts of parents were cracked open not just once in the initial mass shooting, but countless times as Jones followers harassed them and negated their truth.
I believe Jones knew he was inflicting real harm—like watching his little sibling get spanked for that broken vase—and took no action to stop it. What’s upsetting about his actions is that in saying that Sandy Hook was “100% real” on the stand, he presumably knew he was lying to his listeners; episode after episode.
Infowars viewers should be outraged. Jones treated them as ignorant pawns ripe for his political objectives. The right deserves to hear conservative perspectives based on the truth. And so does the left. Fighting fair means starting from the same playing field, which in the court of ideas has to be objective fact. As Scarlett Lewis, a mourning parent who lost her son at Sandy Hook noted from the stand in her testimony, “Truth — truth is so vital to our world. Truth is what we base our reality on, and we have to agree on that to have a civil society.”
When the Truth Hurts Someone with Power, It’s Extra Costly
On the other hand, the truth can be costly, too. Corporations have increasingly learned that suing people in media for sharing the truth about the impact of their business practices can be an incredibly effective way of getting such whistleblowers to stop—simply because of their inability to keep up on legal costs vs any actual assessment as to whether their statements are true or not.
In 2019 I was personally sued by private prison company CoreCivic
The Business and Human Rights Centre has referred to this CoreCivic lawsuit as a SLAPP suit, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. They further define SLAPPs as “one tactic used by unscrupulous business actors to stop people raising concerns about their practices.” SLAPPs can take the form of criminal or civil lawsuits brought to intimidate, bankrupt and silence critics.” It is just one of 355 lawsuits that they’ve identified globally in a 2021 report, including by companies like Chevron
Do we need $150M lawsuits to determine the truth? Or can we simply ask for more from media?
Let’s face it—no one likes a lawsuit. Certainly not grieving parents. “It seems so incredible to me that we have to do this — that we have to implore you, to punish you — to get you to stop lying,” Lewis told Jones from the stand. “You don’t understand, and you won’t understand unless there is some form of punishment that would make you understand.”
There is a hope that the hefty price Jones will pay will discourage others who seek benefit, whether monetary or political, on the basis of lies. But it’s a cautionary tale that simply shouldn’t be necessary. All of us can become more conscious consumers before spreading information, whether on the right or the left. We can let conspiracy theories die on the vine rather than fueling them with likes and shares. The average person is unlikely to sue, but we can still take responsibility for the information we spread. We can punish such lairs with their marginalization. And we can commit to protecting those who dare to tell the truth.
Full disclosures related to my work available here. This post does not constitute investment, tax, or legal advice, and the author is not responsible for any actions taken based on the information provided herein. Certain information referenced in this article is provided via third-party sources and while such information is believed to be reliable, the author and Candide Group assume no responsibility for such information.
CoreCivic filed a lawsuit in March of 2020 against author Morgan Simon and her firm Candide Group, claiming that certain of her prior statements on Forbes.com regarding their involvement in family detention and lobbying activities are “defamatory.” While we won dismissal of the case in November of 2020, CoreCivic has appealed such that the lawsuit is still active.