NEW YORK (AP) — A Connecticut jury’s ruling this week ordering Alex Jones to pay $965 million to parents of Sandy Hook shooting victims he maligned was heartening for people disgusted by the muck of disinformation.
Just don’t expect it to make conspiracy theories go away.
The appetite for such hokum and narrowness of the judgments against Jones, who falsely claimed that the 2012 elementary school shootings were a hoax and that grieving parents were actors, virtually ensure a ready supply, experts say.
“It’s easy to revel in Alex Jones being punished,” said Rebecca Adelman, a communications professor at the University of Maryland. “But there’s a certain shortsightedness in that celebration.”
There’s a deep tradition of conspiracy theories across American history, from people not believing the official explanation of John F. Kennedy’s assassination to various accusations of extraterrestrial-visit coverups to unfounded allegations of the 2020 presidential election being rigged. With the Salem witch trials in 1692, they even predated the country’s formation.
What’s different today? The internet allows such stories to spread rapidly and widely — and helps adherents find communities of the like-minded. That in turn can push such untrue theories into mainstream politics. Now the will to spread false narratives skillfully online has spread to governments, and the technology to doctor photos and videos enables purveyors to make disinformation more believable.
In today’s media world, Jones found that there’s a lot of money to be made — and quickly — in creating a community willing to believe lies, no matter how outlandish.
Tyler Sizemore/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP, Pool
Infowars founder Alex Jones takes the witness stand to testify at the Sandy Hook defamation damages trial at Connecticut Superior Court in Waterbury, Conn., on Sept. 22, 2022.
In a Texas defamation trial last month, a forensic economist testified that Jones’ Infowars operation made $53.2 million in annual revenue between 2015 and 2018. He has supplemented his media business by selling products like survivalist gear. His company Free Speech Systems filed for bankruptcy in July.
To some, disinformation is the price America pays for the right to free speech. And in a society that 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 have a chilling effect on those willing to spread disinformation? “It doesn’t even seem to be chilling him,” said Mark Fenster, a University of Florida law professor. Jones, he noted, reacted in real time on Infowars on the day of the verdict.
“This will not impact the flow of stories that are filled with bad faith and extreme opinion,” said Howard Polskin, who publishes The Righting, a newsletter that monitors the content of right-wing websites. He says false stories about the 2020 election and COVID-19 vaccines remain particularly popular.
“It seems to me that the people who peddle this information for profit may look upon this as the cost of doing business,” Adelman said. “If there’s an audience for it, someone is going to meet the demand if there’s money to be made.”
Certainly, the people who believe that Jones and those like him are voices of truth being suppressed by society aren’t going to be deterred by the jury verdict, she said. In fact, the opposite is likely to be true.
The plaintiffs awarded damages in the Sandy Hook case were all private citizens, an important distinction in considering its 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.”
The case is reminiscent of Seth Rich, a young Democratic Party aide killed in a Washington robbery in 2016, she said. Rich’s name was dragged — posthumously — into political conspiracy theories, and his parents later sued and reached a settlement with Fox News Channel.
The message, in other words: Be wary of dragging private citizens into outlandish theories.
“Spreading conspiracy theories about the Biden administration is not going to get Fox News Channel sued,” Hemmer said. “It is not going to get Tucker Carlson sued.”
Tracing the history of outlandish theories that sprout and thrive in the web’s murky corners is also difficult. Much of it is anonymous. It’s still not clear who is responsible for what is spread on QAnon or who makes money off it, Fenster says.
If he was a lawyer, he said, “Who would I go after?”
Despite any pessimism about what the nearly $1 billion Sandy Hook judgment might ultimately mean for disinformation, the dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania says it still sends an important message.
“What this says is we can’t just make up truths to fit our own ideological predilections,” John Jackson said. “There is a hard and fast ground to facts that we can’t stray too far from as storytellers.”
Consider the lawsuit filed against Fox News Channel by Dominion Voting Systems, a company that makes election systems. It claims Fox knowingly spread false stories about Dominion as part of former President Donald Trump’s claims that the 2020 election had been taken from him. Dominion has sought a staggering $1.6 billion from Fox, and the case has moved through the deposition phase.
Fox has defended itself vigorously. It says that rather than spreading falsehoods, it was reporting on newsworthy claims being made by the president of the United States.
A loss in a trial, or a significant settlement, could impose a real financial hardship on Fox, Hemmer said. Yet as it progresses, there’s been no indication that any of its commentators are pulling punches, particularly concerning the Biden administration.
Distrust of mainstream news sources also fuels the taste among many conservatives for theories that fit their world view — and a vulnerability to disinformation.
