Gwen Frisbie-Fulton News and Recording
Last summer, I was heading to a friend’s family barbecue, sitting shotgun with a bowl of potato salad in my lap. He gave me a glimpse of who would be there: his cousin who had just returned from a mysterious weekend in Ottawa that turned into three years, his brother’s new girlfriend who hated his children, his mother who Was loading up with leftovers while we were trying to leave. “Try not to engage with my uncle,” he said. “He’s an Alex Jones type.”
Last month, Alex Jones was ordered to pay $45.2million for defaming the families of Sandy Hook victims and spreading fraudulent theories that the shooting was part of a government plot to confiscate the guns Americans. Many hope that this large colony could undermine the disinformation empire built by Jones and truncate its reach.
Jones began his personality-focused career in the mid-90s, launching “Infowars” and its connected programming in the early 2000s. He promoted conspiracy theories around the Oklahoma City bombing, Waco, 9/11, President Obama’s birth certificate, the moon landing, and just about everything in between. He is not very demanding.
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In 2017, the “Infowars” website got more than 10 million monthly views, far more than most mainstream news websites (Quantcast, December 2017). When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Jones’ radio show was syndicated to 129 stations with 5 million daily listeners and his video streams reached 80 million viewers each month (Washington Post, November 2016). Even though Facebook, YouTube and other platforms have removed his content for violating terms of service, Jones continues to be promoted by everyone from Roger Stone to the internet’s ubiquitous Russian bots.
The impact goes beyond the theatre. Not only has misinformation and disinformation caused countless preventable pandemic deaths, but it has also caused the United States to fall below Argentina and Mongolia in the ranking of stable democracies (Freedom House, 2021). Plus, on the receiving end of Jones’ media antics are millions and millions of very real families like my friend’s who navigate losing their loved one’s minds to conspiracy theories and misinformation.
But there’s one major difference between Alex Jones and my friend’s annoying uncle: $270 million.
Jones is worth between $135 million and $270 million (CNN, Aug. 2022), but he’s been busy hiding and transferring assets during the Sandy Hook trials. He transferred several properties to his current wife while his company, Free Speech Systems, transferred up to $11,000 a day to PQPR, a company owned by his parents (CNN, Aug. 2022).
None of this is surprising. Infowars is built like a pyramid scheme where the currency is not free speech but Jones’ financial gain. Not only does Infowars host the “money bombs” telethons (similar to a charity, except donations go to a for-profit company), but they also offer a wide range of dietary supplements and prep equipment. As of September 2015, Jones has earned $165 million over three years from the Infowars store (Huffington Post, January 2022). His mercantile choices are grossly transparent: Jones helps create the market for prep gear as he actively promotes paranoia, and he exploits our nation’s lack of affordable health care by peddling cures like an old traveling medicine show. .
Jones’ business plan is so lucrative that he created a plan for the far right. Provocateur Mike Chernovich and Jordan Peterson have gotten into the snake oil game, and neo-Nazi group Patriot Front charges for the stickers, flyers and propaganda its members are required to distribute weekly to stay in good standing (The Guardian, September 2022). Money, not “truth bombs,” is the clear motivation for all of these individuals and movements. In fact, many don’t seem to fully buy into their own message. Proud Boys frontman Enrique Tarrio seems highly motivated to spread the band’s neo-fascist gospel while directing people to his line of t-shirts. Click on the link and you’ll find that it not only sells official Proud Boy merchandise, but Black Lives Matter apparel as well – because no business person can resist a market trend.
Like all pyramid schemes, these schemes exploit relationships. No mid-level marketing business operates without manipulating someone into agreeing, typically using their physical needs and vulnerabilities to get them to commit. Chillingly, this commitment for many has gone beyond donating or buying pseudo-scientific cures, and has now sent adherents to jail (Guy Reffit and many others convicted for their role in the insurrection of January 6), even had them killed (Rosanne Boyland and Ashli Babbitt).
While my friend’s uncle was indeed very annoying, I couldn’t help but feel empathy for him. As he lectured those of us standing around the barrel stove about Hunter Biden’s laptop, I wondered how much money it had been ripped off and who would do this to this apparently very gentle man? His uncle looked alone and vulnerable and needed someone to bend down and pull him out of his rabbit hole more than to seal the opening and leave him to the wolves.
I hope this coming election season, when misinformation and misinformation around voting, the economy, our schools and more abound, we will engage with our crazy uncles instead of walking away. In the end, the only actor in the crisis is Alex Jones who begs his followers to keep him afloat.