Will the disinformation end after the verdict against Alex Jones?

NEW YORK (HPD) — Will the disinformation end after the verdict against Alex Jones? Hardly.

The verdict that will pay nearly $1 billion in damages to the parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre for the nefarious lies spread by Jones, a promoter of conspiracy theories, will surely not help to stop misinformation, experts lament. Conspiracy theories have roots too deep in American history and, as Jones showed, there is now a lot of money to be made spreading lies.

A jury in Connecticut ordered Jones on Wednesday to pay $965 million to relatives of the Sandy Hook victims. The ruling was the second largest against the host of the Infowars program for spreading the message that the 2012 school shooting, the bloodiest in the history of the United States, never happened, and that the grieving families of the news coverage were actors. hired as part of an alleged conspiracy to strip Americans of the right to bear arms.

The decision was encouraging for people furious about the garbage spreading disinformation, but experts caution against expecting punishment to make conspiracy theories go away. The appetite for such nonsense and the limited sentences against Jones virtually guarantee that these and other lies will continue to rage, experts say.

“It’s easy to revel in the punishment against Alex Jones,” said Rebecca Adelman, a professor of communication at the University of Maryland. “But there is a certain myopia in that celebration.”

Throughout the history of the United States, there is a deep tradition of credibility for conspiracy theories, from people who do not believe in the official explanation for the assassination of John F. Kennedy to various accusations of cover-up of extraterrestrial visits and baseless accusations of manipulation of the 2020 presidential election. Even the trials that led to the deaths of alleged Salem witches in 1692 predated the formation of the country.

What is the difference now? Internet.

Social media and other media allow such narratives to spread quickly and widely, helping adherents find like-minded communities. That, in turn, can carry such false theories into politics.

Today, the will to cleverly spread lies online has reached governments, and photo and video manipulation technology gives promoters tools to make disinformation more credible.

In today’s media world, Jones discovered that there was a lot of money to be made, and easily, by nurturing a community willing to believe lies, no matter how outlandish.

During a Texas libel trial last month, an economist testified that Jones’s Infowars operation generated $53.2 million in annual revenue between 2015 and 2018. He supplemented his media business by selling products like survival kits. His company, Free Speech Systems, filed for bankruptcy in July.

For some, disinformation is the price the United States pays for the right to freedom of expression. And in a society that has popularized the term “alternative facts,” one person’s effort to curb disinformation is another person’s attempt to squash the truth.

Will the Connecticut ruling dissuade those willing to spread disinformation not to? “It doesn’t seem like it even gave him the creeps,” said Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida. Jones added, he reacted in real time on Infowars on the day of the verdict.

“This will not affect the flow of stories full of bad faith and extreme opinions,” said Howard Polskin, who publishes The Righting, a newsletter that monitors content on right-wing websites. Polskin says that false stories about the 2020 election and COVID-19 vaccines remain particularly popular.

“It seems to me that those who sell this information for profit may consider this as part of the cost of doing business,” Adelman said. “If there is an audience for it and there is money to be made, someone is going to meet the demand.”

Certainly, people who believe that Jones and others like him are voices of truth repressed by society will not be deterred by the jury’s verdict, he added. In fact, the exact opposite is likely to happen.

The plaintiffs who will receive damages in the Sandy Hook case were all private citizens, an important distinction when considering their impact beyond this case, said Nicole Hemmer, a Vanderbilt University professor and author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.”

He added that the case is reminiscent of Seth Rich, a young Democratic Party aide killed during a robbery in Washington in 2016. Rich’s name was included posthumously in political conspiracy theories, and his parents later filed a lawsuit. They reached an agreement with Fox News Channel.

The message, in other words: Be careful about mentioning private citizens in outlandish theories.

“Spreading conspiracy theories about the Biden administration will not get someone to sue Fox News Channel,” Hemmer said.

It’s also hard to trace the way outlandish theories sprout and thrive in the shady corners of the web. Much of it is anonymous. It is not yet clear who is responsible for what is spread on QAnon or who makes money from it, says Fenster.

If he were a lawyer, he said, “Who would I go after?”

Despite any pessimism that an order to pay nearly $1 billion in the Sandy Hook case means how little an order to pay out to those who spread disinformation can do, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication says he does send a important message.

“What this says is that we can’t just make up ‘truths’ to fit our own ideological predilections,” said John Jackson. “There’s a fast, steady ground to the facts that we can’t stray too far from as storytellers.”

Worthy of consideration is the lawsuit brought against Fox News Channel by Dominion Voting Systems, a company that makes election equipment. The firm said Fox knowingly spread lies about Dominion as part of former President Donald Trump’s claims that they stole the 2020 election from him. Dominion sued Fox for a staggering $1.6 billion and the case has moved to the phase. of statements.

Fox has vigorously defended himself. He maintains that, instead of spreading falsehoods, he was reporting on newsworthy remarks made by the President of the United States.

Losing a trial, or a significant settlement, could hit Fox hard financially, Hemmer stressed. However, as the trial progresses, there has been no indication that any of his commentators are taking any hits, particularly when it comes to the administration of President Joe Biden.

Mistrust of mainstream news sources also fuels many conservatives’ taste for theories that fit their worldview, highlighting a country’s vulnerability to disinformation.

“I don’t think there’s any incentive to move toward informed reporting or to move toward news and information rather than opinion,” Hemmer said. “That’s what they want. They want the wild conspiracy theories.”

Even if the landslide verdict in Connecticut this week, coupled with the $49 million judgment against him in August by a Texas court, will gag or somewhat silence Jones, Adelman says others are likely to pick up the slack: “It would be a mistake to misconstrue this as the death knell of misinformation,” he lamented.


David Bauder is at http://twitter.com/dbauder

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