“I don’t think there’s any incentive to move toward well-grounded reporting or to move in the direction of news and information instead of commenting,” Hemmer said. “That’s what they want. They want the wild conspiracy theories.”
Even if the crushing verdict in Connecticut this week — coupled with the $49 million judgement against him in August by the Texas court — muzzles or minimizes Jones, Adelman says others are likely to take over for him: “It would be wrong to misinterpret this as the death knell of disinformation.”
AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky
CLAIM: Ukrainian media is reporting that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office was destroyed by a missile strike.
THE FACTS: The building wasn’t destroyed and the claim wasn’t reported by mainstream Ukrainian news outlets.
Twitter accounts supporting Russia shared the baseless assertion that Zelenskyy’s office was among the buildings struck by a barrage of missile strikes in Ukraine’s capital on Monday.
“ZELENSKY’S OFFICE WAS DESTROYED BY A MISSILE STRIKE: UKRAINIAN MEDIA,” wrote one Russian-aligned account, receiving more than 2,000 shares and 6,500 likes. The user reposted a video from a separate account called UkraineNews, which gives updates on the war. Though identified as “Ukrainian media," UkraineNews often makes posts in support of Russia. The account shared a video on Monday of smoke rising over the skyline, suggesting in the caption that Zelesnkyy's office may have been the target while stating the report was “unconfirmed.”
But AP reporting and other images of the site show the government building where Zelenskyy works was not destroyed. AP journalists on the ground in Kyiv confirmed the building was not hit. Satellite images taken by Planet Labs Inc. and obtained by the AP capture an aerial view of the building on Monday that shows the structure still standing. Statements from the Office of the President of Ukraine on Monday and Tuesday made no mention of any strikes to its building, instead specifying that “civilian infrastructure” was targeted.
Zelenskyy on Monday also filmed a video address outside of the Presidential Administration Building. The video captured much of the building’s exterior and courtyard, and no damage can be seen.
— Associated Press writer Sophia Tulp in New York contributed this report.
AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib, File
CLAIM: Reuters reported that U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently purchased 10 million shares in a cannabis company.
THE FACTS: Reuters never published such a report, and financial disclosures show no record of Pelosi making such a stock purchase.
After President Joe Biden announced on Oct. 6 that he is pardoning thousands of Americans convicted of “simple possession” of marijuana under federal law, social media users shared a hoax tweet suggesting Pelosi stood to profit from the move. The posts featured screenshots of the tweet, which was made to look like it came from a popular Twitter account, Breaking911. However, the tweet was actually posted by an account with a different username.
“BREAKING: NANCY PELOSI PURCHASED 10,000,000 SHARES OF $WEED 4 DAYS AGO :REUTERS,” read the tweet in the screenshot. A second tweet noted that shares of Canopy Growth Corporation, which trades under WEED on the Toronto Stock Exchange, were up on Oct. 6.
But Reuters never published this claim, and there is no evidence to suggest Pelosi has recently bought shares of Canopy Growth Corporation, nor the Roundhill Cannabis exchange-traded fund, which trades under WEED on the New York Stock Exchange. Heather Carpenter, a spokesperson for Reuters, confirmed in an email to the AP that the news agency did not publish the claim. “This is not a Reuters story,” Carpenter wrote.
Online records of Pelosi’s financial disclosures show no such purchase by the congresswoman or her family filed with the Clerk of the House of Representatives, although lawmakers have 45 days to report trades under a 2012 law called the Stock Act. A spokesperson for Pelosi’s office said the claim in the tweet was not true. “No such transaction has been made,” Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, told the AP in an email. Pelosi has said she does not trade stocks herself. However, her husband, Paul Pelosi, is an investment banker who has traded tens of millions of dollars worth of stocks and options. Critics have argued that members of Congress and their families should not be allowed to trade individual stocks at all, because they may have the opportunity to profit off insider information gained through their official duties.
AP Photo/Meg Kinnard, File
CLAIM: Home Depot recently donated $1.75 million to Hershel Walker’s U.S. Senate campaign.
THE FACTS: Bernard “Bernie” Marcus, a Home Depot co-founder who left the company in 2002, made contributions totaling $1.75 million to a political action committee supporting Walker, not The Home Depot.
