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The Cost of Conspiracism
The nearly $1 billion judgment against Alex Jones signals a sea change in conspiracy theorizing
If there is a central lesson in Wednesday’s (October 12, 2022) historic $965 million judgement against Infowars founder Alex Jones it is that there are limits to the lies, conjectures, and speculations that conspiracy theorists can make when people’s lives are ruined by such conspiracism.
The nearly $1 billion is to be paid out to the families of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, plus an FBI agent who was a first responder on the scene, for defamation/slander and emotional distress (past and future), which resulted from Jones’ lies that no one was killed, that the victims and families were “crisis actors,” and that the entire event was staged as a false flag operation to curtail or eliminate the Second Amendment right to bear arms. (Judgments are one thing, collecting the money is quite another.)
As a result of Jones’s calumnious rants, heard by legions of listeners of his massively popular show, the families have been harassed over the decade since the shooting by delusional conspiracists showing up at their homes so often that many of them have had to move multiple times.
WATERBURY, CONNECTICUT - SEPTEMBER 21: InfoWars founder Alex Jones speaks to the media outside Waterbury Superior Court during his trial on September 21, 2022 in Waterbury, Connecticut. (Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images)
Does Jones really believe the Sandy Hook massacre was faked? Today he says he thinks it really happened. In his defense he has argued that he was “just asking questions” (a common strategy by conspiracy theorists when pressed for evidence, as when, for example, I ask 9/11 Truthers for names in the Bush administration of who planted the bombs in the WTC buildings), passing along rumors and innuendo he said he’d heard (similar to Donald’ Trump’s oft-stated “people are saying”), and that freedom of speech means you can say anything about anyone anytime and anywhere without consequences. Not any more.
What about Jones’ followers? Do they believe Sandy Hook was staged? None of us can get into the heads of others to know what they’re really thinking, of course, but in my three decades of research on conspiracy theories, culminating in my new book on the subject, Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational, it is my experience that people who act on their conspiratorial beliefs really do believe, even if the instigators and promoters of such ideas do not. Whether or not Trump and other GOP leaders really believe the 2020 election was rigged, it is evident through hundreds of interviews with the January 6 insurrectionists, they really believed their country was being stolen from them.
Copies of Conspiracy are now shipping from Amazon. Order here.
Or take Pizzagate and QAnon. Does anyone really believe that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats are running a secret Satanic pedophile ring out of the Washington D.C. Comet Ping Pong pizzeria? Edgar Welch did, and he went there with his loaded AR-15 assault rifle and a revolver to stop the crime when no one else would do anything about it. (The cost of conspiracism for Welch was $5,744 in damages and four years in prison.) But for most people who tell pollsters that they think there might be something to these conspiracy theories, their belief is more in the realm of what I call proxy conspiracism, in which the specific theory is a proxy for other paranoias (like Democrats secretly plotting to turn America into a socialist commune); or it’s tribal conspiracism (“it’s the kind of thing Democrats would do”), or it’s constructive conspiracism (“so many conspiracy theories turn out to be true that it pays to be a little paranoid”).
Other factors are at work in conspiracism. It’s entertaining (Alex Jones once called himself a “performance artist”). It simplifies a complex world and reduces a tangle of causal variables to a single factor (Sandy Hook wasn’t caused by poorly-understood mental illness, lax enforcement of gun-control laws, poverty, family background, or genes—it was staged). It’s proportional to the event in which big events need big causes (JFK can’t have been killed by a lone gunman; Princess Diana cannot have died because of drunk driving, speeding, and no seat-belt, and Sandy Hook can’t just be the result of a mentally-ill young man with a gun). And it is comforting in the sense that the world is not as out of our control as it often seems. As scary as it might be to think there are powerful people somewhere secretly running the world, it can be even scarier to think that no one is in charge and that events often unfold as a result of chance, randomness, and accident.
When you bore down to the bedrock of conspiracism one can find a certain rationality behind the beliefs, however irrational they actually are (hence the subtitle of my book). But the judgement against Alex Jones signals to conspiracy theorists everywhere that the social norms of objectivity, accountability, and truth telling still matter, and that lying, dissembling, and prevaricating are still wrong. And costly.
Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of The Michael Shermer Show, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He is the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, Heavens on Earth, and Giving the Devil His Due. His new book is Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational, out on October 25, 2022, which you can preorder here.