Social media users this week conflated donations made by the former Home Depot executive with the political spending history of the company itself, amid the pivotal race for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia. Walker, a political newcomer and former University of Georgia football star, is looking to flip the seat held by his Democratic opponent, incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock, as Republicans try to take control of the Senate during the upcoming midterm elections. Commenting on the race on Monday, one Twitter user called for people to boycott Home Depot. “Home Depot just backed Hershel Walker with $1.75 million. Please shop at Lowe’s,” the user wrote. The claim surfaced on Oct. 7 when another user tweeted: “Will you join me in boycotting Home Depot for donating $1.75 MILLION to Herschel Walker’s campaign?”
That post prompted a denial from the company. “The company has not contributed to this campaign,” Home Depot’s account responded. “The contribution was from our co-founder Bernie Marcus, who left The Home Depot more than 20 years ago.” Federal Election Commission data confirms that neither The Home Depot, nor its PAC, The Home Depot PAC, have donated directly to Walker’s campaign or related PACs set up to exclusively support his campaign.
Instead, FEC records show two donations equaling $1.75 million made by Marcus, whose employer is listed as The Marcus Foundation, to a PAC dedicated to supporting Walker. One donation for $1 million was made by Marcus to 34N22 PAC on March 21, 2022, and another donation of $750,000 was made to the same PAC on Nov. 8, 2021, according to the database.
Marcus co-founded Home Depot in 1978 and served as chairman of the board until his retirement in 2002. “His views do not represent the company,” spokesperson Sara Gorman wrote in a statement, adding that, “The Home Depot PAC hasn’t donated to Walker’s or Warnock’s campaigns.”
FEC data for the 2021-2022 election cycle shows the PAC has donated to a number of campaigns and PACs on both sides of the aisle. A search of such records shows The Home Depot PAC donated a combined $90,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee from 2021-2022. The NRSC works to elect Republicans to the Senate. It has used funds to launch advertisements in Georgia against Walker’s opponent, Warnock. It also donated $30,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to the FEC database.
— Sophia Tulp
AP Photo/John Bazemore, File
CLAIM: Stacey Abrams lobbied for moving Major League Baseball’s 2021 All-Star Game and Atlanta’s 2022 Music Midtown festival out of Georgia.
THE FACTS: Abrams, the Democratic candidate in Georgia’s gubernatorial race, did not advocate for either event to be moved out of state.
As Georgia’s gubernatorial race heats up in its final month, the false claims have re-emerged on social media, suggesting she advocated for the moves in response to voting and gun legislation backed by Republicans. “Never forget. Stacey Abrams lobbied to move the Allstars game and Music Midtown. She cost Georgia 150 million plus. Not Kemp,” multiple posts on Facebook stated.
Abrams, who is running against Republican incumbent Brian Kemp, has fought against the legislation in question. However, a review of Abrams’ public comments shows she did not lobby for moving either of these events out of Georgia, and in fact spoke out against both moves. MLB pulled its 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta in April last year over the league’s objections to changes to Georgia’s voting laws, which included new restrictions on voting by mail and greater legislative control over election administration, the AP reported.
Prior to MLB’s decision, Abrams urged against boycotts of Georgia in a video on Twitter. “To our friends across the country, please do not boycott us,” she said. In a statement posted to her Twitter account the same day MLB made its announcement about the All-Star Game, Abrams wrote: “Like many Georgians, I am disappointed that the MLB is relocating the All-Star game," adding, "As I have stated, I respect boycotts, although I don’t want to see Georgia families hurt by lost events and jobs.” Asked in a subsequent AP interview whether she supports corporate boycotts such as the All-Star Game move, Abrams responded: “I do not believe that a boycott at this moment is beneficial to the victims of these bills.”
In August 2022, Music Midtown announced that “due to circumstances beyond our control, Music Midtown will no longer be taking place this year.” A reason for the cancellation wasn't given. However, the AP reported that some believed the decision was the result of a 2019 Georgia Supreme Court ruling that limited the ability of private companies to ban guns on public property. This decision stemmed from a 2014 state law that expanded the locations where guns were allowed. The location of the canceled festival was Piedmont Park, a public-private partnership.
“In dire economic times for so many Georgians, this cancellation will cost Georgia’s economy a proven $50 million,” Abrams lamented in a statement on her campaign website. “This means that small businesses and workers who rely on events like Music Midtown and their tremendous economic impact have now lost incomes that help put food on the table and a roof over their heads.” Alex Floyd, a spokesperson for Abrams’ campaign, confirmed to the AP that she did not lobby for the outcome of either event. “Stacey Abrams has never supported the All-Star Game boycott or the cancellation of Music Midtown, and in fact has spent her career trying to bring more business and opportunities to Georgia,” Floyd wrote in an email.
— Associated Press writer Melissa Goldin in New York contributed this report.